Why business transformation efforts are effectively over before they begin

The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. Having said that, leaders continue to apply the same approach to organizational change and transformation initiatives. According to survey after survey, a majority of organizations fail to gain the intended result from a new corporate initiative. From strategy, cost-containment, quality improvement, business model transformation, new product commercialization to customer experience, too often these days, the tendency among leaders, managers and communicators is to attempt to “control” the effort and translate important criteria into neat, cute, even trite programs and then surround them with all the trappings of an event or campaign.

Real business results are typically non-existent. Additionally, according to a recent report, a significant number of employees say there are significant organization-wide initiatives underway in their companies that will more than likely fail.

Why is it that employees can recognize a corporate initiative that is dead on arrival while the CEO, management team and communicators are the last to know?

From a business perspective, engaging employees is critical to any transformation effort. Their “lack of buy-in” from the belief that corporate initiatives are “imposed” with little opportunity for them to engage in the effort, to contribute ideas or provide honest, front-line feedback at the outset causes an initial critical failure on the part of the employees who are disengaged, and results are elusive. Ever wonder then why a new initiative, such as a product launch, a cost-cutting measure, a business strategy or even a turnaround effort, didn’t succeed or even take hold as expected? Believe it or not, it probably has nothing to do with the initiative or the rationale but rather with the way the organization chooses to frame the process, communicate it and iterate along the way.

Welcome to the new business reality – one where business critical initiatives, whether a new corporate strategy or even an M&A – can succeed or fail based on whether or not the workforce is allowed to participate in the work, challenge the status quo, and learn along the way. Company leadership can no longer impose its will on employees or believe that people will respond to changes in the organization’s direction only if they are projected or scripted. There must be dialogue, discussion and debate in order for transformation to succeed.

As the research shows, there are hundreds of thousands of well-intentioned initiatives that have collapsed or have never even gotten off the ground because company leaders and communicators trivialized them with slogans, big-scale launch events, and motivational campaigns designed to stir up employee enthusiasm and acceptance. According to one global communications expert, initiatives introduced with this kind of fanfare and no substance are doomed to failure. Typically, what happens is that management determines the business must change in order to compete or survive. Consultants are brought in to size up the situation and put in place a system or process to move people in a new direction. Very often, communicators don’t push back, and they treat the effort as a campaign or program looking to “motivate” people rather than inform, engage or educate.


So, what should leaders and communicators do to increase their chances of transformational success? Here are some key considerations:

  1. Change is not a cliché – In fact, we’ve found using the word “change” hinders progress.
  2. Let the process determine the destination – Never capture the end state! Always allow the process to be iterative.
  3. Make transformation efforts data and information based – Use analytics throughout.
  4. Take time to learn – The entire goal is to become a much more informed and mature enterprise.
  5. Be prepared to pivot – Flexibility and agility are key.
  6. Establish guideposts along the way – People need to find their way.
  7. Discover vs sell – Always allow people to discover the change in their own way.
  8. Uncover cultural gaps/vulnerabilities – This includes top-down leadership style; unhealthy competition between departments or turf wars; a sense of entitlement; lack of accountability; low levels of employee trust; and above all, an inability to communicate openly across the organization.

Honest discussion, including dialogue and debate between and among leadership, managers and employees is the bedrock of a healthy corporate culture and, if nurtured over time, can help an organization overcome cultural barriers. Open, honest communication can transform dysfunctional cultures into workplaces that have a bias for action, a sense of urgency and employee commitment and fortitude to see initiatives through to their successful outcomes. Our experience has taught us that there is a direct and strong correlation between successful initiative implementation and a strong internal communications system – integrated with leadership and management decision-making, multiple channels, content centralization, manager involvement, feedback mechanisms and a push-pull system of information exchange.

This is the most overlooked, under-appreciated yet powerful insight for an organization going through change, transformation, renewal or some form of a corporate initiative effort.

Avoiding the “Slogan Trap” – Don’t Brand This!

Slogans and other internal branding tag lines are usually developed to sharpen employee focus around a transformation initiative, but end up as the punch line in employee jokes at best, and indicators of how clueless senior management and communicators are when it comes to reaching employees and gaining their buy-in. A case in point was noted a few years ago in an issue of Government Executive Magazine. Developed in response to a less than stellar field survey report, the General Services Administration (GSA) launched its “Get It Right” initiative as a measure to ensure all field offices understood and enforced procurement restrictions outlined by headquarters as the field audit noted instances where some offices skirted restrictions to please customers. Aimed right at the hearts of employees, the initiative developed literature and training programs to help employees “reaffirm GSA’s deep commitment to ensuring the proper use of GSA contracting vehicles and services.” Employees were demoralized by the implication that they needed to relearn how to do their jobs and had to be taught about commitment to customers. Through their eyes, GSA leaders appeared blameless and employees looked incompetent. Even worse, employees believed that, if GSA leadership would have paid attention to their frontline feedback, the lack of balance between pleasing customers and adhering to procurement rules could have been addressed and fixed, rather than wasting time and money on an ill-conceived corporate initiative.

Another slogan trap can occur when external branding initiatives or advertising campaigns are tweaked and unleashed inside an organization. Several years ago, a major domestic airline attempted to translate an advertising theme into a company-wide platform to change the corporate culture and employee behavior. The theme appeared in all communications channels and then made its way to specific training and development programs.

The goal was to convince passengers that employees care and are trying to always do better in terms of service and capabilities. According to the airline, the training programs were part of a larger effort designed to empower all employees to do whatever it takes to provide more professional and enjoyable travel experiences for customers.

The result: The effort was dead on arrival. Employees felt betrayed by the company for suggesting first in its ads and then with a very public internal effort that they were solely responsible for the problems customers faced. Additionally, since the entire concept started out as an advertising campaign, it lacked the credibility and discipline of a management directive, relying instead on slick tools and vehicles to convey messages and change perceptions.

The lesson: Slogans trivialize, breed mistrust and encourage ridicule. They are a sales tool, and employee wariness is natural. Whether developed specifically for employees or adapted from an advertising tagline, slogans are difficult to turn into viable corporate initiatives since they are not outgrowths of strategy. With no support or investment and, therefore, no buy-in and credibility with employees, and worse, customers, slogans that become initiatives are only as good as the next advertising campaign.

Letting Employees Drive the Transformation

What we have seen in the earlier examples is that “selling” people on anything today, particularly important changes in business direction, is next to impossible. After decades of experiencing “the sell,” consumers and employees have developed a force field around their emotions. Breaking through is the challenge facing today’s leaders and communicators.

Given that, it’s time for communicators and managers to change the formula. A new formula is emerging, allowing consumers and employees to discover the very attributes the organization needs them to experience in order to be successful, enabling people to engage in the business: sense, feel, think, act and relate. From an internal standpoint, this is being translated in a variety of ways:

  • Changing the style and tone of messages to reflect a more mature, diverse workforce;
  • Making available additional information around key programs, strategies, etc., in a “pull” format so interested employees can learn more;
  • Running pilot efforts to test programs, messages and systems and gain early buy-in and positive word-of-mouth;
  • Including dissent in official discussions to provide a true learning opportunity; and
  • Ensuring proper training and system support throughout the initiative life cycle.

Your Workforce – Captive Audience or Public Advocate?

Leaders, managers and communicators have tended to treat employees as a captive audience and, to a lesser extent, a necessary burden. The result can often be compared to dealing with employees as children – spoon feeding them rhetoric and worse, pabulum, in the belief that they would just “eat it up.” The reality: employees are smart, knowledgeable human beings running households, raising children and actively involved in their communities and the world around them.

To be effective organizationally, employees must be treated as if they are advocates capable of opinion-shaping, decision making and, ultimately, organizational success – which they are! This means providing facts, interaction, discussion, debate, dialogue and open communication. The situation at excellent organizations notwithstanding, the crux of the problem at many organizations is that neither management nor the communications function understands that today’s employees are savvy and need to be treated as mature, intelligent, capable adults. Instead of motivational speeches and parties, leaders and managers need to give employees the facts, the rationale, the objectives, goals, training and follow-up information to make change stick. Then, they need to provide encouragement, inspiration and the tools to get the job done.

“Forget the rah-rah sessions,” agrees one senior communications expert. “Employees want the tools to make their jobs easier and more satisfying. Don’t trivialize important initiatives with launch parties and meaningless tchotchkes.”

Business transformation is a critically important effort for organizational relevance and success. Getting it right starts at the beginning and entails empathy, information, cadence, context and tone to set things off in the right way. It’s more subtlety and art, requiring an intense respect for individual acceptance and organizational adherence.

Starting in the right place will ensure a meaningful and fulfilling journey versus a waste of time and effort!


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Gary Grates
Gary Grates

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