Transformations Aren’t A Safe Place


Organizational transformations have been around since two people got together to cooperate for any length of time.  Mentally I can see Neanderthals changing their approach on a hunting expedition.  In today’s terms organizations reorganize, they embrace agile or they pivot.  Those are just a few terms and phrases that describe organizational transformations.  While our forebearers may have understood they were transforming the term, organizational transformation has only lately become a thing.  Google’s NGram viewer shows the startling rise in popularity of the term ‘organizational transformation’.

Organizational Transformation

The popularity of the term is a reflection of the perceived need to radically change how and what we are doing.  The term ‘transformation’ evokes large scale, rather than continuous tweaks to your product or service.  Large-scale changes are risky and often fail.  Reflecting on changes ranging from CMMI deployments to Agile transformations, I have observed that transformations fail for a myriad of reasons.  The following list identifies 20 of the most nefarious transformation killing culprits.  Even though in reverse ranked order none of these are good.

Round One: Transformation Killers 20 – 16:

  1. All About Now

A transformation presupposes a long-term change to an organization, team, or person.  Changes that are all about now rarely have long-term staying power because there is nothing to anchor those changes; they build toward nothing.  In simple terms, consider how many diets you have gone on to lose those extra pounds (too much desk work and Mountain Dew). The diet might be effective today but in a few months the weight is back, and at least I am considering a new diet.  Short term goals don’t generate long-term behavior changes.

  1. Poor Communication

Poor communication comes in a number of flavors.  For example, failing to communicate why change is needed or not telling those impacted what is coming and how they will be affected. Poor communication generates fear.  Fear causes resistance and strife, which are both transformation killers.

  1. The Case For Change Is Not Compelling

Organizations and teams that don’t have a compelling reason to change simply won’t change. People that don’t feel an urge to change will not have the motivation give up what is comfortable regardless how many platitudes they mouth. Motivation generates energy; without energy any change will stall and ultimately fail.

  1. Yelling Louder

Change is often a response to a burning platform which stresses everyone.  Stress sometimes elicits the worst in leaders.   For example, during one of the last major recessions, a business I was associated with watched their base business dry up.  The firm delivered custom dot net programming in a market that was both stressed by the recession and quickly turning to apps.  The business had to be maintained while the firm retooled and pivoted to app development. The change was not instantaneous. For a while leader of the firm forgot that pressuring people to transition faster was not a motivational tool and rather acted as a demotivator for the whole firm.  Shouting or pressure motivation (autocratic leadership) can generate short-term behavior changes however rarely yields long-term transformational change.

  1. Not All Motivation is Rational

Transformation is not the outcome of algorithms like a credit rating or a Google search.  Rather, transformations are the outcome of melding approach, technique and irrational people with feelings and needs into a single unit and getting them all to get in the same direction.  The idea of herding cats comes to mind.   Dragnet’s Joe Friday famous line “just the facts, ma’am” might make sense when reporting a crime but not when connecting and leading real people.  Transformations require connecting to the hopes, dreams, and fears of everyone involved in delivering value.


I would not wish any of the transformation killers on my worst enemy.  In most cases, there is not a single reason why transformation fail.  Often when a postmortem is completed the impact of a combination issues can be found.  Everyone involved in transformation’s needs to have a shortlist of possible transformation killers in their pocket that they refer to time and again. Being aware of the potential risks is the first step in avoiding trouble.



Round Two: Transformation Killers 15 -11