Transformers. Failure in Disguise

Having worked as a consultant for the last eight years or so, there have been plenty of times when things haven’t worked out as ideally as I might have hoped. I’m by nature (usually) an optimist, and I love a challenge, so when things get tough, I have learned (as Billy Bragg sang) to take the crunchy with the smooth. As a transformation/disruptor/innovation/digital/change/creativity/commissioning/maker/ideas-monkey type person, it is often the case, that you’re called in when things have already tipped over into the borderlands of woe. That’s fine. I’m ok with that situation, in fact I like it. If there’s nothing to crack, no puzzle to unlock and no new ways through the problems to discover and explore, then what would be the point? With time, care, effort, imagination and by listening very, very, very carefully, more often than not, the thorniest situation can usually be pruned into something fruitful. Usually…

On rare occasions however, with the best intentions and efforts, things just don’t work out. I thought it might be useful to consider what happens when transformation stalls, or even dies, and why it happens. I should stress that these are only my own personal thoughts, based on my own personal experiences. They’ve not a veiled way to blame anyone else for a project conking out, or a way to make myself look like the constant saviour of the situation. Anything but in fact. Transformation situations ‘fail’ for all sorts of reasons, and the notion of failure itself is subjective. It’s rarely clear why failure has happened. It appears that the consistent factor in what I’m describing is in fact me. Oh crap.

Communication

The main reason that transformation dies is lack of communication. Leadership don’t communicate to the transformers, why change is needed - or - everyone stops talking to one another because they’re scared of what the changes will mean - or the transformation consultant is not communicated with and doesn’t have an accurate picture of how things really are - or… You get the picture. When people stop communicating, things start going wrong, or go wrong faster. Encouraging better communication - listening - talking - and understanding - is probably the greatest challenge for organisations that are needing to change and innovate radically, but it’s the change that can bring about the most profound and lasting positive impacts.

Trust

I suppose in the context of transformation, trust and communication go hand in hand. You can’t really have one, without the other, and a consultant can be a helpful trust catalyst, that all sides can rely upon to peer into the corners, and report on what they find. It’s the reporting however where the magic happens, and all parties have to trust that good communication will result in open reporting that can be reviewed, understood and acted upon.

Expectations

Unrealistic expectations about what can be done with the time and resources provided are common reasons for failure. It’s a bit like the scene in a film, where the surgeon has tried everything to bring the dying patient back from the brink. “Give the three milligrams of Madeupezine and insert the probulator! You’re not going to die on me now’, the surgeon shouts, pounding the chest of the hapless patient’. Maybe we can (together) save the situation, but it’s going to take a whole organisation or project, working hard, to a shared objective, a lot of time, care, and probably even more money, to see that patient cough, and for their eyelids to flutter open. They’re not going to be running a marathon anytime soon. They might not even be able to walk for a while. So let’s be realistic about our expectations. What does survival look like? What does thriving look like? What are our priorities? Why, after all, are we doing this?

Hidden agendas, covert ops and skunk works

Smash communication, trust and expectations together, or in fact, the lack of those three things and you get to the grotty lagoon that’s home to hidden agendas, covert ops and skunk works. This is the graveyard of ‘things that we tried a few years ago’; secret ‘change’ projects, and innovation conducted by elite groups; skunk works, which can be code for the organising cell of people who are hoping to survive the nuclear fallout, and emerge from the bunker, blinking in the light to a survivable (and much smaller) future world. On occasion you can discover that in fact the people who are saying that they want transformation and change, don’t actually want that at all. In fact they want to be seen to be changing, but they really (personally) don’t see evidence for the need to change, and can’t be persuaded that they’re incorrect in their beliefs. It can be hard to counter this, but every situation is different, and there are tools and techniques that can be applied. Taking time necessary to make change, needs courage and nerves of steel, but that (in my experience) more often than not can work. Play a longer game, for a greater prize, and see what happens. Easier to say perhaps, when it’s not your job or business on the line.

The change blame game

The instinct to ‘transform’ sometimes comes, when the troubling weak peeps of challenge and change, have turned onto great thumping bass lines that can no longer be ignored by anyone. The shit has in fact, hit the fan, and everyone is diving to get out of the way and are grabbing the nearest person (above and below) in the organisational chain of command to act as a human shield. Blaming other people and external and internal factors for the failure of disruptive innovation to save the bacon, is an understandable and human instinct. Great communication and trust and a confident and clear theory of change and why its needed can mitigate against the change blame game. Sometimes though, the situation and the personalities can degrade to a place where no amount of care will save things. At this point the kindest and best thing to do can be to step back, give everyone the time and space they need, and remind them that there’s still hope and a place to change, when and where they are ready for it.

There are other factors at play, that I’ll consider and write about in due course, but these five key areas appear to be troublingly present. Just one of these things can scupper transformation, and when all of them are present the situation can become too hot to comfortably handle. Taking time, listening and being kind to all concerned, when emotions are running hot and jobs and money are on the line can be a challenge, but that’s the place where real and lasting positive investment in transformation and innovation can make the biggest difference.