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Lessons in Organizational Transformation
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A Fundamental Re-imagination
Most organizations have slowly come to the realization there is a tremendous need to fundamentally change how their organization operates – both within and without.

The economic downturn of the past 18 months has caused a number of companies to change their focus, and in too many cases, they were forced to do so in a reactive manner. However, there are others who effectively transformed themselves to embrace this future long before, or during, the downturn. This list includes IBM, selling its commoditized computer division, Ford Motor Company, hiring a non-automotive industry CEO, and Apple Inc., shifting its focus to consumer gadgets and away from computers.

For over a decade, there has been a significant and growing amount of both theory and practice around organizational change. While many organizations have spent at least some time creating and implementing change programs, very few of those have truly confronted reality and moved to a more broad scale organizational transformation effort.

The reason is simple. It is hard work!

Organizational transformation requires a fundamental change in the institutional mindset and behaviours of the organization - and its people. It arrives at a point when the organization must choose to leap from its current trajectory, to another one, in order to capitalize on a new context. Transformation is required when an organization meets one of two criteria:
  • It has lost its way, and faces irrelevance by way of new entrants in their markets, or new technologies that render their own obsolete, or
  • It sees a new, untapped potential in an adjoining space or industry. One that requires a significant investment of time, effort and resources, but will in the end drive the organization to new heights.

The transformation process in not an easy one and it is a step that many organizations do not have the stomach for. However, with the help of a mission driven leader, an aligned group of top managers, and an engaged workforce, this is certainly an option.

Why Transformation, not just Change?

To understand the fundamental difference between organizational change, and organizational transformation, one must first understand there is a ladder that represents the degree of change. This ladder is built upon two components:
  • The depth of change, and
  • The speed of change.

There are three major points on the change ladder;
  • Incremental change,
  • Transitional change, and
  • Transformational change.

Three Degrees of Change

Incremental Change – focuses on the small daily modifications that, over time, produce evolutionary change, as long as focus and direction remains constant.

Transitional Change – relies on the pull of a relatively clear “new state” which is planned for, and then executed through a period of transition.

Transformational Change – deals with change in the very fabric of the organization. Where degrees of incremental or transitional change assume that certain people, products, or strategies are sacred, organizational transformation seeks out the most effective future for the organization. It reimagines the future.

The Role of the Leader

It is a very rare occurrence for an organization to suddenly find itself in a position where it must fundamentally reinvent, or transform itself. Most likely, it has been signaled by the customer or the market well ahead of time and the signals were not seen clearly enough.

It is even rarer for a leader to know when their organization is at the point where transformation is required, and rarer still, to have the skills and courage required to make the tough call to move the organization in a new direction.

Once the choice has been made to move the organization in a new direction, it is important for the leader or leadership team to understand their role is not to push the operational side of the transformation, but to move the human side of the transformation. The true role of the leader is to align and motivate people to see the need to change, and to act as the “Chief Door Opener” by providing whatever is required to get the job done.

Common Traps and Pitfalls

Serving as a leader through an organizational transformation process is one of the most difficult (albeit incredibly rewarding) aspects of executive leadership. Seeking guidance and feedback from “trusted advisors” who have been down the road before, can help avoid missteps.

Heroism - with no message - Communication is vital to the success of a transformation process. You may sense that transformation is required, however, if you are unable to provide a credible, concrete premise, and provide visible support for the need to transform, you may find that your employees’ efforts will be misguided, and the transformation process may fail.

Optimism - with no credibility - Too many leaders have fallen victim to the “flavor of the month” change initiative. You may find your credibility in this area is compromised. If you have launched a number of failed change programs in your tenure, admit your faults. Change your tone, your approach, and build the right team to win back the hearts and minds of your employees.

Determination - with no support - As a leader, you must understand organizational transformation requires support from each and every employee in order to succeed. If you try to do it alone, you may eventually burn out leaving the company in an unfinished state, or the completed transformation effort may lack buy in from your employee population, causing it to unravel.

Support from Top Managers

In order to successfully navigate an organizational transformation initiative, it is imperative to have the support and commitment from your organization’s middle managers. Failure to get the support and buy in from these critical influencers will result in a failed process. Both incremental and transitional change processes can survive with only partial or delayed acceptance, the transformational option cannot.

Transformation processes, by their very nature, are based on a precise window of opportunity, and require full and swift acceptance. Once the need to transform has been identified, it is of utmost importance to have the full support of your most influential managers. Ensuring alignment and open communication will help the process move at the appropriate pace, in every department or region in the organization.

As a leader, you must gain support by involving all of your critical influential consistencies in the initial stages of the transformation. Encouraging candid input, and delegating appropriate levels of responsibility will not only give managers the voice they deserve, it will foster personal pride in the process across the organization.

Common Traps and Pitfalls

Organizational transformation can be a fear inducing endeavor. Make sure your organization seeks out and deals with each of these human issues.

Cynics, Victims and Bystanders – While it may seem there is one of each in every crowd, more often than not, these three “terrorists” simply need to have their needs addressed. Seek to understand their concerns, and involve them in the appropriate actions to ensure the transformation’s success, before their misguided attitude spreads.

Silos – Organizational transformation will very likely create new organizational structures, reporting lines, and resource allocations. It is human nature to protect one’s turf and silos often rear their ugly heads when transformation is at the gate.

False Promises – With the amount of work involved in an organizational transformation, be on the lookout for managers who initially agree to the transformation, however quickly back pedal when the going gets tough. One break in the ranks can have a ripple effect.

Land of No Return

Organizational transformation is a fundamental, irreversible process. It creates an appetite for serial transformation. If the transformation process is well executed, the genetic code of the organization is rewritten, and the organization surges forward. However, an organization may not tie up every single loose end, and this may lead to a partial or full reversal of the transformation.

Every effort must be made, throughout the transformation process, to communicate the fact that the future state of the organization will be worth the effort, and that once there, there should be no need, want, or desire to return to the previous state.
Roadblocks to Anticipate

Organizational transformation is not a “haircut” or “crash diet”, it is a fundamental organizational lifestyle change. It requires commitment, discipline, and unflappable will to succeed. Be prepared to help your employees overcome these roadblocks.

Nostalgia – There is warmth and comfort in the past. Transformation brings a number of unknowns, and this can be intimidating to some employees. While there is no certainty either way, communication and resolve will help these people move forward.

Fatigue – Change programs are easy, transformation takes time and energy. Throughout the transformation process, be sure to monitor your employees for signs of fatigue. Find ways to help them recharge, and get back to the task at hand.

Subversion – People fear being changed. When the going gets tough during a transformation effort there will be those who withdraw from the process, and others who actively find ways to derail it. These individuals must be dealt with quickly, before time and resources are lost.


The saying goes “if you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less”.

If an organization finds itself in a situation requiring a fundamental transformation, action must be taken. It’s a tough decision, but one that has to be made for the betterment of the organization over the long term. The underlying key to success, once the decision has been made, lies in the leadership’s ability to effectively deal with the very real human issues that will inevitably show up along the way.

About the Authors

Kyle Couch

Kyle is Vice-President - Client Learning Experience for The Beacon Group. His primary responsibilities include the creation of all Leadership Development initiatives, trend spotting for The Beacon Group and its clients, as well as client relationship management.

Kyle’s work with clients is focused primarily in the areas of Emerging Leader Development, Creativity and Innovation, and Change Management.

R. Douglas Williamson

Doug Williamson is President & C.E.O. of The Beacon Group. Doug leads the company’s associates in their activities providing state of the art Leadership Development, Executive Coaching, Strategic Planning and Performance Management services and solutions to both private and public sector organizations in North America.
Throughout his business career, Doug has been actively involved in initiating positive change within many different organizations while improving the overall performance and effectiveness of countless senior level executive teams.

About The Beacon Group

The Beacon Group is a Canadian-based professional services fi rm providing support to clients throughout North America and around the world. We focus on helping organizations leverage their investment in their people. With our full line of service offerings, we are not only able to help organizations understand their strengths and weaknesses, but develop and deliver programs that help address key areas of concern, and enhance current strengths.

Visit The Beacon Group at www.thebeacongroup.ca
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