We are living in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world and transformation is vital for organisations to adapt to changing market conditions, evolving technology, climate change and the geopolitical landscape. Many organisations invest vast amounts amount of money into transformational efforts and yet research indicates that failure rate is very high and very few get it right. According to McKinsey’s research, 70% of transformations fail. Some of the contributing factors include a lack of engagement within the organisation, not establishing a great enough sense of urgency, lack of a vision, insufficiently communicating the vision and insufficient investment in building capabilities across to sustain the change, among others.

A recent research collaboration between Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and Ernst & Young is exploring where transformations go wrong and what organisations can do to get them right. The study found that success hinged upon the strong leadership skills that can balance the rational, logical with the emotional journey of transformation and placing humans at the centre of the transformation can improve the odds of success by more than two and a half times. Based on decades of management research, there are six key fundamental elements of transformation and change.

Transform your own leadership skills

Leaders need to look in the mirror and start by transforming themselves first. The world has changed and so has the role of the leader. The pandemic has accelerated many trends including what employees want from their leaders and the organisations they work for. Recent research by Harvard and McKinsey indicates that employees want purposeful organisations and leaders that care for the whole person (not just the employee at work), be more human and act on social issues. As we transition from a period of crisis, leaders need to be connected more than ever, creating purposeful teams and organisations, to deepen self-awareness so that they can manage their own emotions, and in turn help their employees navigate their emotions during periods of change.

“According to John Kotter’s 8-step change model, without a compelling vision, a transformation effort can easily dissolve into a list of confusing and incompatible projects that can take the organization in the wrong direction or nowhere at all”

Create a compelling vision

The vision is the foundation of a transformation. Leaders who can create a compelling vision and the ‘why’ for the transformation will create a sense of purpose for the people. According to John Kotter’s 8-step change model, without a compelling vision, a transformation effort can easily dissolve into a list of confusing and incompatible projects that can take the organisation in the wrong direction or nowhere at all. A compelling vision must also incorporate a sense of urgency and Kotter’s research indicates that about 75% of an organisation’s leadership must be honestly convinced that business[1]as-usual is totally unacceptable to propel them into action. A recent study found that 46% of respondents in high[1]performing transformations said that the transformation energised them to ‘go the extra mile’ (versus 28% in low-performing transformations).

Bring people on the journey

In any change effort, a leader must bring their people on the journey and recognise that strong emotions are part and parcel of transformations. Leaders need to tap into their emotions to create psychological safety and encourage people to speak up and most importantly, listen to feedback.

Communication through the transformation is also vital. Usually, leaders are very good at the front end communicating the vision to the organisation but then the communication fades away. Transformation is not possible unless people are willing to help (and often to the point of making short[1]term sacrifices). According to Kotter, employees will not make sacrifices, even if they are unhappy with the status quo, unless they believe that useful change is possible. Without transparent, meaningful, and inspiring communication (and a lot of it across many mediums) the hearts and minds of the people are never captured.

Remove obstacles and empower For transformation efforts to succeed, leaders need to remove obstacles which can be the organisational structure, systems or processes that are no longer fit for purpose, leaders who are not willing to change their own behaviours or revert to old behaviours. Therefore, setting clear responsibilities and boundaries and then empowering people to explore and experiment without repercussions is crucial. Transformation is not a linear or a transactional process, it is complex, at times messy, emotional, and deeply human.

Create momentum

Transformation takes time and leaders need to maintain momentum and strategically plan short term wins along the way. Otherwise, people may give up, lose interest, and join the people who are resisting change. The Flywheel effect concept developed by Jim Collins in Good to Great is a great concept to incorporate into the transformation program. Transformation never happens in one fell swoop but rather resembles a giant, heavy flywheel, turn by turn building momentum and then breakthrough.

Anchoring the change in the culture and values

Finally, transformation sticks when it is anchored in the organisation’s culture and values and becomes the way we do things around here and is embedded into the shared values and social norms. Part of this final process is communication that is explicit and clear as leaving it to the people to make connections may result in inaccurate links and cause confusion. Leaders play a crucial role at the end of the transformation as they did at the beginning by leading from the front with their values to support the renewal efforts.

As the rate of change only becomes faster, organisations and leaders must become better at transformation and develop the deeply human leaderships skills required to take their people on the change journey.