Transformational Change: How to Cross the Abyss

Posted by Paula Alsher on Fri, May 15, 2015 @ 02:32 PM

The terms “Transformational Change” and “Transformation” have become quite the buzz words in industry today.   You probably hear them day in and day out. But have you ever sat down and thought about what they really mean?  


Transformational Change 

In our change management consulting work, we say change comes in three sizes:Transformational Change: How to Cross the Abyss

  • Minor: This type of change causes a minor disruption to a Target’s Frame of Reference.  Examples of minor changes are a routine change to policy or procedure.
  • 1st Order: This is a frame-bending change that creates significant disruption. An example is a new ERP system or the introduction of a portfolio management tool.
  • 2nd Order: This frame-breaking change completely alters the current operating structure, with massive change to processes, people, and typically technology. Examples are mergers, acquisitions and shared services solutions.

Transformational Change, by definition is 2nd Order Change. Simply put, Transformational Change means the organization will need to do different things, in different ways. Look around you. Examples of Transformational Change are everywhere:

  • Mergers
  • Acquisitions
  • New structures with a heavy reliance on outsourcing
  • Movement to shared services models

In all of these cases the changes are large-scale, complex and highly disruptive. They impact people, processes, and technology. If your organization is facing a frame-breaking, 2nd order Transformational Change you may be asking yourself, “how do we get our employees to make the leap?” 


How to Cross the Abyss 

There are four fundamental requirements needed for successful Transformational Change. Without them, your workforce will inevitably remain in the status quo.

1)   There Must be a Change in Reinforcement
Reinforcement drives behavior change. Every time you see a pattern of behavior replicated over-and-over there either is or was a reward for that behavior. Reinforcement is not just your performance appraisal process or pay and compensation. Leaders reinforce all day long, every day. You can’t continue to reinforce the same old values and behaviors in your organization and expect to get change, let alone Transformation. During a Transformational Change, if you’re applying the same reinforcements as in the past, you will just get more of the “same”.

2)   Sustained, Active Sponsorship Needs to be Present
The fastest way to transform is by having leaders change the way in which they lead the organization, most importantly with their own direct reports.  Sponsorship is the demonstrated expressed, modeled, and reinforced commitment, of all the leaders who have direct reports that are impacted in some way by the change. This is the start of the cascade of Sponsorship we talk so much about.  This cascade of behavioral commitment is the single most important factor in the success of your Transformational Change project.

3)   Sponsors Must Pay a Personal Cost
If Sponsorship is the single most impactful factor in accelerating Transformational Change then it can’t possibly follow that you can create Transformational Change with minor—or no changes—in Sponsor behavior. Culture change begins with this small group of individuals who are willing to make some change in how they lead.  Don Harrison will tell you that after 30 years of working with leaders on global Transformational Change, the most successful leaders are "transparent" and make some observable personal sacrifice.

4)   Anticipate the Most Resistance from Your Sponsors
Resistance to change is inevitable, and not necessarily logical. The highest levels of resistance come from the individuals with the highest vested interest in things remaining the same. Many times, the people you actually seek to Sponsor the Transformation, and who have the most impact on driving the Transformation, also have the most resistance because you are asking them to fly in the face of their previous success! Remember, Sponsors need to be treated as Targets first. They need to know what the change means to them just like everyone else being affected by the same change.

Transformational Change is complex, frame breaking change. It can’t be done incrementally and it can’t be made totally safe. Once you take that leap, you can’t change your mind and go back to the old ways.   So, now we ask... is your workforce ready to cross the abyss?

Free eBook:  Guide to Transformational Change


Topics: Transformational Change