“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” So beings Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis, a strange yet powerful tale about becoming something bizarre, something alien. It might seem an odd thing to reference in a book on corporate transformation and the attendant uplifting promise of a better tomorrow, but I will argue that it might also be a necessary one. In the following, I will be discussing the difficulties attendant in trying to transform an organization into a more innovative version of itself, and how a badly managed transformation process can create the innovation version of Kafka’s monstrous vermin.
There are exactly two forms that corporations are most keen to transform into – the digital and the innovative, and if possible both. Yes, there are other things that companies can be keen on, but these two are by far and away the most popular ones. Both promise new value production, and carry with them notions of a better tomorrow. At the same time, neither represent terms that are very clear, nor futures that are very transparent. One can in fact often come across corporations who speak excitedly of their desired transformation, but without a clear notion about what they are transforming into. All they know is that their new form will be “digital” or “innovative” (or both). But who’s to say that there aren’t digital monsters, or innovative abominations?
A key challenge in the notion of corporate transformation is the one of invocation. By this I refer to the tendency of top management to think that they can, primarily by invoking something and stating that this is the desired end state of the transformation, actually realize the same. Transformation is at least in part storytelling, and requires both heroes and a “big hairy audacious goals” (as popularized by Jim Collins). Now, invoking the notion of transforming into an “innovative organization”, with its promise of consistently churning out innovative offerings, would seem to be a very good such goal (as would turning into a “fully digital organization”, but I shall here focus specifically on innovation). The challenge, however, is that whilst everyone might agree that this is a desirable goal, it is far less clear what the goal actually means.
Meaning, Innovation, and Transformation
The key to a successful transformation tends to be that one manages to get the entire organization committed to a defined goal and a clear direction. Without this, transformation efforts can turn into boondoggles of conflicting initiatives and internecine infighting. Here, the danger of ill-defined concepts such as “innovation” is often systematically undervalued. This, as stating innovation as a goal and a desired end-state assumes that the organization has a shared sensemaking regarding this. If this turns out not to be the case, we can whilst believing we’re all going in one direction actually be tearing the company apart.
Consider the following case of a transformation I followed in an advisory capacity (anonymized to protect the company). Here, it was agreed on the highest executive levels that the organization needed to be re-organized and transformed to become far more agile and quick when it came to innovation capacities. All agreed that this should be a strategic priority, and several projects were started to ensure that the transformation would start sooner rather than later. I soon started observing that whilst there was a general consensus regarding innovation and the need for more of it, the interpretations regarding what this means varied greatly inside the company. One very powerful division in the company saw that the key to this was the adoption of agile methodologies and a focus on digital offerings. This suited their ways of working, and was also well in line with the division’s strategy. With the “innovation mandate”, they started pushing very hard for a company-wide agile process, and that digital projects should receive the lion’s shared of development budgets.
Other parts of the organization, that existed in a very different business environment, interpreted the transformation to an innovative company differently. To them, this should mean that there should be far more autonomy, and that each division should be allowed their own innovation strategy, to increase idea diversity and usher in a culture of experimentation. To them, digital innovation was only one possibility, and not one that should automatically have precedence over other alternatives. Further, to them the introduction of one specific methodology, mandated from a corporate level, was the very antithesis of how an innovative was supposed to function. To this there were several smaller factions, all championing their own take on what the transformation should mean.
The executive team saw relatively little of this. They saw lots of work being done on innovation, often with the right words – agile, experimental, quick, and so on – attached. It should also be noted that on some level, everyone in the organization was driving what they believed would be the best way to usher in more innovation. Few people can argue that things such as agility or autonomy or experimentation or diversity are bad things. What was missing, however, was an overarching meaning for exactly what kind of innovation culture one tried to transform into. As a result, the project turned out to take a lot longer than originally envisioned, and in many cases factions inside the company started to view each other in a hostile manner. Accusations of being anti-innovation became more prevalent, and collaboration between divisions lessened. There were still change initiatives, but looked upon as a whole, the organization didn’t look so much as an innovative organization in becoming, but rather like an emergent chimera, a strange miscreation where different mutations battled rather than supported each other.
In this way, transformations can morph into monstrous vermin. Not because anyone wanted anything but the best for the organization, but because vague and fuzzy targets can be misinterpreted and understood in a plethora of ways. Transformation without a management of meaning is bound to fail, which is why executives need to remain humble when it comes to the critical issues of communication and listening in the process.
So what is an executive to do? One could easily write several books regarding this all, but there are some basic principles that deserve repeating and reflecting upon. I’ve found that three such are particularly important.
Lead and speak transparently. Managers often overestimate how clearly and transparently they communicate, and if I had a dollar for every time a CEO has said to me that they are convinced everyone in their organization knows exactly what is desired of them I’d be a very rich man indeed. If a leader wishes to enact a corporate transformation, they need to be exceptionally careful when using concepts that can be understood in varied ways. If speaking of innovation, be very clear what kind of innovation is desired. If wishing to lead a digital transformation, it’s not enough to talk in generalities about Apple and Google.
Transform by example. Following on from the first point, examples are both a key tool for a transformation leader, and an underutilized one at that. Whereas abstract concepts such as innovation can be understood in numerous ways, a rich case used as an example of what one wishes for (or wishes to avoid) has far more meaning-carrying capacity. Just make sure to avoid hackneyed examples like the aforementioned Apple and Google, however impressive you find them.
Manage the translation process. If philosophy, linguistics, communication studies, and research into cognition has taught us anything, it is that one can never escape the human tendency to interpret and translate. No matter how clearly and transparently you think you’ve outlined your wishes for a transformation, these will still be filtered through biases and heuristics, and seen from the specific perspectives of the recipients. As you cannot stop this, or ever achieve perfectly disseminated ideas, you need to manage the interpretations. Active listening plays a part, as does a continued questioning of the assumptions regarding transformation different parts of the organization operate with.
The End of the Tale
Nobody wants to transform into monstrous vermin. Still, many transformations and metamorphoses fail, wholly or in part. Smart managers accept this, and that the goals can be seen in varied ways and lead to varied engagements. In my experience, the very best leaders of transformations are not those who lay out flashy and ambitious visions, but those who understand the human, oh so human dimension of the organization. They are humble when it comes to their capacity to fully communicate, and prepared to take the effort to understand how the organization and its constitutive parts make sense of the transformation at hand. It can be frustrating work, but not nearly as frustrating as having invested in a huge transformation effort, based on a shared desire to innovation, only to see this tearing the organization apart.