Expert Advice on Managing Business Transformation Initiatives

Rob Biederman

By some estimates, failing to deliver on business transformation initiatives costs organizations more than $900 billion per year. We’re now almost a decade into the era of digital transformation, and high profile companies like Procter & Gamble, Lego, Nike, Ford, and others are still struggling to execute on major transformation initiatives.

The obstacles to successful transformation projects were a hot topic at a recent Salon Dinner I had the pleasure of hosting. I was joined by senior business leaders at large organizations; we discussed their strategies for avoiding the common mistakes which typically undermine business transformation projects.

The root cause of most business transformation failures lies in underestimating the amount of change required. Too often, senior leaders focus on the initiative as a single stream of work, rather than a change that will fundamentally alter the DNA of the company. A true transformation effort will force the organization to reimagine the way teams and functional groups work together, which requires savvy leadership.

Here are four principles that senior leaders believe others should focus on when managing a business transformation initiative.


Commit 100% to Business Transformation

Business transformation initiatives require changes to not only the tools and processes that run company operations, but also the people who drive those processes forward. It’s an inherently messy process, and one that requires the total commitment of the entire management team. And while many organizations say they’re committed to seeing an initiative through, too few are able to commit fully. They then often see their projects crumble for lack of support.

To ensure the right level of management commitment, companies should consider designating a new C-level role specifically to manage the project. Senior leaders should also focus on the ongoing practices and mechanisms necessary to see the initiative through to success. For example, management consulting firm McKinsey & Company recommends a “relentless delivery” cadence of purposeful meetings to drive accountability throughout the transformation process.

Any significant transformation initiative will effectively change the way the organization is wired.

Be Clear Upfront About What Will Change

While senior leaders are adept at communicating clearly about many types of strategic initiatives, they often struggle with digital or business transformation initiatives. This may be due to the sheer amount of change required as a result of the initiative, or because leaders fall for vendor hype. The result is that the employees most likely to be affected by change are least informed about it.

Every transformation needs a “change story” that will communicate not only the business value of the initiative, but also the impact on every employee’s day-to-day role. Helping employees understand why the transformation is good for both business and their careers is a central element of the change story, and should be reinforced frequently. Don’t forget that “what’s in it for me?” lurks behind every employee’s perception of organizational change.

Photo of three team members discussing something around a desk.

Follow Through on Culture Change

Any significant transformation initiative will effectively change the way the organization is wired, which means senior leaders will need to support culture change beyond simple training sessions and run-of-the-mill change management activities. A few town hall meetings and emails won’t cut it: Successful executives will learn how to empower their people to work differently and adopt new mindsets. Moreover, this commitment to culture change must be sustained rigorously over a long period of time.


Acknowledge the Unease

With every transformation comes a degree of fear and discomfort. Front-line employees are likely to worry about their jobs, while managers are likely to try to protect their teams and domains. The most important action for senior leaders to take is to acknowledge the unease many have with the change directly. Resistance should be treated with respect, and make every effort to sell employees on the opportunity the transformation presents with candor and transparency. If broader change is needed, ensure that those leaving the company have all the support and resources you can provide to move on to their next opportunity.

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