Anti-Pattern: Anemic Transformation

By | November 28, 2017

Driving a successful transformation is a tough task. It takes skill and courage on behalf of the change agents in charge. More often than not, however, the journey leads to a pretty undesirable destination where the organization assumes they have succeeded with the job while in fact they got hopelessly stuck, unable to achieve any significant improvement whatsoever. We call this state an “Anemic Transformation”, a transformation that fails to achieve any tangible result.

A Lot More Companies Are Subjected to Anemic Transformation than You Think

Why? Because for many organizations it is hard to even properly evaluate where they stand. See, whether a transformation is successful or not, usually ends up being a subjective call for an enterprise. Part of the reason for this ambiguity (and therefore enough room for subjectivity) is that the transformation has no shared, viable business goals in the first place (read more about this in the post: Climbing the BS Mountain: Agile for the Sake of Agile). While there’s often no evidence of systemic improvement, there’s always plenty of local parameters that seem to have improved and are often interpreted as evidence of success.

At the same time, things that really needed to change, did not change (find out more on this subject here: This Is Why Your Organization Can’t Be Agile). One common manifestation of this: the engineering teams’ operating model has changed while the mindset and the habits of the organizational leaders remain unaffected.

So, How to Bring It Back to Life?

A couple things are important in bringing your transformation back on track.

First, for a change agent it’s vital to not fall into a status quo trap where all they do is seek the path of the least resistance. That’s a route that certainly leads to transformation anemia. It is critical to refocus on things that constrain the transformation. Typically the problem lies in the mindset of the leaders and in the established practices of enterprise planning, execution and measurement. None of these are easy to change, but for a change agent, continuing to pretend that local advancements will get the organization to desirable outcomes, is highly counterproductive. If you want to really change something to the better, it’s time to start doing what really matters as opposed to what’s easy to do. There’s no easy pill that will magically help you acquire the right attitude, overcome your personal fears and focus on the right thing. But it needs to be done: it’s your transformation and you need to make it work…

Second, prioritize the systemic impediments to your transformation and focus on one or two things at a time. Is it current rigid planning procedure or misguiding metrics or something else that creates the problem? Focus on that specific thing. Think about the plan of attack with specific action involved, be it training and coaching the leaders, involving an external party, exposing the leadership to new empirical evidence, etc.

Lastly, work to make the transformation everyone’s business, don’t hold it exclusive to the original transformation team (or center of excellence or whatever you call it). Nobody likes to be changed by somebody else. People like to be in charge of their own fate, not to mention that the outcomes will likely be much better this way.

The Timeless Value of Time

Now, an important caution. Many transformations start on fire but quickly grind to a halt over time. There’s a powerful force behind this. Real behavioral change involves rewiring one’s brain and that takes time. Different people show different neuroplasticity. Moreover, there’s no definitive way to know “when” the shift happened. Therefore, there’s no easy way of telling whether certain people will not be falling back to their old habits… when nobody’s watching.

Overall, the goal of the transformation is to build new sustainable organizational habits, which requires specific enablement in terms of coaching. It may as well require establishing the “reinforcing” feedback cycles, the purpose of which is to provide continuous evidence that the new behaviors are producing value and so forth. Real change is sustainable change and that’s why the focus should always be on the long-term outcomes.

Finally, let’s close with a quick assessment process…

Is Your Organization Exposed to It Too?

So far we were talking about those… other enterprises, somewhere out there. The real question is: how about the transformation in your enterprise? Is it anemic, too? Here are some typical symptoms to check against. If your answer is “yes” to any one of the following bullets, it’s a strong reason to be cautious. Here they are:

  • Our transformation is not linked to business objectives that would be unambiguously shared across the board
  • People at different levels of the organization have significantly different opinions regarding the transformation success
  • No substantial change happened in ways of working of the organization’s leadership
  • The change is mostly “contained” within the lower levels of the organization
  • Depending on circumstances, people may feel uncomfortable sharing their opinions regarding the transformation results
  • Practices that we thought were adopted, turned out to be abandoned

I hope this quick self-assessment helps. Good luck with the transformation, the toughest task there is!

By Alex Yakyma, Org Mindset.

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