Preparing for Transformation


One of the big themes for business is constant change — transformation. With globalization making markets more volatile and cross-border financial flows making bondholders and investors more powerful, companies have to keep evolving to keep up. So they change their business model or their brand strategy. If they keep doing the old things, they do them in new ways. Or they do entirely new things in ways that haven’t been invented yet.

For our parents, IBM was a computer company. For us, it’s a consulting company. Time Warner was a media company; now it’s a content company after selling its cable and internet businesses and announcing it will exit print, too. HP has been trying to figure out what it is for years.

All these companies are, or were, clients, and I could list another dozen that have gone through similar transformations. What’s on my mind today is which of them managed their transformations best, and what the successes have in common. In my experience, the biggest common denominator is how those companies prepared their people. Here are the lessons that rise to the surface.

Start a Conversation
Hardly any of us like being told what to do, but everyone likes a good conversation. Bad transformations start with management telling us what is going to happen to us whether we like it or not. Good transformations start like a good conversation: some stimulating ideas are thrown out and we talk about them, sometimes learning from each other and sometimes persuading each other. Either way, we connect the conversation to our own energy, ambition, and creativity.

When Fetzer Vineyards was still one of the biggest wineries in the country, its management decided to embrace sustainability. Like many big agricultural concerns in this country, it had a large percentage of Hispanic workers with little or no exposure to the concept. So the CEO started a big conversation, in two languages, about how to save water, reduce waste, and conserve energy. In short order, the Anglos and Hispanics had together developed a bunch of shorthand phrases and acronyms for sustainable actions that they all understood in the same way. Once everyone was part of the conversation, everyone was part of the transformation.

Create Playing Fields
Some people like change. Some don’t. But everyone likes to play a game they’re good at. Successful transformations give everyone a playing field that has some appeal to them, whether it’s contributing ideas, being early adopters for new tactics, or keeping the home fires burning while others go out and hunt some new digital buffalo.

Smart management keeps the emphasis on the arenas, not the rules or the outcomes. Put a group of kids and a few props on a big lawn, and they will invent a game in ten minutes. Same with people in corporations who are given the freedom to collaborate across disciplines and functions in the interest of making something new happen. They come up with better stuff than anyone sitting alone in a room, and they can teach the new game to others better as well.

Find the Leaders You Already Have
When companies get ready for a big change, they tend to announce it and then hire some consultants: two bad ideas that make each other worse. Just consider your own experience. Have you ever seen employees embrace anything that came from consultants, before management actually consulted the employees themselves?

This is particularly unforgivable with any transformation involving sustainability. Most organizations of any size already have people who have been thinking – or even talking out loud – about sustainability for a long time. They may be on the board of an environmental non-profit. They may be taking a degree in supply chain management. They may just be passionate about climate change, or human rights, or fair trade.

In good transformations, management starts a conversation that lights these folks up, asks for their ideas and experience, and then sends them back out to seed the whole company with the conversation. Because they are truly part of the conversation, they can authentically and persuasively invite their co-workers to join it, too.

In bad transformations, management seems to not know or care about its own people who are already well ahead of the curve. When top-down decisions get announced, these natural allies can feel slighted, not empowered. Instead of stepping up to help lead the parade, they snipe at it.

Make it Mean Something
The best transformations I have seen all have this common: real meaning. It’s not just a change in strategy, tactics, or a way of working. It’s a mission of bringing their purpose to life, a call to something higher and better, which reaches people on an emotional level.

When Time Warner was getting deep into the content-not-media transformation, CEO Jeff Bewkes kept saying that what the company did best was tell stories, and that was the reason for the transformation. Time Warner would be about the stories, not the media used to disseminate them.

I would think, yeah, okay, it’s about the creatives at HBO and Turner and the movie studios. Hollywood tells stories. But when I was in meetings with headquarters folks, including lawyers and strategists and sustainability folks, the story-telling idea would come up in every meeting. They were not robotically parroting their CEO. They were not rolling their eyes. They were inviting me into a transformative conversation, one that was taking place on a wide range of playing fields, because it gave everyone a bigger purpose than their job description.

That’s transformation, Emotive Brand style.

Emotive Brand is a San Francisco branding agency.

Image: Adela & Pauline

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