Organisational Transformation: are you a leader walking backwards into the future?

Change & Organisation Development

by Sarah Beart

10 December, 2018

The “T” word is everywhere – it’s hard to find an organisation that isn’t undergoing some kind of transformation. At an event last week to launch our Metalogue research on the subject, one group worked on the question “How do we help leaders hold their nerve during transformation.” It was a popular question, and the group was composed of a mix of transformation leaders and those who are endeavouring to support them (strategy, HR and OD directors).

Wobbly leaders

People were clear that it’s daunting work, and a lot of leaders feel “wobbly” during a big transformation. They are trying to lead the transformation while also dealing with immediate pressures, such as this quarter’s profit and other performance targets. It can be hard to find time to make connections to the future and to the end goals. Leaders commonly get through the first stage of the transformation and then see just how much work remains to be done.

Some people spoke about how difficult it can be for a new leadership team to form itself AND lead a transformation. Others mentioned how leaders have to go against the grain (theirs and the organisation’s) in order to get the transformation to happen, especially when they have to work across organisational splits. And there was general agreement that leaders (and OD and change practitioners) have to hold their own nerve as well as helping others.

Don’t look down!

A paradox emerged – helping leaders and others pay attention to what is NOT going to change seems really useful. Leaders who can hold on to a thread of continuity, and who can genuinely honour the past, really help themselves and others. However, often leaders aren’t prepared for the feeling of chaos when a transformation gets underway, so it’s useful to help them accept that they may feel wobbly (and tell them not to look down when they do!).  They tend not to be prepared for just how long transformation takes – helping them be OK with the long haul is important.

Leaders who have been through it spoke about the usefulness of being accompanied by people who’ve seen some of this before, and know where else it had worked (stories from competitors’ successes seemed particularly consoling!). And creating spaces for honest conversations was vital – conversations where leaders could allow themselves to be wobbly, to remind themselves about the purpose of the transformation and be ordinary about the job of connecting with others about continuity and change.

Walking backwards into the future

One lovely idea that emerged was to help leaders with the idea of walking backwards into the future. In Maori culture the idea is that we are always walking backwards into the future, because we can easily see what’s behind us but not what’s ahead (and it’s awkward – just look at the slightly nervous face sketched by one of my talented colleagues above). Holding your nerve while walking backwards seemed a fitting description of the experience so many leaders are having right now.

Organisational Transformation: are you a leader walking backwards into the future?

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