What do you actually need to ‘own’ your transformation?

Change is essential for organisations to remain competitive. But for change to stick, those same organisations need the control that comes with owning the change. Bringing in external support has its merits – especially when it comes to kicking things off or specialist skills. However, an over-reliance on third-party knowledge also creates additional risks.

Does the external provider have the full context of the business? Will one change programme clash with others? Perhaps most importantly of all, where is the transfer of knowledge and skills?

At an organisational level, these risks can have a negative impact on the change you’re trying to introduce. At a team level, it’s easy to become swamped by change when there is no central direction. Are changes coherent with each other, or do they conflict? Will your people end up overwhelmed by ‘change fatigue’? And what happens when the external specialists leave?

There’s also the not-entirely-insignificant risk that a third party pushes an inappropriate ‘solution’ that drains your bank balance without delivering any real value.

What’s clear is that owning your transformation has three clear benefits.

  • By building your own capabilities to enable change, you can take a more strategic approach and deliver measurable business outcomes.
  • By introducing change in a considered manner that’s focused on value, impact, and feedback, you can avoid change fatigue and increase engagement.
  • By ensuring people have the skills to drive change, you can reduce the risk of future failure and make the organisation more self-reliant and resilient.

Yet it’s one thing to know that owning your transformation is, well, transformative. It’s quite another to know how to go about it. Especially in a large, often complex organisation with layer upon layer of people, processes, and technology.

So here are three tactics you can use to overcome reliance on third parties and lead the kind of transformation you want to see.

Answer the one question everyone asks

“Why?”

Or perhaps more specifically, “Why change?”, “Why this kind of change?”, and “Why now?”.

These are the types of questions people ask when there’s a lack of clarity around transformation. They’re also much more likely to come up when transformation is being thrust upon them from above or outside.

Being clear about what you’re trying to achieve may seem like the obvious answer – simply writing down what you want to achieve and how, in straightforward, easy-to-understand language. But clarity of purpose isn’t always enough.

Most people have an inherent resistance to change unless there is a clear benefit to them. So gaining buy-in for change not only from those who will be expected to change their day-to-day behaviour, but also from your stakeholders – at the next level up and across business lines – means putting it in terms that matter to them. In turn, this will give you the alignment you need to advance your transformation. For example, can you reframe your transformation proposition in direct language that addresses their main concerns:

  • Sales: “How will this help me hit my numbers?”
  • Operations: “Where will this influence my ability to serve customers?”
  • HR: “What does this mean for people’s current roles?”
  • Finance: “Which metrics can I use to demonstrate ROI?”

When you can answer these more specific questions then “Why change?” is much more likely to become “Why not change?”.

Think big. Start small. Learn fast.

Transformation can easily be misinterpreted as a one-time initiative that has a very clear endpoint. This mindset makes transformation seem too hard and too costly to achieve alone. And so the organisation looks to bring in people who will tell you they can hit that big target with their own expertise.

While this is a comforting thought if there actually is a big target to achieve, the reality is that ‘Big T’ transformations rarely exist and those that exist rarely meet their intended outcomes. Transformation tends to occur in many different contexts. For the organisation, transformation might mean improving the customer journey step-by-step. At a team level, transformation might mean bringing together different skill sets to tackle those steps quickly and effectively. At a technology level, transformation might mean upskilling people to use existing tools rather than performing a rip-and-replace.

As a leader, understanding the different contexts of your transformation and working from there allows you to determine what you need and when (‘small t’ transformation). Rather than relying on third parties for every aspect of change, you can source external expertise for the elements where you really need support.

You may already have brought together a number of C-suite sponsors who are aligned with improving customer journeys. And you may already have a working group comprised of diverse talent. However, you may lack generative AI skills within that team and need a provider to both build a new large language model (LLM) as well as teach your people how to do it in the future.

The point is that breaking down transformation (in context) into smaller elements allows you to manage them effectively. It’s a simple process and one that works. Point yourself at something you can see the end of. Complete that. Reflect and learn. Move on to the next element. Repeat. While others may be required to complete certain elements, you retain oversight of the end goal, see value delivered earlier, gather feedback, and keep everyone focused on the mission at hand.

Since almost no tech or product leaders will be working on transformation in a completely new organisation, what we’re talking about here is performing an ‘upgrade’ rather than a new, clean ‘install’. This also means that any frameworks you follow, or are recommended to follow, shouldn’t be prescriptive. If what you’re doing doesn’t fit a framework, then take one of those smaller elements and try a safe-to-fail experiment first and learn from it.

The more flexibility you have, the more you can lead successful transformation in a dynamic organisational environment. You can rely on incremental change, adaptability, and experimentation instead of some external template that promises the Moon.

This is clearly important in a wider business context too. Transformational change can protect or even extend your competitive advantage by improving organisational effectiveness. Yet any process associated with competitive advantage shouldn’t be outsourced because that limits your ability to scale change. Not to mention putting the brand at risk further down the line.

Choose outcomes over deliverables

Owning your transformation is about continually reminding yourself (and your colleagues) of what matters. Finding ways to demonstrate measurable impact on business performance is far more powerful than any series of empty vanity metrics.

A little honesty is required here too. Strategic business outcomes can take time to materialise. So you can’t expect—or desire—external providers to stick around until the very end. This is another reason why owning your transformation is crucial. Being clear about your desired outcome, how long it might take, and what you need to get there will show you that you need in-house skills and capabilities to see it through.

That’s because transformation is a special case of change. Successful transformation demands organisations think differently – shifting from a mindset in which the world of work is certain to one in which work is adaptive and embraces uncertainty. This mindset shift leads to a change in what’s being measured – moving away from traditional cost, time, and scope metrics to those focused on value, flow, and quality. And a change in what’s being measured then leads to changes in the mechanics of how the organisation works. These elements are circular, and equally important, and all three need to happen to facilitate a successful transformation.

At Emergn, we put it like this:

It helps if you see your transformation like a product: Deliver value early and often, optimise the flow of work, and relentlessly seek feedback to improve quality.

For example, you plan your work with an eye to what will deliver the most value the quickest, remaining nimble to accommodate best practices and the fastest ways of working. At the earliest possible stages, you release the work to users/stakeholders and get their immediate feedback on what works and what doesn’t. By responding to this feedback straightaway, you then enhance each activity to deliver greater value.

Following this approach enables you to demonstrate impact to different groups of stakeholders rather than over-promising (and under-delivering) against a big target. It enables you to address individual elements of your transformation rather than rigidly committing resources within a limited timeframe. It also ensures you’re able to reduce risk by responding to any new information or changing conditions as your transformation unfolds.

Most importantly of all, it leaves you with the capabilities you need to continue transformation without relying on external support for the same thing over and over again.

Learn more about how Emergn helps you shape the way you think about change so you can own your transformation at https://www.emergn.com/own-your-transformation.

Additional reading