Why managing transformation is so hard – a fundamental contradiction

They are everywhere in organizations of a certain size: managers of transformation. Be it managing the digital transformation, the transformation to a more agile way of working, or the more general business transformation (whatever that means exactly). And it does not end there. Organizations aim to “transform” their management teams to a more inclusive, open style and assign a project lead to manage the transition. OE heads have long been tasked with “transforming” organizations towards a new culture or way of working.

All these have in common that they are supposed to move large numbers of people towards behaving in a different way. Now think about your personal life: have you ever changed a behavior because someone managed you into it? I’d guess the answer is probably no. If you have, please let me know though! When I think of patterns that I myself set out to adapt in my behaviors, it was 100% of the time because I myself realized a change was necessary. I actively decided to change the Thing. Of course, sometimes I needed support from the people around me. There’s no shame in asking someone to please, please call me out when I do the Thing. Once I had decided to stop doing the Thing, or starting to do a different Thing, support and sometimes guidance can be incredibly helpful and appreciated.

However, no other person has ever been the manager of my behavioral change, and I do not anticipate that it will ever happen. To me, behavioral change and therefore transformation is intrinsically something you cannot manage from the outside. The change needs to come from the inside.
Management, however, is very much defined as putting structures, plans, decisions in place in order to achieve business goals. So if transformation is a business goal (which it most certainly can be), how do we put the two together? I fear the answer is: poorly. We do it poorly.

I believe there’s a fundamental contradiction between managing and achieving transformation in an organization. The two concepts operate on different levels. Management provides external structure to employees. Transformation at its most powerful, however, needs to reach the employees at the individual behavioral level, and behavior is best monitored from the inside.

So why do we appoint managers of transformation? I’d wager it’s often due to the thinking that transformation is important, therefore someone should be responsible for it. So far, so true – I think we go wrong at the second step: we assign the manager the task of changing behavior. That’s where we start sending people to change management training and hire an agency to set up a communication campaign. Expensive, yes, and often not as successful as the shiny, fancy slides suggest. No offense to all transformation managers out there, I am sure you are giving it your all! I am purely observing we often achieve poor results with our transformation. Otherwise, why would the internet be full of helpful instructions and services to support transformation efforts?

In my opinion, a true transformation effort will strive to change the system around the employees, so that the desired behavior is encouraged. This does not mean implementing Yet Another IT-Tool, on the contrary. If your goal, for example, is to increase digitalization, it might be better to set up your IT landscape in a way that discourages usage of old, outdated tools. If I am not able to use the outdated tool (or the non-inclusive hiring process, or the project management style of 1995), I will naturally drift towards another solution. Of course this is hard – which is why we might prefer to have another communication campaign instead.

Real transformation is not only a change management issue. I mean, you do need some change management, but mostly, you need the courage to prune your organizational system of behaviors so radically that the desired state requires less energy to maintain than the status quo.