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The Truth About Transformation

By Gordon Blocker - February 2018


Transformation. Talk about a ten-dollar word! Many use it. Some experience it. Few can define it. Recently, I met with a client who had invested one year into organizational health. We discussed the friction between the hard work we put in and the results (mostly qualitative) we experienced. With the level of investment it takes, often we just assume we have arrived and experience real transformation. We’ve put in the time, so we should receive the outcome, right? I wish that were always true.

We have to be ruthlessly honest, collectively look at the situation, and ask, “Are we in the process of real transformation?” or “Has transformation occurred?” The answer is not always obvious and our desire often clouds our perspective on our works’ effectiveness. Here are some alternatives to real transformation we have experienced. Be aware to avoid them as you work to build a truly healthy organization.

Crisis Management and Resolution

Many organizations are in the midst of a crisis. Often this comes from major internal or external pressures. They reach a pain threshold and call for help. These situations frequently involve turnover in leadership. Once the crisis has passed, it’s back to business as usual. Or, if there is turnover at the top, new leaders come in and run things as they see fit. Unfortunately, these organizations are often heading for a new crisis somewhere in their future. But, they’d rather wait it out than face the cost of real transformation.

I worked with a staffing services firm that was going through massive turnover at the very top. The CEO was demoted, an SVP was promoted, and they brought in new talent to try and mix things up. It was musical chairs from hell. After about three months of digging into the challenging issues relating to the health of the leadership team, most of the legacy leaders resigned with decent severance packages. The newly installed CEO breathed a sigh of relief saying, “Great! Problem solved! Thanks for coming in. We’ll call you. Don’t call us.” He was so nearsighted about his own situation, he couldn’t see the systemic issues that created the dysfunction in the first place. Even though we had done that digging, we had not put the effort into really transforming the team. And, yes, you guessed it … he was replaced 18 months later and, sadly, the cycle continued. 

Book-of-the-Month Club

Many organizations have what Patrick Lencioni calls the sophistication bias. They are enamored with things that are intelligent and sophisticated. And even though organizational health is much more about simple, even common-sense principles, it can be viewed as the new, cool thing to talk about. Often these organizations have a lot of intellectual curiosity, but no real hunger for change. They genuinely seem to get the concepts, but once the buzz wears off they, move their energies to something else. They keep transformation at arm's length with a cordial smile and a tip of the hat as they close The Advantage and say, “Wow! Those are really interesting concepts!”

Not long ago, I worked with a client who called us to come in for an all-staff training. The CEO said, “We did some training on the five dysfunctions last year for our meeting and it was great. Can you come back?” I said, “Well, tell me about the progress you have made since. What would you like to work on now?” The CEO seemed puzzled, “Oh! Just come in and do your thing. It was really entertaining last year.” I reluctantly agreed to honor the leader and went in for the event. The CEO was the least vulnerable person in the organization. Every time we got close to real issues and possible transformation, she deflected and you could see everyone around her shifting in their chairs. Needless to say, she didn’t ask us to come back. And they went on to the next book…

Organizational Health Cortisone Shot

Some organizations really dig in. They start to get it. They look to partners and outside help and say, “Just tell us what to do.” They often have a few crises and are curious to learn as well. They work, they read, they make changes. But behavioral modification, like a cortisone shot, only lasts so long and dulls the pain temporarily. There has to be a corresponding mindset shift. You have to believe in what you are doing. The “why” has to fuel the “what” of organizational health. 

I got a call one day from a large healthcare technology firm. They had spent multiple decades as market leaders. Numbers were flat and morale was low. They took The Five Dysfunctions of a Team Assessment and poured over the unproductive behaviors that were plaguing the organization. They had no shortage of plans, ideas, and exercises. They wanted change. But, they wanted it fast! After six months of white knuckling and playing nice, they reverted back to the same pervasive culture and unwritten rules. Their behavior had changed briefly. But, their beliefs about the organization and its purpose did not.

What’s the Goal?

People often say, “Begin with the end in mind.” If we want to manage a crisis, it’s probably best to call a mediator. If we want to know about the latest cool ideas, probably best to go to a conference or tradeshow. If we want a bump in productivity, probably best to integrate a new process or buy some new software. If we want real transformation, we need to keep our eyes on the prize, count the costs, and mark the milestones along the way. It’s not about a moment in time or an inspirational session; it’s a way of working on a daily basis. And to do it wrong risks failure and cynicism throughout the organization.