Principles for Organizational Transformation

Idea in Brief:
When faced with the responsibility to lead transformation efforts, leaders face a mammoth challenge: changing the current culture. Culture is the one elements that can reverse all gains when not properly tackled. Leading cultural change requires both inspirational leadership and steady, persistent management of the transformation process. I have witnessed successful and unsuccessful transformation attempts while serving in various units in United States Air Force. In all successful cases, three principles coexisted and helped inspirational leadership combine with consistent management to deliver organizational transformation:

1. Tolerance for failure.
2. Persistence over time.
3. Leadership commitment to change.

“There is nothing as difficult and dangerous as changing the order of things.”
Nicolo Machiavelli

Change is perpetually expected in the military. The purpose of any military operation incorporates some type of situational transformation that makes us safer from a perceived threat. The threat, intent, and desired end result are defined in our mission analysis. In the Air Force, we emphasize this point in professional military education and our overall mentoring processes. Aside from efforts focused on achieving current mission, a good part of our efforts are focused on self or organizational transformation design to ensure we are ready for future challenges. We are leading our troops in eliminating waste, finding new ways to increase effectiveness, and reconsidering our frameworks for analysis of external threats. We emphasize leadership as a critical tool in this efforts. However, management literature on the subject of organizational change reveals that transformation efforts, though led bravely, often suffer from lack of deliberate and consistent management.

Jim Womack, an American leader in quality management and founder of Lean Enterprise Institute, once declared that “the problem in today’s corporate world is too much leadership and not enough management”. While acknowledging that good leadership defines the difference between disaster and success, he emphasized the importance of management as focus for the creation and utilization of a sound process in support of a leader’s vision.

Great leaders inspire people and push them beyond the realm of the normal and in pursuit of exceptional achievement. But exceptional achievement often comes with increased energy and other costs such as increased stress, excessive expenditures or the overuse of resources. Sound management and a strong process can eliminate the need for the excessive effort while still delivering required results. In order to put management tools to use, leaders must embrace a dedicated and consistent process in order to install supporting management practices. Such practices would in turn enhance the overall effort and provide feedback on wins as well losses. However, without a deliberate effort to instal monitoring processes, focus on mission and immediate end results that make the organization and their leaders successful can also impede process observation and effective improvements.

How can long term transformation sustainment coexist with current mission priorities? In the military we hold heroism as an integral trait and leadership is the forum in which we interact. Asking us to focus on change management issues is a difficult proposition. Judging what processes must be modifies and monitoring progress towards ultimate goals presents a daunting task especially when we are daily faced with current and rapidly developing situations. The solution is to open the transformation effort to as many employees as possible while maintaining leadership focus on the ultimate vision. The organization needs a shell that incubates transformation efforts while ensuring focus and continuity. Based on empirical evidence in several organizations, I suggest three principles that produce this shell.

First, successful implementation requires a “tolerance for failure” environment. Such tolerance buys the time necessary for changes to take place and gives innovators the room to experiment. Studies indicate that companies implementing successful change had to create the protective “shell” where brave leaders could take risks without fear of failure. In this “shell”, members can implement rational experiments and test ideas before wide implementation. They are encouraged to take risks and learn from them. On the other hand, organizations seeking a quick fix do not allocate the time and resources required for effective learning take place, thus gaining minimal success with the change implementation. In many cases, issues demanding fundamental change are temporarily solved by an organizational hero that saves the day through extra effort and dedication. Aside from solving the immediate problem, introspection and a process to change processes it is required to ensure problems will not reoccur. Was the process changed in the hero case, or will it fall apart the moment the hero leaves the scene? Did we consider the root cause of the problem, or simply use great personal talent to save a bad process? Maybe the process should sometimes fail….

Second, cultural change requires persistence over time. Boeing and Porsche took an average of 10 years of concentrated effort to streamline their core process lines and implement Lean Manufacturing. Profit organizations must carefully compare costs and benefits from a profitability standpoint. But that perspective, when possible, must consider long term versus short term shareholder benefits. Non-profit organizations have the advantage of not being driven by short profit pressures. However, legacy considerations and political influence play important roles in those organizations and can stifle persistence of improvement process if contrary to their aims. How can non-profit/ government organizations allocate consistency to the change process? One could try to implement change at a rate co-measurable with movement of personnel change-over rates. Another solution to this dilemma might be a strategic alignment of organizational goals to pre-determined vision consistent with higher leaders’ perspectives and needs. Communication is critical in this case, especially between former and future leaders in respective units. Ultimately, long term persistence tends to deliver better results for the organization when correlated to greater strategic priorities of the leaders championing the charge. Which brings us to the last, and most important requisite.

The third, and perhaps the most fundamental condition for successful transformation efforts is an absolute commitment to the change vision from leadership. This attitude is usually reflected in a change strategy. The strategic alignment of organizational efforts to a predetermined vision both focuses leadership efforts towards the vision as well as communicate imperatives to the rest of the organization. All managerial efforts should be subordinated to the resulting priorities. It has to be top down. Other options, such as grassroots efforts that spread throughout other directorates or groups and inspire further change may be appropriate for introducing new concepts, but not in leading cultural transformation. The idea that groups of trained Lean, Six-Sigma, or any other “managerial experts” can go around the organization, have a few victories and “inspire” a managerial change revolution is an illusion preached by many organizations in both private and governmental circles. Leadership support should be more than a sponsorship of isolated projects. It should be strategic and comprehensive. And it should demand results.

Ultimately, the successful application of any change effort has certain challenges unique to the respective organization. Among them, one could find the instinct to get the job quickly and move on, short attention span, and lack of strategic guidance. Paradoxically, some of the drives that brings victory on the battlefront or in the market could also be an impediment to consistent change management. Recognizing these threats is the first step. Next, leaders must install clear and sustained rules and regulations in order to create an environment conducive to change while preserving the can-do attitude for the appropriate settings. The time and energy saved by a greater emphasis on effective long term management is well worth it.

In conclusion, leading change requires both strong leadership and management skills. The merger of management and leadership, three principles can serve in creating a protective shell for change to take place: consistency, tolerance for failure and supporting leadership. The combined effect of the three elements create employee empowerment and open the door for courage and creativity. Empowering people across the organization to lead coordinated improvements can have the synergistic effect needed for both focused transformation and cultural change. To quote General George S. Patton: “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results”.

Peter F. Drucker. The Essential Drucker, HarperCollins, 2008
Robert J Samuelson, “The Age of Austerity.” TheDailyBeast, , Oct 12, 2011
Larry Bossidy & Ram Charan, “Execution”, CrownBusiness, 2009
“Harvard Business Review on Change”, HBS Press,



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s