Transformation isn’t a dirty word
For many in my line of work, organisational transformation has become a pipe dream at best, and a dirty word at worst. But it shouldn’t be that way, simple things like the ones practiced at my gym can make all the difference between an organisation facing growth or extinction in the 21st century.
Recently I decided to join the CrossFit Cult, so named because of the cult-like devotion and loyalty CrossFitters develop for their sport and community. My decision to join my local CrossFit gym (aka the box) came on the back of several years of endurance running, and having just completed another marathon I was looking for a new challenge. Initially I was drawn to CrossFit for 2 simple reasons. Firstly, it looked really hard and something completely out of my comfort zone. And secondly, because although I had a relatively strong aerobic ability, I had completely ignored other aspects of my fitness such as strength, power, flexibility and mobility. Stepping in to the gym for the first time, I had clear goals I wanted achieve and defined aspects of my health and fitness that I wanted to transform. I knew it would be a journey, that it would be difficult, and that if I stayed at it I would get better and grow.
As part of my work I help companies rethink their approach to their customers, products and teams with the aim of transforming these companies in to progressive, tech-enabled, growth organisations. The more I got in to my training at the gym, the more I noticed similarities in the way my gym approaches fitness transformation and they way I approach organisational transformation. For many in my line of work, organisational transformation has become a pipe dream at best, and a dirty word at worst. But it shouldn’t be that way, simple things like the ones practiced at my gym can make all the difference between an organisation facing growth or extinction in the 21st century.
From the moment I approached my gym about joining, through to my training sessions and coaching catch-ups, it’s been very clear that to succeed you need to internally have the motivation and desire to do so. So much so that if you are unsure whether you can commit to your goals then they recommend that their gym may not be the best place for you. In many large scale organisational transformations that are undertaken, there just isn’t a strong enough internal desire by the people involved in the transformation to really change. Instead they start with the excitement of what the future will deliver, relying on the change being delivered by someone else, while all the time lacking the hunger needed to get there. In any transformation, the drive to change starts and stops with the individuals desire to do so. Only the people changing can own their transformation, and only once they decide they want to change will they truly start to do so.
Walk the walk
“Dysfunction is the gap between what you know and what you apply” Dom Price, Atlassian
It’s great to plan for change, to talk about what you’ll do and how you’ll do it, but the real work is in the doing. At the gym the real work happens in the early hours of the morning when it’s still cold and dark. The real work happens when you’re running, lifting, pushing and gasping for air. The real work is not always pretty, and it is never easy. The real work is not in the talking about it, it’s in the doing.
However with many organisational transformations there is very little doing. Instead the transformation is plagued by planning meetings, SteerCos, retros, ideation sessions, leadership meetings and more, where things are constantly discussed but never actioned. The real work — the doing of going and speaking to customers, of setting and tracking metrics to understand progress, of creating a testable prototype to validate assumptions — is not done. It’s far easier to talk about becoming agile and customer centric than it is to do it, because doing it requires the real work that is new and difficult and uncomfortable. But there is no value in talking the talk if you don’t also walk the walk.
Nothing measured, nothing gained
The very first day in the gym starts with an assessment to measure where you are currently at across a variety of health and fitness pillars. This is super critical as it provides a baseline against which you can measure future progress. From there, every single training session you attend involves you measuring and recording your results from that session. Without this baselining and tracking of results, you wouldn’t be able to know if you were getting closer to or further away from your goals. You wouldn’t know if you should keep doing what you’re doing, or need to change something along the way. Yet this is exactly what many organisations do when it comes to their own transformation. Having no data to inform their starting position, and no system to define, measure and track the changes they make, many organisations are effectively driving their transformation with their hands over their eyes. Metrics are the lifeblood of progress and growth, without them you are shooting blindly in the night.
Deload to reload
“The big game often appears when the hunter has given up the hunt for the day” African Proverb
The gym I go to operates in 4-week cycles, with the first week of each cycle being a deload week from the cycle before. During this week we lift lighter weights and get our technique correct for the new movement that the cycle will be building upon. The purpose of the deload week is to give our body the chance to recover, regroup and prepare for the heavy lifting of the next 3 weeks. A lot of organisations begin transformations to derive greater efficiency and throughput from their technical teams. They expect continuous heavy lifting from these teams each and every week, without ever giving them a deload week to recover, regroup and prepare for what’s coming next. Valuable activities like analysing the data, thinking through the problem, and learning new skillsets all fall by the wayside in the organisations pursuit for more and more throughput. This is often at the core of where transformations fail, focusing the change purely on practices and processes to build their things faster, without spending the time to stop and think whether they’re building the right things in the first place.
One of the things that attracted me to my gym was their holistic view and understanding of health and fitness. They look at a broad range of health pillars such as strength, nutrition, flexibility, endurance, power, mobility and rest. No pillar is more important than the next, rather all require focus to form one comprehensive view and all pillars need to be included to successfully transform. Interestingly, when organisations try and transform this is the exact opposite of what usually happens. Transformations are usually constrained to one single pillar of the organisation: the IT department. The division between “IT and Business” is made abundantly clear, with both blaming the other for not being included in the transformation. But transformation needs to be holistic, and changing one part of the organisation while ignoring the rest will not achieve successful results.
A radical departure from the status quo
A recent McKinsey report states the pace of disruption is accelerating, driven by rapidly changing customer expectations and enhanced technology in the form of advanced automation and AI. Organisations know they need to change, undertaking large scale organisational transformations with the aim of being better able to respond to fresh challenges and succeed in the new world. But to get there they need to do things differently from what they are doing now. For many, their current approach to transformation is the equivalent of applying some Agile “lipstick” onto an organisational “pig”. Transformation needs to be more than lip service, more than a slight adjustment to the status quo. It should be a radical departure from what you are currently doing, it should be difficult yet rewarding, and it should be more than just the dirty word it has become.