Enterprise Transformation is a Never-Ending Journey, Not a Destination

As agilists, we’re often caught up with questions about how we work. Before answering those questions, however, it’s necessary to address a far more important issue: why we want to change? Amol Pradhan, Chief Transformation Officer, SIH Cloud Advisory and Enterprise Agility, IBM, explains how this mindset-shift plays a critical role in transformation program success.

Written by Amol Pradhan • 18 August 2022


The key to solving any problem is asking the right question. As Henry Ford once remarked, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

As agilists, we’re often preoccupied with questions of “how”: How is my team’s way of working, working in this situation? How can I make my team a high-performing team? How can I deliver business agility?

In my experience, however, it’s far more important to start not with “how” questions but with “why” questions: Why are we doing what we are doing?

Transformations are a never-ending journey comprising of continuous but systematic improvements to unlock business value. The purpose behind your transformation program drives the decisions made in delivering a fit-for-purpose agility solution, leading to expected and desirable results.

Defining this “why” should be the critical first step in any project or transformation. It will serve as the North Star to keep all team members on track and on strategy. And it will play an important role in team motivation and morale. People, after all, perform better if they have clarity about why they are doing what they’re setting themselves out to achieve.

Once we have established the case for change—the “why”—the next step is identifying the “what.” Defining the “what,” however, isn’t always so simple. Enterprise transformation usually involves multiple stakeholders—each with their own set of priorities. Sorting through these varied and sometimes conflicting goals requires what I call “ruthless prioritization.” It often involves three steps:

  1. Get the right people in the room. On a major transformation project or program, this might involve the organization’s CXOs—the CEO, COO, CFO, CHRO, etc. For a new product, it might include the product owner and key functional leader. You want people with the broadest possible perspective on the issue and those most focused on the ultimate customer, stakeholder or end user.
  2. Limit their choices. Each person should have no more than three votes. You want diverse but focused input, and you want to prioritize goals that are both high impact and high visibility.
  3. Be SMART. Make sure your goals meet the SMART criteria: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.

A good goal for a financial institution, for example, might be “to grow the home loan sector of a given market by 80 percent within five years.” It meets all the SMART criteria and gives your team a clear vision of where you’re headed. A warning sign: if your goal focuses on a technology tool (the “how”) versus an outcome (the “what”), you’re probably not thinking broadly enough about the problem. And while both are equally important to ensure feasibility of building product features, the focus should be on the “what,” not the “how.”

Once you’ve determined the project’s destination, it’s important to help your team keep their eyes on the prize. Here are some suggestions based on having worked on some 35 large and complex transformations both here at IBM and in corporate roles:

  1. Focus on people. Every transformation involves people, processes and technology. We tend to focus on the latter two. Those two, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. The key determinant of project success lies beneath the surface: in the people—both members of your team and those within the broader organization. You need to understand their real-world concerns about the transformation, and you must help them understand why change is happening, what the destination is and why the change will benefit them personally.
  2. There’s no such thing as overcommunication. To provide this reassurance and ensure clarity around goals, it’s important to communicate, communicate, communicate. My rough rule of thumb: take whatever you view as a reasonable level of communications (via Town Halls, management memos, email updates, etc.) and multiply it by three. Maintaining people’s focus on the goal is especially critical as you scale the transformation and sustain it over time.
  3. Keep “the pedal to the metal.” The biggest challenge in any project or transformation is the tendency to declare victory prematurely. It’s important to maintain focus until all project metrics are achieved and you’ve reached your final destination.
  4. Use only seasoned coaches. It’s not enough for project coaches to have completed a two- or three-day training course. You need seasoned coaches with real-world experience. They should be conversant in the language of the industry they’re engaged with. And they should be “full-stack” project professionals i.e., understand all aspects of a project—both front end and back end—to serve the needs of the cross-functional project team.
  5. Foster a culture of psychological safety. The most important aspect of any project is forming the team and creating a positive team culture. Culture is an outgrowth of leadership. Whatever leadership style you model will be replicated by those below you. So, it’s important to be respectful and empathetic and to create a sense of psychological safety. Reassure the team that you’ll all be learning as you go, that there’s no harm in trying new approaches and that you can always to return to a previous way of working if new processes don’t work out as planned.
  6. Test early and often. A hallmark of an agile approach is to continually iterate based on real customer feedback. Make sure you’re building in opportunities for feedback at reasonable intervals throughout the project. Even more important, be sure that feedback comes directly from the ultimate customer or end-user, not an internal owner who thinks they know what the customer wants. Every iteration should bring you closer to your destination.
  7. Celebrate success. When you’ve reached that destination and all project metrics are met, it’s time to celebrate the team’s success and to communicate that success to the organization at large. It’s important to highlight not only the specific project goals achieved but the difference you’ve collectively made in the business and in people’s lives.

What people remember at the end of the day is not only what you achieved, but how you led and supported your teams in difficult moments to reach your project goals. Asking the right “what” questions up front and maintaining a laser-like focus on the ultimate destination will shorten your journey and greatly enhance your likelihood of success.

Amol Pradhan headshot

Amol Pradhan
Chief Transformation Officer, SIH Cloud Advisory and Enterprise Agility | IBM

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