The Truth about Transformation

The Great Pandemic served as a fitting backdrop for Strategy@Work, an annual conference hosted by PMI’s Brightline Initiative. In this post, we share five conference learnings about transformation in the age of COVID that everyone needs to know—from project managers just starting their career to the Chief Transformation Officer (CTO). Learn more from Brightline Initiative’s Tahirou Assane Oumarou and Yavnika Khanna.

Written by Tahirou Assane • 4 February 2021


Photo by Bankim Desai on Unsplash

You might think that holding a business conference in the midst of a global pandemic is a bad idea.

If the subject is business transformation, however, you could hardly pick a more appropriate time.

Over the past year, the Great Pandemic has forced just about every organization of any size to transform how it does business. So, this past October seemed like an opportune moment to bring together a group of distinguished experts and executives to discuss business transformation at PMI’s Brightline Initiative virtual Strategy@Work conference: Unlocking the Truth about Transformation.

There were two views of transformation on display at the conference. The first was articulated by Martin Reeves, Managing Director & Senior Partner, Chairman of BCG Henderson Institute, who talked about transformation driven by disruptive external events, like the pandemic. “You can think about a crisis as an unfreezing,” he said, “an opportunity to reshape things, to create new language, new institutions and new ways of doing things.”

The second view came from Alex Osterwalder, inventor of the Business Model Canvas and founder of Strategyzer, who talked about transformation as an ongoing process. The most successful companies, he said, are constantly reinventing themselves, experimenting with different business models and innovating to transcend industry boundaries.

Today, whether you’re one of Martin’s opportunistic transformers, one of Alex’s serial transformers, or some combination of the two (the ideas, after all, are not mutually exclusive), we are all in need of expert transformation counsel.

So, we at Brightline have synthesized all of the presentations and discussions from the conference into five key learnings about business transformation. They represent a clear path forward amidst all the upheaval created by the global pandemic layered on top of an already changing technological, societal and business landscape.

Learning #1: Transformation Starts from Within

“Rapid transformation doesn’t start at the organization level, it starts with the person within,” said Yvonne Lau, Senior Vice President, Corporate Development, at Li & Fung Limited.

Transformations are hard work, demanding strength, resilience and unrelenting drive. In many cases, it requires a personal transformation to marshal these special attributes and bring them to the workplace every day. Hard-core transformation work therefore requires a certain amount of self-examination and self-care—physical, emotional and spiritual. We must get our own house in order before we can take on the demanding work of transforming our organizations and broader society.

Learning #2: Deliver Positive Impact for Society

Which leads to the next key learning: Organizations today cannot transform successfully in an unsustainable world fraught with grave economic and societal challenges. It’s no longer possible or desirable to compartmentalize business and the broader society in which we operate. Organizations are now “beginning to look at social impact as part of the strategic agenda and not something that is isolated or treated as disruption,” said Carolina Da Costa of Maua Capital. “It has to be seen as value added to the business.”

It’s important to view your transformation efforts in the context of the larger challenges facing business and society—and to help create the conditions that will allow your business to thrive. That can mean conserving the natural resources that are essential for business operations or fostering a more equitable social structure so that people can afford to buy your products. Another consideration—many studies suggest that consumers today are more willing to buy from and support companies that are seen as fulfilling their societal responsibilities.

Learning #3: Unleash the Power of Human Capital

Transformations can only be successful if leaders take everyone with them on the journey. Yet, one of the biggest roadblocks to transforming an organization is that people are full of fear. Indeed, Gallup estimates that 85 percent of our workforce is disengaged. “We have a new generation and a new model of work that’s emerging, and we need a whole new approach to talent management,” said Don Tapscott, noted author and Executive Chairman of Blockchain Research Institute.

Building a culture of teamwork is critical in any successful transformation. That means engaging employees around a real mission and instilling a sense of purpose behind the work. In an era of distributed teams and remote working, it’s also important to harness the power of technology to drive collaboration and to compensate for some of the social structures we’ve had to give up due to the pandemic.

Learning #4: Lead with Courage and Empower the Frontlines

Leaders of transformations need to step up their game. In the words of Deepa Prahalad, author, innovation consultant and CEO of Anuvva LLC, leaders have to become “creators of common ground”—the ones who manage all the competing demands across teams and keep us moving in the right direction. In fact, many organizations have created the role of Chief Transformation Officer or CTO to ensure they have the right leadership at the helm of their transformation efforts.

But leadership today also means letting go—empowering team members on the frontlines to innovate and take action. That involves creating a safe space for people to interact with technology at scale and to take on the role of “Citizen Developer”—capable of creating software and apps tailor-made for the project at hand. “Imagine a world where anyone who wants to [can] build their own app,” said Alwin Magimay, Senior Managing Director, FTI Consulting. “This could be a citizen revolution.”

Learning #5: Clearly Communicate and Connect with your People

Leaders today need “clarity of ambition,” according to Matthew Bell, Senior Vice President at AstraZeneca—a clear understanding of the type of value they can deliver. But that vision also needs to be clearly communicated to team members and transformation stakeholders. And it needs to resonate emotionally.

In fact, Vernon Irwin, Chief Revenue Officer of Everbridge, says it all comes down to marketing. “Brand your rapid transformation program, because people will want to be a part of it,” he said. “You’ll win hearts and minds, and people will want to get behind you. That alignment creates amazing efforts and results. Buy lots of pizza, plan on staying late and getting up early, but prepare to reap those benefits.”

As business transformation becomes an ongoing reality, we at Brightline will continue working to uncover valuable truths about the transformation process. In the meantime, we hope these five learnings from the recent Strategy@Work conference will help guide your path and make your transformation efforts all the more rewarding.

Tahirou Assane headshot

Tahirou Assane
Director | Brightline at PMI, Brightline Initiative

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