07/02/2020 | Janne Marie van Vlastuin

The paradox of people in transformational programs

Everyone is talking about digital transformation and improving the Customer Experience. These are, or at least should be, important topics on everyone’s agendas.

The starting point is rarely highlighted, but it starts with people and how they collaborate. The baseline is, that in successful transformational projects, there is no room for egos. Healthy connections, bravery, respect for the different views, ownership, and trust are key.

A transformation program can’t be treated as a production machine. It is organic and less predictable. You’re dealing with a system within a system. It demands certain behavior and capabilities, which isn’t fit with how things are today. These programs are very dynamic, where you need to be able to adapt to the circumstances, at all times.

So, it all starts with the right people, with the right attitude. But there are several paradoxes that need to be resolved.


What do you need?

A lot of research is done, to determine what determines successful transformation programs. Unfortunately, there are more unsuccessful than successful, but this is a list we’ve created based on research and experience.

  • ♦ People who have the balls to take risks for the benefit of the company, to lead
  • ♦ People who dare to make (well-founded) choices and decisions
  • ♦ People trusted by others to take decisions on their behalf
  • ♦ People to let go of their old way of thinking and working and don’t fear to do things radically different
  • ♦ People who can really deal with the magic of data
  • ♦ People who can work together and trust each other’s skills
  • ♦ People who take responsibility and acknowledge accountability
  • ♦ People who dare to fail
  • ♦ People who can engage other people
  • ♦ People with big imaginations and knowledge of the possible
  • ♦ People who understand that they’ll have to do things themselves, to be successful (with external help & not the other way around)


You can’t find that in one person and many people who have these capabilities might be invisible to your organization. You’ll find them by looking at your organization through a different lens. One that’s based on where you want to go. If you can’t find them, hire them.


What do you get?

Change attacks stability and continuity; not appealing

It’s natural to not like leading large impact projects. These have limited controls, aren’t built on routines and have an increased chance of failure because of doing something new. Incremental change is safe. It provides the illusion of control and reduces the personal risk. 

When you’re used to focusing on growth and maintaining stability, you can’t reprogram yourself easily. Successful transformational programs disturb the stability and are built upon uncertainty. You can’t carve the total path out in stone.
(Need leaders with balls)

To decide nothing is also a decision

If you don’t have to decide, why do? Even if you do need to decide, it’s sometimes safer to avoid. A quote from my peer at times of organizational crisis: “Why do you take so many radical decisions? Why put your head on a block? If you change the status quo, and it doesn’t become better, it’s your fault. If you leave it as it is, you don’t have the risk people pointing at you, when the decision turns out to be the wrong one. That’s a risk I am not willing to take”
(Where leaders and individuals can take decisions)

Frustration and delay; not trusting others & power play

There is this natural development where people frustrate projects because they want to have their say. They believe they are important and therefore determined to be involved. The result; an exploded stakeholder chart, with a lot of waste activities and nothing gets done. If you want speed, you need to delegate decision making power and trust your team of people. If others disagree, they shouldn’t bother the teams, but come directly to you.
(Trusted teams and allocated mandate)

The turkey at the table

The turkey often gets to decide what’s on the menu for Christmas, in transformational programs. Both on the user side as the (internal) supplier side. You can see upfront who the turkeys are, so don’t invite them to the dinner table. Let alone, decide the menu.

Whenever you’re talking about new technology, IT experiences a great impact. (The new technology is something different from the old.) They should behold the supplier role and not that of the owner.

When it comes to user involvement, the high performer in today’s context exceeds based on today’s structure. A structure with limits and constraints. His knowledge of these limits and constraints makes hem a high performer. Look for the frustrated talent, that sees these barriers and doesn’t ‘profit’ from them.

Middle management gets a different role. Being aware of this prevents a lot of frustration in the projects.

This is why a strong governance model is critical.
(Change willing to let go of the old and make room for the new)

Excel doesn’t solve data problems

Data usually are scattered and still a lot of analysis is being done in Excel, in a non-scientific manner. Too many KPI’s and reports, and everyone gets to ask his or her thing. Maybe there are some fancy tools in-house, which give you the illusion that you’re dealing with data well.

Where actually, most organizations still lack real data-capabilities & data ownership. Data is the fuel for AI and insights for developing an organization capable of delivering the right experience. The setup and development of systems of today, determine your future possibilities. Let the power of data decide and not the handiness of the tool. You need real data-business-thinkers in-house, to deliver the right input growing your organization.
(Data requires expertise, a way of thinking and modeling. It should be treated as an asset so you really need specialists and top-leadership owners)

An opinion is not the same as expertise

It’s difficult to trust others for their expertise. The strange part is, that expertise rarely is being acknowledged by both management, as colleagues from different fields. The knowledge paradox is everywhere.

I’ll give you an example of one of the best CX architects I know. He has been doing this for 25 years now. He has continuously developed himself in time and a style fit for the needs of today. He told me that his job sometimes frustrates him. The customers hire him, paying him a good hourly rate (which he is worth). Then the people say: “We’re not going to do this. I think it doesn’t work that way.”  

By questioning someone’s judgment, you’re imposing delay. Or worse, making the wrong choices. Even if you have no, to limited knowledge, people tend to do this. Some things just are complex and you will never be able to grasp. So only let people block other people in their work, who know what they’re really talking about. Leave out those who have an opinion and believe they know what they’re talking about. 

But don’t kill creativity. Input is fine, it’s about collaboration. Don’t allow for the smart-ass behavior, it’s a waste of energy of the team. A big blocker for building high performing teams.

(Stick to your line of work)

Dodging creates a mess and inertia

It must be clear at all times who gets (or has) to decide what, and who has the final say. This improves the speed of decision-making (critical success factor in transformation projects).

It’s not how the corporate nature system works, to take responsibility and be accountable. Both in good times as in bad. When things don’t go as foreseen, people dodge and try to blame it on others. Doing this too much, you’ll get a blaming and shaming culture, even if it isn’t punished.

People will not be willing to do things for each other, anymore. They will start hiding skeletons under the carpet and stuff closets full of them. Which will result in a really big mess at the end of the day, when they all will become visible anyway.

Instead, be frank and take responsibility as an example.
(Clear governance is about responsibility, accountability, and influence. Live according to what you agree)

Don’t punish growth

Failure is a dirty word and still means punishment in many organizations, either blame, and shame or using financial punishment (no bonus). You don’t need renegades, but people who are willing to take calculated risks. The bigger the risk, the higher the gain.

When doing new things or doing things in a new way, usually means that there aren’t many lessons learned yet. This automatically implies a higher chance of failure and making mistakes, because you’ll have to learn yourselves. Don’t give up after the first infliction of pain. It is like a top sport. Stimulate persistence based on the lessons you learn on the way to become better.
(Be willing to learn and fail)

The superior isolated group of pioneers

The danger of an isolated group of pioneers. They might start believing they are becoming superior, within the organization (like the low-code development group, or the Agile transformation group).

Many are propagating; you need a startup mentality by having little start-ups or isolated teams doing these innovative things. So they are not being bothered by the day-to-day organization.

This is true, for certain types of innovations. When it comes to transforming your organization, or parts of your organization, the answer is no. Unless you’re having such a cultural problem that it’s better to start a whole new company next to your current one. Then there is no need to make it land in your current organization.

In all the other cases, you need people who can engage others bottom-up. The informal-circuit is way more powerful than the hierarchical structure. Don’t give a group of people, doing something, their unique status. They will start behaving as a group and protect that ‘status’. Instead of collaborating and engaging. It will result in just another group blocking progress.
(Engage the organization in an early stage, in an informal way before it becomes formal)

Real geniuses are hidden treasures

Find the people in your organization, with great abstract thinking and a natural interest in the new and unknown. It usually isn’t the people who are visible in the organization. This is also about diversity. The real geniuses are likely not to claim a stage and put themselves in front of everyone.

What do you see happening in companies at the moment? The people who yell hardest, really dominant people, who are claiming the stage and domain of digital transformation. Dominant in shaping the route. Mostly depending on external suppliers (which is the next point). Whereas your internal talent, who has real knowledge of what you do as an organization, is left out.

Don’t get me wrong, you need both, but not when it comes to cracking systems and imagining new models and solutions. One is there to shape it, the other to sell it.
(You need the abstract creative thinker to get a voice)

Do It Yourself

Doing it yourself means doing it yourself, but with the help of others. You see too many companies hiring one of the big 5 and expecting things to happen. Wrong! You need to be able to work together with any firm and take ownership of the program. Be personally involved and understand why and what their responsibilities are, and which are yours.  So don’t let others determine, supported by you. You determine, supported by external advice. Get that advice, from people with experience. But the definition of advice is where it goes wrong.

You’re not letting the car company decide which vehicles you’re going to buy, a construction company what type and shape of building they are going to build. How come people are letting the service provider decide for them, where the organization should develop into? And then be surprised why they can’t get the change implemented or have disappointing results?

Again, clear roles and ownership, not just internally, but also external. This is a hard precondition for working together with your partners, in making the change happen, in the right way (for your company). Your partners will like this too.
(Own it, steer it, lead it and be actively involved. Understand what it takes before you start)

Bottom line: it’s a different game

Tearing down silos is a different game than managing a department or business unit on a day-to-day basis. When you’re tearing down silos and building something else instead, there is no more room for egos.

It requires a lot from people, to set aside their beliefs and personal interest to re-shape the organization for the common good. It’s a hard mental and intellectual challenge, to manage the complexity it beholds. Both on an interpersonal level, as in the actual cracking and rebuilding of the system.

The bottom line, don’t look at the stars of today but go beyond. They’ve shaped the organization as it is today and thrive based on the current state. Look for people who fit your organization tomorrow, who show the behavior that is focused on generating collective value. Don’t let those lead and participate, who have an individual interest in keeping the game the same.

‘You own it’, but will have to trust ‘your people to make it.’ Find the right people with the right attitude to support you in leading your company into the digital era. You can’t do it micromanaging nor will your suppliers do it for you. Success will be determined by you and your people.