How Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks: 3 Tips for Real Organizational Change

Written for EO by Nis Frome, cofounder of Alpha, an on-demand customer insights platform.

If success in the digital age were as simple as calling for a transformation or reorganization, companies born in the industrial age would be thriving and there’d be no Netflix, Uber or Airbnb. That’s clearly not the case, though.

According to Harvard Business Review, a study of 57 reorganizations found that fewer than one-third of the reorgs produced any meaningful improvement in performance. In fact, despite the potential that each reorganization and polished PowerPoint presentation promises, “Most had no effect, and some actually destroyed value,” the study concluded. You might say that, as a Fortune 500 executive recently told me (only half-jokingly), that “reorganizations are highly successful, if you’re a management consulting firm.”

And yet, there are a few notable examples of so-called “traditional” organizations successfully returning to their innovative roots.

To succeed in a reorganization, companies should consider these key steps:

1. Start with a hard sell to get others on board

The one thing that reorganizations have going for them is that they are supported by company leadership. Substantial top-down support is indeed critical for creating an environment where innovation can take hold. It’s up to product and innovation teams, however, to figure out how to channel leadership’s involvement toward the right initiatives.

There’s an inherent paradox with realizing change is needed, though: Getting comfortable with the idea that what made your business a success won’t always keep you successful. Convincing leadership of this fact can be an obstacle.

To begin, emphasize the company’s history and recognize meaningful achievements. Successful transformations mean valuing and giving credit to the present, but then being direct and realistic about the future. I’ve seen two types of hard sells work for this next part: selling aspiration and selling desperation.

The aspirational sell means fixating on a superior version of your organization. Amazon is often cited as a strong role model for this approach, given their performance and transparency regarding their customer-focused processes.

At the other extreme, selling desperation may feel like fear mongering, but it can be extraordinarily effective. No one wants to oversee the sinking of the Titanic. Painting a bleak picture is sometimes the only thing that works.

2. MacGyver your way toward traction

While transformation champions are working toward getting buy-in from fellow leaders, they must simultaneously explore ways to generate evidence to support their arguments. That means encouraging agile teams to actually get out of the building and talk to customers. Generating on-demand insights doesn’t require a PhD or multi-million dollar budgets.

“[To] people inside large companies who are struggling with this, I’ll say, ‘You might want to just do some interviews guerilla-style and then come tell everyone what you learned, versus saying, ‘We’re going to do this’ or ‘We’re going to get buy-in for — just do it,” says Cindy Alvarez, a group product manager and behavior change expert at Microsoft in an interview. “Then, find some interesting stuff and kind of dangle it in front of [others] and say, ‘Hey, there’s more where this came from, we just need to keep talking to people.’”

3. Recognize that success doesn’t speak for itself

Initial data points and stories resonate with executives who are considering different ways to move into the future. While their buy-in will create the right environment and incentives for continued progress, entrenched behaviors won’t change overnight. In corporate environments, newly redefined success needs to be showcased and evangelized. It has to be presented as the path to career acceleration.

That’s why thought-leadership content and case studies are so important—they demonstrate widespread acceptance of new methodologies, provide exposure for early adopters, and explain tangible business outcomes. All together, that’s a recipe for turning success into viral success, and viral success into a full-blown, high-impact digital transformation.

To accomplish this, consider creating a recurring demo-day specifically for sharing surprising user insights rather than merely celebrating the launch of new, but perhaps unvalidated, products and features. Partner with a vendor to create multimedia content featuring teams working in a more forward-thinking way. Determine frameworks for communicating ROI and benefits to different stakeholders, from the C-suite, to finance and procurement teams, to R&D.

By combining executive buy-in, initial proof points, and an atmosphere of enviable success, transformations can take hold and lead to meaningful results for any business. No PowerPoints or broken promises required!

Categories: Business/Finance Tips general Inspirational Management

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