The volume, velocity, and complexity of change thrust upon us leave little room to avoid transformation. The only constant is change, and transforming ourselves and our organizations is the only way to withstand such change. In this article series titled "Transformation Blueprint," we explore the various levers of transformation available for an organization and offer practical tips and tools on how to activate them. This article defines why people are the most critical element of a transformation effort and should be valued first and above all other transformation elements.
According to Korn Ferry, 70% of transformational efforts do not succeed because they overlook the crucial element of people.
Be crystal clear, as much as possible, about why the organization needs to transform. Most organizations postpone their transformation until they face "do-or-die" situations; however, hopefully, you were much more proactive and saw the need to transform before arriving at the edge of the precipice. Just as Simon Sinek explained in his classic TED talk about starting with "why," people need to be inspired and empowered before they can follow you. The best leaders that have successfully transformed their organizations were able to articulate their vision of why the organization needed to transform to better serve customer needs and meet the organizational mission.
If people are not persuaded and do not buy in to the "why" of the transformation, your transformation efforts will likely not succeed. As the author of the book The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, if you want people to build a ship, don't tell them to just go and collect wood and then divide the tasks and focus on project management. Instead, talk to them about the sea, make them yearn for it and how vast and endless it is. In other words, you must be able to convey your vision to inspire action and willingness to engage and commit to the transformation while also clarifying that the road ahead will be difficult and, at times, treacherous.
Relevant, transparent, and timely communication is paramount and the glue to any transformation effort because it keeps everyone engaged and inspired. You will need to communicate at the outset your vision about the transformation and what you expect to be the positive outcomes of your organizational efforts. You will also need to discuss the challenges the people will face ahead and empower them to work together to find solutions. Oftentimes you may need to allocate additional resources so that teams can overcome challenges. However, most of the time, the challenge to get moving again is to inspire people to stay committed to the transformation effort. A major element in successfully communicating with the individual people and their teams is by creating psychological safety.
During a transformation, it is important to instill a sense of psychological safety in the organization so that people are not afraid to speak their minds, experiment, fail, and try again. The seminal research by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson which formed the basis for Google's Project Aristotle revealed that teams and organizations that foster psychological safety are more successful than others. Psychological safety in Project Aristotle meant that everyone on the team was heard, so people had agency, and people learned to read nonverbal clues about how other team members felt by examining their body language and facial expressions. Psychological safety fosters agency and helps people find and trust their own voice, which is critical in order to find new solutions and ways to do things and transform the organization so that you can deliver better products and services to customers.
As a transformational leader, you need to let people figure out how to transform processes, systems, and approaches on their own. Doing so offers people the opportunity to think critically, experiment, and feel engaged and creative. The feeling of autonomy is a key positive driver in successful transformations because it offers people the opportunity to evaluate options, structure new possibilities, and choose how to move forward. People and teams are now invested in funding new solutions and will not give up early or easily in the face of uncertainty and even failure, both of which are vastly present during transformation efforts. During the journey, empower people and teams to share their learnings, successes, and wins with the enterprise through web events, articles, "ask me anything" sessions, small groups, and any other ways that resonate with your organizational culture.
Transformational efforts can be complex and difficult and can take a long time. It is important to celebrate the people and the wins they achieve no matter how small. In fact, celebrating the small wins early is critical because it encourages people to reach higher and encourages psychological safety. Celebrations do not have to only involve monetary awards and promotions. Rewards and recognition can also center on engagement, teaming, storytelling, sharing food, and engaging in new learning experiences together, where the power of the team is spotlighted and recognized.
When it comes to transformation, you need to put people first because people are foundational to any organization. Understanding the needs and fears your people may have about the transformation can help you better explain your vision about why you need to transform. You also need to continuously communicate with consistency and conviction throughout the transformation effort. Such communication builds trust, which is critical in building and cultivating psychological safety. The sense of psychological safety creates a sense of autonomy which, in turn, is crucial in empowering and inspiring people to take risks, experiment, iterate, and create new solutions that transform the way your organization designs and delivers products and services to meet changing customer needs. Finally, celebrating small and big wins puts people first and provides them with the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation they need to stay the course and see the transformation efforts come to fruition.
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