Transformation is not for wimps

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” (Niccolo Machiavelli.)

Is it still possible to quote Machiavelli today? In times, in which we are all so cooperative, in which we no longer have bosses, only colleagues, in which ties waste away glumly in wardrobes?

We can, when his words are so aptly formulated. There are fundamental aspects of human behavior that we will not easily overcome. Among these, if we are being honest, is our way of dealing with renewal. We are not talking about change that comes along in small steps, that we can pretty much just accept. Steps which are not that inconvenient, now that we wear sneakers for work. When we have time in mixed teams to think about how we can be closer to customers (as if we had previously ignored them.)

Let’s talk about real RENEWAL. The type described by Schumpeter as ‘creative destruction.’ Admittedly, he used the term in a macroeconomic context, but if we follow up on his idea and take it into our business reality, we quickly come to where it hurts, where old traditions are abolished and space made for the new.

This is happening on a large scale when business models are changed, something that today is being called disruption. The dismissal of the traditional cigarette is for Philip Morris an act of creative destruction, the outcome of which should excite us. The origins of Bayer lie in the plastics business. The sale of Covestro as an IPO made space for the new – which, in the form of Monsanto brought with it great potential and likewise great risk.

But it can happen on a smaller scale; actually innovation doesn’t necessarily have to be disruptive. When the company Zumtobel now no longer just sells lamps, but lights up whole areas, supplies them with WiFi and charges a fee for this, change comes about more gently.

Disruption, revolution or innovation? Today, we call taking large steps toward the future TRANSFORMATION. Choosing this path and following it consistently is not for the faint-hearted, as the decision makers at Philip Morris, Bayer, or Zumtobel will confirm.

Transformation requires the will to innovate and the courage to destroy, always with a concept of the new, since this alternative to the current status quo needs to be actually implemented. Only with an image of this (better) future will these innovators succeed in winning enough fellow proponents over to the transformation.

An illuminated world was the vision of Thomas A. Edison and the journey toward it was a long one for his team. “There is a better way to do it, find it!” makes it clear how much effort was involved in realizing Edison’s vision. Alongside the courage to innovate and a concept of the goal, there has to be lots of ambition, in order not to be satisfied with too little.

All this must be shared. Convincing people of the need for innovation and finding the way together while encouraging and challenging them can allow a transformation to be successful. There are hardly any other options. At least not if we no longer want to rely on the one genial leader at the top – who are becoming increasingly rare anyway. But let’s be clear about this: executives are a central part of the transformation. There is no revolution bottom-up. Transformation will only work when the management is courageous and consequent about it. Employees are very critical when fine speeches and posters once again proclaim the bright new future. They scrutinize their leadership closely – and if it is not really sincerely forging ahead, they sit back and let it pass them by. Bending is the unofficial technical term for this phenomenon and it kills every transformation.

Working against it requires the most courageous step of all: the step towards changing yourself. Those who take the issue seriously must scrutinize themselves and their own behavior. When the subject of transformation is on the table, ideas quickly emerge about what could be done better in other areas. How others need to change. Everything that needs to happen somewhere else. This is not how it works. More or less well-intentioned suggestions are followed by the reflex “That’s just what we do already…” or tit-for-tat responses without constructive potential.

If, regardless of our function and position, we want genuine transformation, we must begin with ourselves, on a very personal level.

“What am I doing today that is incompatible with the future? How should I behave? What is holding me back from this? What is my contribution to change? How consistently am I implementing this?” To answer these questions and to change yourself takes a certain amount of courage. “Walking the talk” is the most difficult part of the transformation, and it really isn’t for wimps.

The author Kai Anderson is one of the most sought-after change experts in Germany. He coaches and guides executives in transforming their organization. Kai is author and publisher of the books “The Agile Enterprise” and “Digital Human – The human being at the center of digitization”.

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