Skip to main content

Business leaders struggle to manage the human challenge of transformation

digital business
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/ESB Professional)

Transformation projects are crucial to keep businesses moving forward. However, the process of change can be challenging. Not least because the initiatives tend to be more expensive and time-consuming than anticipated, creating significant stress for the people involved. As such, it’s unsurprising that more than a third of business executives admit to finding transformation projects as or more stressful than the Covid-19 lockdown, according to recent research.

A degree of stress is unavoidable in any change project. That being said, it can be reduced, and the chances of success increased, by predicting pressure points that are likely to emerge, and planning for how they can be managed ahead of time. To support businesses through this process, we have worked with 120 top-level executives to gather their advice on navigating the challenges and turning them into catalysts for success.

Managing optimism

Leaders will always strive to keep transformation business cases realistic. However, as identified by one Head of Transformation: “No business case is ever right”. This is because, over the course of the project, unexpected challenges will emerge and inevitably stretch costs and timescales.

To manage this challenge, senior leaders advise:

  • Involving cautious stakeholders in the planning process – this method was highlighted in over half of ‘low-stress projects’ analyzed in a recent study
  • Meeting the suppliers and partners responsible for delivery and evaluating their reliability
  • Conducting a full pilot
  • Carrying out a detailed drill down into assumptions and forecasts

Leaders also extol the benefits of being adaptable with one Head of finance noting: “You need to have a rough plan, and it needs to be a good plan and you need to know that you’ll have to re-build that plan multiple times”.

Assessing whether the business is ready

Every transformation project will have an impact on the broader organization. However, this is something businesses can fail to plan for. As one Chief Operations officer highlighted: “I find that most proposals haven’t considered the implications for adjacent systems and processes. Then you end up with project overruns and you’re into more money than you’d originally planned. I kicked proposals back for that more than any other reason.”

Assessing the knock-on impacts of a project is key to minimizing transformation-related stress. Senior leaders can do this by conducting a thorough impact analysis to evaluate if the organization is ready to transform. Involving senior leaders from across the business in this process, and accounting for their concerns, is highly beneficial. As illustrated by the fact that 82 percent of low-stress initiatives involved a review of this type compared with only 46 percent of high-stress ones.

Embracing dissenting data and opinions

Not doing enough to hear dissenting opinions and disconfirming data was leaders’ largest regret about their business projects.

It’s natural to downplay information that disagrees with our personal perspective, and focus on arguments and evidence support our views. However, this can result in the loss of important, opposing information, which could damage the chance of success in the long-run. Leaders agree that an open culture where people can speak up isn’t enough. Instead, they advise introducing mechanisms such as steering groups, to give freethinkers a platform to raise uncomfortable points, so a more balanced plan can be developed.

One Head of Transformation concluded: “Making sure you hear those voices means going and finding the right combination of stakeholders and some real dissenters. You know, the Ian Paisley’s, the no-nay-nevers. You get them in that room so you hear that voice. Because otherwise you do get groupthink.”

Fully integrating suppliers into the process

External stakeholders – from vendors to external consultants and systems integrators – should all be involved in steering groups and encouraged to share their opinions. This will facilitate an open relationship, minimize the chances of conflict, and ensure partners become an extension of the internal team. As one Digital Director commented: “In an ideal world you can’t tell who is a supplier and who is an employee, everyone is working together to get the right outcome”.

Business executives also emphasize the importance of choosing suppliers who are a strong cultural fit. To assess whether partners are a good match, business leaders advise having an informal avenue for very frank conversations at senior level. This will be key to achieving a unified team.

Discussing his business’ change initiative one Head of Transformation said: “Cultural fit is as important as the technical things the supplier is going to do. We had all the joint project team and governance, but we also really built a team. So, our comms, our social stuff, all of the kind of glue that knits a team together – we included them in that. We were agnostic about who employed you – you were part of the team and you were treated equally.”

Managing the emotional journey

During the transformation process teams will experience highs as new capabilities go live, and lows when results don’t come through. This will affect all of the groups involved in the project in different ways. Executives perceive this to be the hardest challenge they will face during the project. In fact, 63 percent found it difficult or very difficult to manage.

One Chief Financial Officer observed: “You can become over-focused on a program. You actually live and breathe the whole thing yourself. When it’s going badly, you’re going badly, and when it’s going well, you’re going well. You take on the personality of the stage of the program you’re in. And that makes it very, very tough.”

The top causes of stress identified by business executives are:

  • Driving themselves hard and harshly, and not making a concerted effort to celebrate wins
  • Too much micromanagement from senior stakeholders
  • Technology not working as expected

Leaders also recommended their fellow executives focus on learning from mistakes while avoiding a blame culture. They highlighted the importance of taking an empathetic approach, in particular when things go wrong. One Chief Data Officer advised: “It’s about trying to say to people; ‘It’s OK to be wrong, it’s OK, we do it all day, let’s not pretend that we don’t’. No one is perfect. In fact, everybody is almost completely imperfect, and it’s about how we deal with that.”

Protecting employees’ emotional wellbeing during transformation

In summary: To achieve the benefits of change initiatives, without the stressful drawbacks, business leaders advise being conscious of being over-optimistic when planning, carefully assessing if the company is ready to transform and choosing external providers capable of becoming an extension of the team. Executives can also assess what might cause emotional highs or lows, and take steps to proactively tackle these. In doing so, leaders can ensure effective transformation while looking after the mental wellbeing of their staff.

Sundara Sukavanam, CDO, Firstsource

Sundara Sukavanam is Chief Digital Officer at Firstsource Solutions. He drives the ‘Digital First, Digital Now’ agenda for the organisation with the focus to help customers in their digital transformation journey.