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Developing Agile Leadership & Resilience During Times of Change

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Agile leadership is an approach that helps managers and company leaders implement change with creativity, innovation, unity, and speed. Agile teams are able to address and resolve their conflicts and leverage innovative or “radical” ideas faster and with better impact than other less agile teams.

Over the past few months, agile leadership has taken on greater importance than ever. The speed at which leaders can adapt to uncertainty and make decisions for their business has become mission-critical. The rapid transition to working from home — and the decisions for when and how to return to the office — require efficiency, flexibility, and strong values. Agile leaders handle unforeseen challenges while maintaining the respect and support of their employees, creating a culture of resilience and performance even during the “heat” of change. 

Research reinforces employees’ desire for agile leadership. Gallup found that 71% of employees feel disengaged and that most employees did not leave their organization, but the poor relationship they had with their boss. Google’s 10-year Project Oxygen study discovered the top five attributes their employees wanted from a manager were:

  1. Be a good coach
  2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage
  3. Express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being
  4. Be productive and results-oriented
  5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team

Agile leaders also have teams that reflect the top three attributes of high-performing teams, as recently identified by the Sloan School of Management, the Business school at MIT. They found the best teams can:

  1. See their team’s interactive dynamics, such as how they deal with conflict or disagreements
  2. Discuss their team’s dynamics without drama 
  3. Change their team’s dynamics when they need to

By the end of my course, Agile Leadership, you and your employees will know how to do each of those actions for your own team. In this blog post, I’ll introduce you to the three dimensions of agile leadership.

The 3 dimensions of agile leadership

Every leader’s success is really a function of a series of relationships on the job: between a leader and their direct reports, between team members, and even with key stakeholders, clients, or customers. These relationships need to be strong, flexible, and fair in order to stay agile during stress and challenge. Let’s look at each quality in more detail. 

1. Strength 

You know you have a strong relationship if it provides value that is hard to replace and meets the critical goals of each party. Weak relationships in business are superficial. They provide only marginal value and are easily replaced. In order to provide real value, a leader must have a certain level of intimacy or closeness with each person that allows that person to share what they really need and want out of the business relationship.

A strong relationship must have synergy, where one plus one equals three. For a relationship to be strong, it must contribute to strategic goals that each person cares about, and the total value created by the relationship should exceed the effort each person puts into it. You know you have a strong business relationship if you would miss it if it ended. 

The first step to s strong relationship is to fully know and understand the other person on a deeper level. I call one key strategy leaders can use to strengthen relationships “KYP,” or “Know Your People.” When we consider our most resilient relationships, we will most likely recall feeling like we understood each other well — we knew each other’s motivations, needs, and concerns. We could trust that the other person had our best interests in mind and that our goals were not in competition, but in alignment.

To be an agile leader, we need to really know and understand each of our people so we can show them we care about them as a complete person, not just as a resource. If we do, they will return the favor with loyalty and hard work.

This was more recently confirmed by the Google Leadership study, which found a key indicator of whether or not an employee stayed with a company was if they felt there was “someone at work (hopefully their boss) who understood them and cared about their future.”

In order to inspire and motivate team members, leaders first need to have a certain level of intimacy or closeness that allows them to understand what others really want out of the business relationship. This knowledge also makes it possible for the leader to be clear about what they want. When working conditions or other assumptions change, clarity on goals — and why those goals matter — becomes even more important than usual.

Shifting to work from home, for example, means leaders must be even more clear about what we mean by productivity in the new environment, what is most important when new tradeoffs must be made, and what vision of the future we are all working toward. Clarity about goals and values will overcome the confusion and chaos some employees might be feeling.

2. Flexibility

The second dimension of agile leadership is flexibility. Relationships that stand the test of time are able to flex when situations change. These flexible leaders and their teams can still function and create value. Flexibility for leaders means sharing power and allowing yourself to be influenced by others’ input so you can build shared solutions. If you want to influence others as a leader, you must be willing to be influenced yourself! 

When you ask a team member if their leader is flexible, they mostly think about how that leader listens and considers others’ input, and how that leader does — or does not — share power when making decisions.

Leaders might not always be able to be flexible about what must be done, but they can try to be flexible about how it is done. Flexibility does not mean having to compromise on what we are accountable for; it means knowing that most complex issues require collaborative, or social, solutions as much as technical or operational ones.

This flexibility does not occur in a vacuum. A deep understanding of goals and outcomes is critical to practicing smart flexibility, so we get both the buy-in we need and the outcomes we require. Often flexibility is best when combined with coaching and effective delegation. 

For example, when people shift to more remote or virtual work, those employees still have needs for affiliation, for feeling like part of a team or a community, along with productivity and performance needs. The casual, “I was walking by” or “I saw you in the coffee line” interactions are lost, so they must be replaced, often with a blend of scheduled team and one-on-one check-ins, chat, text, emails, and phone calls.

This ability to work collaboratively is more than just a buzzword. Collaboration, which literally means to “co-labor” or to work together on the same thing, in the same way, at the same time, is becoming more and more valued by the world’s top organizations. In a study by IBM entitled “Leading Through Connections,” the CEOs they polled said that they are now changing the profile of what they want from their top leaders. While expertise and business and technical knowledge remain highly valuable, the ability to team across the organization and create a collaborative work environment were two of the top five attributes valued by CEOs, with 58% stating that teaming was a critical leadership trait.

3. Fairness

The final dimension of agile leadership is fairness. Think of the leaders you have had in your career and how fair they were. Was the goal of the leader to support and enhance, or was it to compete and win at the expense of others? Was the leader able to openly share their goals and intentions or were they seen as political? 

While there is no cookie-cutter approach to what different people will consider to be fair, comments about fairness from team members should be addressed and can sometimes reflect important issues. At the same time, it is also important to remember that fair does not always mean equal, and sometimes team members need to learn more context to understand what is really fair.

Fairness in decision-making may be the most important aspect of fairness in agile leadership. If a leader’s coworkers believe they base their decisions on self-interest, politics, or other non-business reasons, they will be seen as unfair. If leaders are willing to make the hard decisions, but use a process of input to build buy-in, even those who do not agree will say the decision was fair. If an Agile leader is clear and transparent about their criteria and process, others will support their decisions, even when it was not their first choice.

Next, to be seen as fair, leaders will want to explain the decision-making process itself, so the team knows how to participate. For example, when I was reworking the compensation plan on a sales team, I let the team know the deadline for the decision for the new comp plan and who the final decision-makers would be. My process was to get input, form a proposal, and then the CFO and VP of Sales would make the final decision based on my recommendation. Explaining the decision-making process increases fairness since we all know how, when, and who will make the final call. No mystery, no drama, no politics. 

People in organizations know they will not always get their way, but they do want and deserve a fair hearing. The essence of employee empowerment is a sense of influence over decisions that are important to the employee. If a leader makes decisions about an employee’s work and the employee is not involved, they may feel disrespected. The leader might also make a bad decision because they may not have all the data. This is why it’s important to seek out those with differing opinions and perspectives.

Finally, once the final decision is made, a leader must be able to explain the rationale they used, what their goals were, what options were considered, and which criteria they deemed most important, so everyone can understand why the final decision was made.

During these input conversations, leaders must let their employees and colleagues know they have permission to be truthful and honest. Each person should feel their ideas were heard and respected. In their research on leadership, Google found that this type of environment, where the leader stays centered and listens to all points of view, is key to successful teams.

The most important strategy is to listen and seek understanding of others’ ideas — even if they are controversial. We all have biases and issues that are more sensitive to us. It is when we deal with these most difficult topics that the leader must stay agile, flexible, and open to input. Fairness will, over time, create a sense of psychological safety, where others see this particular leader as reasonable, data-driven, and open to input.

In this blog post, I’ve shared some of the research that supports agile leadership and described its three dimensions: strength, flexibility, and fairness. If you’d like to explore these topics in more detail and practice developing the skills of agile leadership, be sure to check out my Agile Leadership course.

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Why every company needs a strong CIO-CFO allegiance

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“Being each other’s best champion and best constructive critic is how we make our organization better,” Gina Mastantuono, CFO of SaaS company ServiceNow, said of her partnership with CIO Chris Bedi.

Among the many changes COVID-19 has brought to business, a few stick out to Gina Mastantuono, CFO of cloud computing company ServiceNow: the imperatives of technological agility and long-term investments in digital transformation. 

COVID-19 has ushered in a convergence of corporate finance and digital strategies, which is pushing companies to be more innovative, Mastantuono said. 

The last 12 months have elevated the CFO to chief transformation officer, Mastantuono said in December, adding the role of the CFO has been evolving for some time. “No longer are we the holders of the textbook only looking backwards,” she said. “Now, we’re the strategic advisor to the CEO. Covid is elevating that even further.”

“Being CFO is one of the hardest jobs because you need a conservative mindset, but if you’re too conservative, you’ll stymie growth and innovation,” Mastantuono said. “But you also need to take risks to continue investing, and transformation is an imperative now more than ever.”

With support from the CIO, the CFO is prized to lead digital transformation, regardless of the industry. Together, the two should be constantly asking, “Are the investments paying off? Are they giving the ROI that we anticipated? Are the outcomes what we expected?” 

To ensure agility in the face of events like the pandemic, and to emerge stronger than the competition once it’s over, CIOs and CFOs must maintain a strong and consistent partnership aimed at moving digital transformation projects across the finish line. 

Mastantuono and ServiceNow’s CIO since 2015, Chris Bedi, say their working relationship has been integral to the company’s success since Mastantuono joined. 

“I started in January 2020, and COVID hit in mid-March, when I was just 60 days into the role, and my team helped lead the charge to move people to remote work,” Mastantuono recalled. “We’ve increased headcount since then by 27%.”

Remote work is here to stay, Mastantuono predicts, and, as a result, she prioritizes the company’s ability to invest today to ensure “whatever happens in the future, from a risk mitigation standpoint, revenue is protected and employees are as productive as possible.” Enter CIO collaboration.

Why digitally transform now?

In 2020, as global GDP declined, investments in technology and digital transformation skyrocketed, Chris Bedi recalled; it was the first time he saw the two take off inverse-proportionally.

“Companies used to drill into the CIO that they needed to learn more about business,” Bedi told CFO Dive in an interview last week. “The roles are now reversing: the rest of the C-suite needs to up their tech game, and the CIO needs to help.”

Amid the pandemic, the CIO role is more relevant than ever, Mastantuono said. “They’re not just the tech leader, but a business leader; there’s no company today that’s not powered by the CIO.”

Bedi is spending most of his time powering ServiceNow’s business strategy through a tech lens, Mastantuono said. As such, the CIO-CFO relationship is especially critical. 

Bedi and Mastantuono prioritize their working relationship, and ensure that neither one ever presents an idea or sees a project through alone.

“If the CIO is pushing for tech transformation alone, he’s fighting with one hand behind his back,” Mastantuono said. “Partnering with the CFO makes it much easier to hold teams accountable; that’s the CFO’s main job.”

Bedi and Mastantuono’s trust in one another is their “secret sauce,” she said, and it’s how they’re able to work so efficiently together. “It doesn’t come automatically.” 

They don’t speak every day, and they don’t always agree; both are comfortable with that, because their shared end game, ROI, is the same.

Modeling a working relationship built on healthy debate has trickled down throughout the company ranks, the two added. 

“We do all-hands meetings with our teams, and they realized it was okay for them to debate one another, because [Bedi] and I do,” Mastantuono said. “Being each other’s best champion and best constructive critic is how we make our organization better.”

Trust and transparency

An important aspect of that trust is allowing Bedi the space to work on a product that may not be lucrative for several months. 

“Sometimes new tech needs four or five months to incubate,” Mastantuono said. “Because we’re aligned from a time and investments standpoint, we’re comfortable not knowing the outcome. Having that space to experiment requires trust.”

With trust comes transparency, in what the company will be able to afford, and what the teams will be able to achieve.

“Let’s be intellectually honest about what it’ll really take to achieve things,” Bedi says to Mastantuono when pondering a new tech investment. “Are we really ready for it? Can we really see this through? That’s where there’s push and pull. Sometimes I’m arguing one side and Gina’s arguing the other, and we flip flop. That healthy, transparent debate is critical.”

Bedi summarizes the CIO-CFO partnership in bringing a new tech transformation to life as “going from the PowerPoint version of an idea to the Excel version: it’s got to be about numbers.” 

The two also mention that, often with tech projects, it’s not just a question of funding and dollars, but also whether the organization itself is ready.

“With everything else on people’s plates, are we doing too much too quickly?” they ask, and insist on honesty. 

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Top 10 Digital Transformation Trends For 2021

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No one could have predicted where 2020 would take us: The last six months alone have produced more digital transformation than the last decade, with every transformation effort already underway finding itself accelerated, and at scale. While many of my digital transformation predictions from a year ago benefited from this shift, others were displaced by more urgent needs, like 24/7 secure and reliable connectivity. What does this mean for 2021? Will core technologies like AI and data analytics still dominate headlines, or will we see newer, previously emerging technologies take the lead? Only time will tell, but here are my top ten digital transformation predictions for 2021.

5G Will Finally Go Mainstream – For Real This Time!

We have been hearing about the benefits of 5G for years now, but it wasn’t until remote work, videoconferencing and digital collaboration became core parts of our lives this year that the need for reliable connectivity and more bandwidth became a real, concrete benefit that we could all wrap our heads around. Our reliance on phones, tablets, and other devices – including an ever growing number of IoT sensors – highlights the need for the multi-lane superhighway that telecommunications companies already knew we would need. Today, businesses cannot afford to be disconnected, and 5G deployments have become a vital part of the solution. As we collectively continue to work and manage school from our homes, the value of 5G will become increasingly mainstream in 2021. 

Though initially the pandemic interrupted work on new 5G network deployments earlier this year, these efforts have resumed, and large markets like China are already on target to meet their deployment goals for 2020. Meanwhile, every major handset manufacturer in the world – from Samsung and Apple to Xiaomi and Motorola – is already (or soon to be) releasing 5G phones in virtually every price-point tier, with Qualcomm — arguably the leader in 5G technology — helping make 5G affordable to as many smartphone users as possible next year. 

CDP Explosion

We have already seen an explosion of Customer Data Platforms (CDP) in the last few months — and with good reason. Fragmented data from multiple sources can be notoriously difficult to organize, which obviously isn’t ideal for companies that rely on timely, well-curated data to operate optimally. IBM estimates that co-called “bad data” already costs U.S. businesses roughly $3 trillion annually, so addressing this challenge has become a priority for organizations of all sizes. CDPs help solve this problem by collecting data from all available sources, organizing it, tagging it, and making it usable for anyone who needs access to it. Companies like Adobe, SAP, Oracle, Treasure Data and Microsoft are already heavily invested in providing the market with powerful new CDPs. I’ve also watched new entrants like Segment and ActionIQ impress with new CDP services taking unique approaches to solve the challenge of gaining the coveted 360 customer view.

Over the past few years, I have focused a lot on the proliferation of analytics and big data. Let’s be clear, that isn’t stopping. Data is growing exponentially and that won’t stop anytime soon. Analytics platforms, Data Warehouses and Visualization tools, from Cloudera to Snowflake to SAS won’t lose relevancy, but the rise of the customer data platform is going to catch fire in 2021; and now that business operations have become somewhat more fragmented, in part because of new work-from-home operational models, but also because of the continuing acceleration of data collection across an ever-expanding ecosystem of touchpoints, CDPs will become especially relevant in 2021.  

Hybrid Cloud Declared the Winning Enterprise Architecture

We have known for a while that businesses are increasingly moving toward a hybrid cloud infrastructure. From SaaS applications and on-prem solutions to a mix of public and private clouds, hybrid cloud strategies help organizations strike the right balance for their unique cloud infrastructure needs. Over the past year, we have seen major investments in hybrid from large public cloud providers like AWS, Azure, Google, IBM and Oracle. We are also seeing OEMs like HPE, Dell (VMware) and Cisco increasing investment in building tools that enable simpler connectivity between on-premises datacenters and cloud. These investments are all about meeting the customer where they are at the moment. Addressing the challenges of exponential data growth, while also being proactive on issues like privacy, security and compliance. The modernized approach to hybrid cloud is expanding from traditional IT to support industrial applications as well. For instance, Honeywell, has built its Forge IoT platform using an open source and hybrid cloud approach so the industrial data it manages can more seamlessly integrate with traditional cloud datacenters, applications and workloads.

Hybrid cloud would have been on my list for 2021 even without the pandemic, but if nothing else, the widespread, sudden disruptions caused by the coronavirus have highlighted the value of having as agile and adaptable a cloud infrastructure as you can—especially as we are seeing companies around the world expedite investments in cloud to enable faster change in moments of uncertainty and disruption like we faced in 2020.

Cybersecurity Gets a Jolt

Despite never losing their importance philosophically, cybersecurity had fallen off my list of critical tech trends last year, but with the pandemic, cybersecurity has become very relevant again. Hackers have exploited the coronavirus pandemic to expand their campaigns of attacks against businesses worldwide. A 238% rise in attacks on banks, and a 600% increase in attacks on cloud servers was observed from January to April 2020 alone. With fewer employees working onsite on the same secure network, it is imperative that companies shore up their networks and upgrade their cybersecurity strategies, and expand them to home networks and mobile work-from-home devices.

I believe that AI and Machine Learning will be important for this trend as we will see the continued increase in attempted nefarious activities require more sophisticated tools and algorithms to fish out. This will prove to be a big opportunity for the likes of Fortinet and Cisco in areas like firewalls and intrusion detection as well as companies like Splunk and IBM for security identify and event management (SIEM). Microsoft, is another company that has poured resources into security in areas like active directory, software and cloud. There are many companies playing in this space, but I expect software, cloud and hardware makers to all be amplifying efforts to make their products and services more secure to deal with certain growth in threats that we have seen throughout 2020.

Privacy and Confidential Computing Gains Momentum

Another approach to shoring up cybersecurity, particularly when addressing communications and data privacy, is confidential computing. The idea of confidential computing is to encrypt the entire computing process, not just the data, creating additional layers of security around sensitive information. Google, Microsoft, IBM, Alibaba, and VMware are helping develop new protocols and best practices by way of the Confidential Computing Consortium. The tech is still in a state of relative infancy, but we should begin to see confidential computing slide into the mainstream in 2021.

Headless Tech Disrupts Industries, Reshapes Commerce

It sounds scary, but all “headless tech” means is that businesses are now able to separate their front-end presentation layer from their back-end data functionality to create custom shopping experiences. This can be as simple as telling your Amazon Alexa to replenish your favorite coffee or being able to make instant purchases off of social media. So, why is that so important? In short, people are doing a lot more of this type of commerce. Research shows that 86% of businesses say their customer acquisition costs have increased in the last 24 months. This means two things: The first is that organizations need to maximize the ROI of their net new customer acquisition costs. The second is that it is more important than ever to also focus on customer development and retention. By moving beyond the omnichannel experience to connect everything from warehouses to storefronts to online services, companies 2021 could become more efficient, more streamlined, and possibly get a leg up on competitors if they adopt it a little faster than they do.

Work from Home Outlasts COVID-19

Workers have been clamoring for increased work flexibility for a long time, and a company deciding to allow remote work at scale was usually radical enough to warrant a headline or two. This year that all went out the window when working from home suddenly the only viable option for many companies, especially in areas with strict coronavirus lockdowns. Even as economies slowly reopen and employees are finally allowed to return to work, companies will continue to be tasked with protecting employees from possible outbreak resurgences. Many big tech companies like Google and Facebook have extended already their work from home policies through or for parts of 2021. Even smaller companies are keeping this newfound flexibility as an operational option.

Part of what made this possible has been the rapid deployment and development of smart work from home technologies. Sure, we have heard a lot about Zoom, Webex and Microsoft Teams. Those platforms, and others in the category (8×8, RingCentral, Pexip, Poly), have seen explosive growth in use and development to make them both easier and more secure. However, we have seen significant growth in the deployment of WFH devices, which has led to growing PC sales as well as investment in new secure connectivity like SD-WAN at scale to offer improved connectivity to the office as well as flexibility that VPN isn’t as well suited for. Now that companies have better equipped employees with tools and technology to be more productive despite physical distance, we will see remnants of this for the next few years at least, and maybe beyond as this trend already had momentum pre-2020.

Another unintended consequence of this will be population migration. As more people work from home and are enabled to do so on a continuous basis, we will likely see migration from larger cities to more cost of living friendly locales. This migration will drive greater investment in connectivity in suburban and rural areas, which will enable even greater productivity in these less densely populated communities.

The coronavirus pandemic caught most companies off-guard, but it also proved that work can still happen effectively with remote employees, and sometimes can result in improvements in productivity and lower operational costs. This is why I suspect that 2021 will not see companies rushing to return to pre-COVID onsite work models.

AI Democratized at Scale

The coronavirus pandemic triggered an acceleration in the democratization of AI and data. Virtually overnight, companies, governments, and other agencies found themselves needing to work together to create a faster solution to stop the spread of the virus. Data, AI, and machine learning were the tools that they naturally turned to. The work that was begun in 2020 will continue into 2021, and will likely expand to a breadth of pressing opportunities that these types of groups are now uniquely equipped to tackle, like solving global and market problems faster, better, and at scale. 

While many feel that AI is something of a “Future” trend. It is very much a part of our every day lives. Impacting what we see on social media to movies recommended on Netflix or products that are suggested when we are shopping on Amazon. As computing power continues to be more affordable and the cloud enables access to this computing power as well as software and frameworks, more and more companies will be able to benefit from AI. With major chipmakers like NVIDIA, Arm (Likely to be part of NVIDIA soon), Intel, Qualcomm, and AMD continuing to innovate on semiconductors that power AI and then deploying their CPUs, GPUs, FPGAs and ASICs (Forms of chips) to the cloud, companies can either gain access to this hardware and software directly or through third party applications that further simplify and democratize AI.

The proliferation of AI will impact our lives from how we shop, to what we eat, how we hire and what we do for entertainment. It will be powered by masses of data that use powerful computing capabilities. AI will continue to require monitoring to make sure we use it for positive purposes and this will be a joint effort of government and industry, but no doubt its use continues to grow rapidly and we will see this scale even faster now that resources are becoming less expensive and more available to businesses around the globe.

Device Form Factors Become Interesting Again

Remember the flip phone? It is making a comeback. With a new focus on being always connected, customers want devices that are lighter, smaller, more connected than before, but also versatile. Instead of carrying several devices, users are increasingly interested in hybrid devices like the Microsoft Surface Duo and the Samsung Galaxy Fold 2 that can double as phones or as tablets, and can fold and unfold depending on their needs. 2021 will see the return of folding smart phones, only these will be able to provide the same high quality and connectivity as non-folding phones. Aside from fitting more snugly in a pocket, the idea is also to allow phone form factors to unfold into small tablets when a user needs a bigger screen, then fold back into a smaller form factor for storage or basic phone use. Devices like the Galaxy Fold 2 are taking off, for instance, now that companies have made folding screens tougher and more reliable. Will this change all of our devices? Definitely not, but 2021 should see a lot more folding and unfolding devices challenging the flat screen status quo.

Aside from folding and multi-screen devices, we are also going to see the always connected PC (ACPC – one of my big 2020 trends) gain more momentum. These lightweight, powerful notebooks are equipped with full connectivity via 5G and/or LTE. Powered by Windows on ARM or Intel certified Project Athena CPUs that incorporate modem connectivity, users are able to connect on their laptops the same way we do on our cell phones. This gives the remote and work from home another reliable means to connectivity. This started gaining momentum last year, but I still believe pervasive 5G is key to seeing this trend take off. Notebook manufacturers that embrace this trend, like Lenovo, HP, Dell and Samsung will all benefit as always connected notebooks continue to grow in adoption.

Quantum Moves to Mainstream

Quantum computing may not be on your radar yet, but we have seen unprecedented growth in this field, in great part thanks to IBM and Honeywell, among others. Partnerships like Splunk and Quantum Computing IncHoneywell and Microsoft, and AWS and IonQ are also spurring continuous growth in the field. Quantum computing has been at the forefront of pandemic efforts to manage the spread of the disease, as well as the development of therapeutics and possible vaccines. We will likely see more use cases in other industries as people realize the power that quantum computing has to offer: the ability to easily query, monitor, analyze, and act on data at scale, from any source at any time.

Independent of traditional computing, Quantum still has some ways to go before becoming widely adopted, but the partnerships I mentioned above are bringing Quantum Computing and traditional computing closer together so applications can be run in familiar computing environments. I’ve seen this demonstrated by Zapata Computing using the Honeywell Quantum machine. It is powerful and exciting to see this trend gain momentum.

The Coronavirus epidemic has changed both the trajectory and the velocity of digital transformation, and will likely continue to do so into 2021. The trend lines and new priorities facing organizations of all sizes that we observed in 2020 will inform the focus, decisions, and technology investments that drive the list of digital transformation strategies that will define 2021, and hopefully the recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic.

So what did I miss? Should blockchain or autonomous vehicles be listed ahead of some of these trends? What else will drive the discussion in 2021? A big year ahead, hopefully one with better health and stability, but either way it is coming fast and digital transformation will continue to be the focus of organizations around the globe.

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Successful Change Management Starts with People

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No matter which framework companies choose to execute, the key factor to its success is who is in charge of the change management. Keith Kitani, CEO of GuideSpark, shares a guide for what you need internally during change management and specifically who needs to be in charge.

Companies in all industries are going through a tremendous amount of both business and strategic change. These changes are driven by factors such as digital transformation, digital-centric competition, M&A, the gig economy, and a more diverse and dispersed workforce than ever. 71% of communication leaders say that the pace of change has accelerated in the past three years. This pace has caused more than 80% of employees who are undergoing an organizational change in their workplace to experience cultural tensions and competing priorities. Without the proper approach and implementation of these change initiatives, companies are at risk of losing more than just money, but their talent, too.

The critical factor to a company’s change management success revolves around people: leadership in charge of the changes, and the employees who must embrace it. That’s why an organization’s HR leadership is a critical piece to the puzzle.

For example, many companies undergoing significant digital transformation are implementing new systems, such as a new HRIS. While considerable time and resources are spent on the systems and processes that come with a new HRIS, the need for behavioral change to drive adoption is a significant problem—communicating the “why, when and how” to employees is critical for driving successful change, adoption and ongoing use of the new system.

To achieve change management success, you need to have the right communication plan in place to drive change effectively. Poor communication can derail the most well-planned, well-intentioned change programs. HR teams play a huge role in paving the way for lasting success by ensuring employees embrace change. Here are a few things to remember when implementing a communication strategy.

1. Articulate the “why.”

Change initiatives generally align with business objectives, so make sure those goals are clear to employees. Be transparent about the reasons behind change management plans and activities so employees better understand the company’s direction and why business changes are happening in the first place. Reinforce the messaging with your frontline managers, who are closest to their employees, and who will show that all levels of management are united behind the change.

2. Take an employee-centric view

Consider how your employees will be affected. How are employees benefiting from it? Framing and communicating the difference in a more personal way will give employees a sense of empowerment, and they’re more likely to be invested in change initiatives when they know how it will affect them personally. Remember that one size does not fit all, so to inspire change, communications should be customized to each employee.

3. The difference is a journey, not a one-and-done

Every employee has unique qualities and needs. They might be at varying stages in their career, work in separate offices, or operate differently based on their department and job functions. During ongoing change, it’s essential for your organization to meet employees where they are in their journeys, using the right communication channels (emails, text messages, portals, posters, town halls), tailored messaging and the right media (video, podcasts, infographics, documents) to reach them.

4. Measure, adjust and reinforce

After deploying your change management program and supporting materials, find out what employees are thinking and feeling about the change through surveys, feedback, and engagement tools. Learn if they’re engaging with the information by using analytics and other quantitative measures. Measuring qualitatively for sentiment with your audience is equally as important as measuring quantitatively for a program’s effectiveness. If employees are consuming the content but not understanding it, adjust your strategy, channels, and messaging based on this feedback — and continue to do so as needed throughout the process.

Change is the new norm, and the companies that will come out on top must be agile and able to shift and adapt quickly. A change-ready organization is one with aligned leadership and an effective change communications strategy. Be sure your company has a well-designed communications strategy to support the most critical change agents — your people.

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The CIO’s next key role: Change agent

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For today’s IT leaders, change management is more than technical. It’s about spearheading cultural transformation at every level of the business.

February 26, 2020, looms large for Carol Juel for a number of reasons. It was her twins’ seventh birthday, and the executive vice president and CIO of Synchrony was scrambling to get home to join the festivities. The day also took on new contours as a routine meeting exploring AWS Workspace technology subsequently laid the groundwork for the firm’s near-real-time transition to remote work as COVID-19 took hold as a global pandemic.

Synchrony sent its 4,000 knowledge workers home on March 13 and followed up with a plan that set up 12,000 call center employees with remote operations a scant two weeks later. Shortly thereafter, Juel and the executive leadership team formally launched an enterprise transformation effort to embrace the very agile business practices that got the remote work effort up and running so quickly. Their goal: to favorably position Synchrony to quickly adapt as it stared down a future of continuously changing scenarios and uncertain markets.

“It was a logistics and communications exercise, but also a leadership exercise,” she says. “It’s not just about technology; it’s about an agile mindset and the cultural changes that allow for digital transformation. The role of the CIO is to connect those dots and help the organization move and adapt quickly.”

As Juel’s experience shows, digital transformation has catapulted CIOs into the epicenter of organizational change, not just as a cheerleader for technology, but as a key change agent for promoting the cultural shifts necessary for successful transformation. According to’s 2020 State of the CIO research, CIOs are spending more time on transformational responsibilities (89%) and business strategist work (67%), including leading change efforts (34%).

While playing a hand in organizational and cultural change isn’t exactly new to the CIO role, it’s newly important as the pace of digital efforts steps up and the pandemic forces massive shifts in day-to-day business operations, the future of work, and how companies engage with customers and business partners.

“The role of the CIO is to move the organization from thinking about building digital strategies to building a strategy that works for a digital world,” says Randy Gaboriault, CIO and senior vice president for innovation and strategic development at Christiana Care Health System. “CIOs don’t just implement technology; they implement organizational change through applications or technologies. What you’re trying to do when putting in a new ERP system or electronic health record is asking people to change their behavior.”

Partnering with the business

CIOs have typically dabbled on the edges of change management, focused mainly on promoting the technology piece but leaving the organizational and cultural issues to others in leadership positions. Now that the CIO role is all in, CIOs are building out a toolkit of sorts, which includes embracing agile business practices and launching training initiatives and communications campaigns, all while burnishing their own ability to take on new challenges related to leading organizational and cultural transformation.

As roles shift, Darren Ash, assistant CIO for the USDA Farm Production and Conservation Mission Area, says it’s critical for CIOs to act as an enabler and a partner with the business—not just to identify and deploy technologies to solve business problems, but to get everyone on board with new ways of working. Ash and his IT team do that through direct and sustained outreach to frontline workers in the various mission areas that comprise the USDA agency, including soliciting feedback from agency personnel and final customers to promote transformation. These efforts are designed to increase the stickiness of any digital initiative and to ensure everyone is onboard with the art of the possible when it comes to new implementations.

“It’s our responsibility to better educate the business on technology and how it can be used,” Ash explains. “For us to drive change, we have to be better partners with the business, specifically the frontline employees across the mission areas and not just IT employees.”

Ash and his CIO agency peers also make a point to have their teams capture the voice of the customer—in this case, farmers and ranchers dependent on agency services—to gauge what works or what can be done better and to foster organic support. “We talk to them about something as simple as workflow or how many clicks are too many or are we asking the right questions,” he says.

Ash and his team recently deployed their change management playbook to help employees and agency clients embrace a new electronic signature application and secure document sharing software designed to address the challenges of in-person transactions during the COVID-19 shutdowns. Through training and how-to guides, Ash’s IT group worked with business partners to make sure everyone knew how to use the technology and was comfortable with the changes. “Rolling out technology like this is not IT-centric—it has to be done in partnership with the agencies to appropriately communicate how it should be used,” he explains.

The vitality of training

Robust training and e-learning initiatives are a central pillar of Avery Dennison’s cultural change strategy in support of its digital business initiatives, whether they are targeted at improving employee, customer, factory, or product experiences.

As part of its Digital Innovation Center of Excellence (DICE), the training aims to nurture digital dexterity across the workforce with an emphasis on design thinking, agile methodology, DevOps, and digital technologies. The multifaceted program leans on a combination of webcasts, instructor-led training, e-learning, and targeted communication to get Avery Dennison employees up to speed and comfortable with the ongoing changes as the business becomes more digital, according to Nicholas Colisto, vice president and CIO for the global manufacturer of labeling and functional technologies. “It’s a push to educate the masses on what different technologies and practices exist,” Colisto says.

In addition to the learning initiatives, Avery Dennison offers a six-month Digital Leadership Acceleration Program to 20 non-IT leaders, providing them with in-depth technology and leadership training and setting them up as digital business champions.

Proof of concept work at DICE is the third component for promoting a digital culture. “If we left it to the masses, you wouldn’t get a lot of traction with [new digital initiatives],” he explains. “Everyone has a day job working on ERP or CRM, so time is limited to experiment with emerging technologies.”

Brushing up on leadership skills

CIOs themselves need to take the time to learn a host of new skills, most significantly in the area of communications, in order to effectively lead the cultural change that goes hand in glove with digital transformation, according to Noreen Duffy, CEO and founder of Red Bridge Consulting, an organizational change management consulting firm.

Not only not only do CIOs need to speak the language of business, they also need to be able to communicate effectively in the language of C-level executives, with the board and with the development team, which is increasingly leaning on agile, not waterfall, methodologies.

“The CIO needs to have a different mindset to be a partner, to be change resilient, and to be able to communicate that up and down several levels of an organization,” Duffy says. “CIOs need to be multilingual—they need to be able to effectively communicate with their team with an understanding of what agile looks like, then up and out to business partners in their language and to VPs and the board in their language.”

Mihai Strusievici, vice president of technology, global, at real estate giant Colliers International, went back to get his MBA in preparation for leading the change that comes with digital transformation. He views his role as an educator—not in explaining the various technologies, but in clarifying, in terms the business understands, how the new digital capabilities can empower the business.

While Strusievici has made progress leveraging business-speak to forge alliances with key colleagues like the CFO as well as deep within the business ranks, he believes it’s crucial to think of cultural shifts as a marathon, not a sprint.

“We are enjoying a moment because of the [COVID] crisis and because everyone understands that technology is carrying them forward,” he explains. “While the last five months have changed the culture, it’s still too early [to consider the work done].”  

COVID-19 accelerates change

At Synchrony, agile business practices are part of a longer term cultural shift, but the do-or-die effort back in March kicked everything into high gear, Juel says. Once knowledge workers were up and running successfully at home, the management team prioritized creating a healthy, safe environment for all contact center employees, launching the #GetOurRepsHome campaign, creating a 24/7 command center to work through all of the logistics and hosting twice-daily standup meetings between C-suite executives to get the effort over the finish line.

After the rollout in mid-April and a couple of months to stabilize, the management team realized agile business practices would be crucial going forward. Handpicked leaders were tasked with being champions to help drive the change efforts along with executive team sponsors, and there was regular communication to acclimate employees to agile business practices such as continuous improvement or the dos and don’ts of a standup meeting.

“We want to continue to be adaptable and nimble, and we realized we had to make this cultural transformation a priority for the company,” Juel says. “The company is ripe for transformation because we are all hyperconnected but physically isolated, and because of that, we have a real opportunity to change how we operate.”

With all the COVID-induced changes over the past six months—closing retail shops and manufacturing lines and transitioning to remote work—David Behen, vice president and CIO at La-Z-Boy, also sees an upside to the pandemic. He says the efforts to get employees working safely at home and ensuring business continuity helped establish a foundation of trust between employees and management and IT and the business, which aids in cultural transformation.

“We sent people tutorials and emails walking them through all the new tools and processes, and they embraced it,” he says. “We spent the last five years telling them technology was an enabler that would make their jobs easier, then this happened. Once the rug was pulled out from under their feet, they realized this is real.”

Even with the stepped-up focus on organizational change and the goodwill that COVID-19 has engendered in getting people to pull together, it remains difficult to change culture. Applying a one-size-fits-all approach or directing change through top-down mandates will not move the needle, cautions Sharon Kennedy Vickers, CIO in the Office of Technology and Communications for the city of St. Paul. Inertia is a formidable force, which is why transparency and soliciting buy-in at every level of the organization is so critical to successful change management, she adds.

“In any type of change, sometimes the headwind is this is the way we’ve always done it,” adds USDA’s Ash. “Mandating change doesn’t work without explanation, without understanding or without the opportunity to listen to concerns. The better we are at explaining and listening and, in some cases, adjusting, the better off we’ll be.”

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Survive and thrive in the post-pandemic period digital transformation

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The ongoing pandemic has brought us one of the biggest crises we have ever faced in terms of health and safety, employment and the overall economy.

This is an unprecedented situation and to win this battle, our leaders in both public and private sectors need to think differently, go beyond the traditional means, and bring about digital transformation in both public and private organisations to survive and thrive in the aftermath of coronavirus.

But what is digital transformation? Digital transformation is about applying technologies to drastically change traditional processes, products and services into data-driven, highly connected solutions that can be monetised through extreme efficiency gains and new business models.

The pandemic has shown us that a business cannot wait for the transformation it knows it needs.

In a recent survey conducted by Forbes among the Fortune 500 companies, 75 per cent of their chief executive officers mentioned that this crisis will accelerate the pace of technological transformation in their companies and across industries.

We are already seeing a growing number of organisations investing in technologies — from business intelligence and demand forecast to marketing, customer support, supply chain and back office transformation.

However, there is a caveat to optimise the return on investment of IT spending by the companies. Many IT departments work reactively.

They are executing ad hoc projects with short-term goals rather than proactively steering the strategic use of technologies within the company.

Now that enterprises are dealing with more IT initiatives than ever, such a reactive approach is at best ineffective and at worst detrimental to growth.

Instead, there should be a comprehensive digital transformation strategy to guide different projects, providing a holistic and long-term vision to the organisation’s technological needs.

The transformation theme for the next era will be focused on six key areas of business: (i) understanding customers — how we design and sell products; (ii) supply chain automation — how supply chain networks become part of the digital ecosystem; (iii) operational efficiency — how we improve operations and leverage new technology options; (iv) modern workforce — how we re-energise and manage our people remotely; (v) accelerating digital investments — how we prioritise and implement digital initiatives; and (vi) business model evolution — how to leverage digitally modified business.

We have seen that as soon as physical distancing and home quarantine were enforced around the globe, companies that were already utilising digital means of running operations or quickly adopted solutions like remote work tools stayed productive amid this pandemic.

On the other hand, companies without technological adoption struggled the most.

We are lucky to be living in the “Industry 4.0” era.

With the integration of tools, re-engineered processes, and emerging technologies such as internet of things, machine learning, artificial intelligence, cloud technologies etc., most of the businesses across industries can automate as much as 90 per cent of their workflows.

Short-sighted executives will still look for ways to cut down IT costs believing that it will help them survive.

However, it is the traditional way of thinking, and our traditional way of running a business has already failed us.

The giant mammoths could not survive the ice age with all their might by not adapting to climate change, but those who evolved did.

The evolution for our enterprises in the upcoming days translates to digital transformation and the visionary long-sighted leaders like the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have already understood the importance of allocating their limited resources to invest in IT solutions and automation.

The very first step towards achieving that evolution is to prepare a digital transformation roadmap for the organisation.

So, what is a digital transformation roadmap?

A digital transformation roadmap is a long-term, detailed set of documents that encompass the company’s vision and strategic planning for technological transformation.

It will provide a unifying approach to implement tools and technologies across the company which will increase efficiency, reduce duplication of work, enhance collaboration, and in turn, will minimise errors and operational costs to a great extent.

Moreover, it will ensure that the business remains operational during the pandemic and prolonged lockdowns.

A well-designed digital transformation strategy should have some essential elements such as alignment with business objectives, mission and vision; defining IT requirements and scope; auditing current capabilities and infrastructure; defining overall architecture; mapping business processes within the IT architecture; defining objectives and key results; validating budget and identification of the right resources.

Our company eGeneration with our world-class productivity solutions and deep expertise in emerging technologies is proud to help many leading global and local organisations formulate their digital transformation strategies to thrive in the next era.

To ensure success in that digital-first world, we have to create a shared transformative vision of digital future, engage employees at scale to make the vision a reality, establish strong digital governance to steer the course, and fuse IT and business to build digital skills and transform technology platforms.

When the Industry 4.0 revolution started, it allowed us to embrace technologies in our workflows.

Some of us took that opportunity but many of us waited.

This pandemic has come with a new reality that will not allow us to wait any longer.

Companies that will embrace the new normal with digital transformation will choose the road to prosperity post-pandemic and beyond.

However, the companies that will not integrate technology in their business functions, who are still hostile to technology, are going to have a very hard time doing business in near future because the technological transformation across the industries will be massive and mind-boggling.

Now is the time to think bravely, plan boldly and act wisely.

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The Hard Side of Change Management

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When French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” he could have been penning an epigram about change management. For over three decades, academics, managers, and consultants, realizing that transforming organizations is difficult, have dissected the subject. They’ve sung the praises of leaders who communicate vision and walk the talk in order to make change efforts succeed. They’ve sanctified the importance of changing organizational culture and employees’ attitudes. They’ve teased out the tensions between top-down transformation efforts and participatory approaches to change. And they’ve exhorted companies to launch campaigns that appeal to people’s hearts and minds. Still, studies show that in most organizations, two out of three transformation initiatives fail. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Managing change is tough, but part of the problem is that there is little agreement on what factors most influence transformation initiatives. Ask five executives to name the one factor critical for the success of these programs, and you’ll probably get five different answers. That’s because each manager looks at an initiative from his or her viewpoint and, based on personal experience, focuses on different success factors. The experts, too, offer different perspectives. A recent search on for books on “change and management” turned up 6,153 titles, each with a distinct take on the topic. Those ideas have a lot to offer, but taken together, they force companies to tackle many priorities simultaneously, which spreads resources and skills thin. Moreover, executives use different approaches in different parts of the organization, which compounds the turmoil that usually accompanies change.

In recent years, many change management gurus have focused on soft issues, such as culture, leadership, and motivation. Such elements are important for success, but managing these aspects alone isn’t sufficient to implement transformation projects. Soft factors don’t directly influence the outcomes of many change programs. For instance, visionary leadership is often vital for transformation projects, but not always. The same can be said about communication with employees. Moreover, it isn’t easy to change attitudes or relationships; they’re deeply ingrained in organizations and people. And although changes in, say, culture or motivation levels can be indirectly gauged through surveys and interviews, it’s tough to get reliable data on soft factors.

What’s missing, we believe, is a focus on the not-so-fashionable aspects of change management: the hard factors. These factors bear three distinct characteristics. First, companies are able to measure them in direct or indirect ways. Second, companies can easily communicate their importance, both within and outside organizations. Third, and perhaps most important, businesses are capable of influencing those elements quickly. Some of the hard factors that affect a transformation initiative are the time necessary to complete it, the number of people required to execute it, and the financial results that intended actions are expected to achieve. Our research shows that change projects fail to get off the ground when companies neglect the hard factors. That doesn’t mean that executives can ignore the soft elements; that would be a grave mistake. However, if companies don’t pay attention to the hard issues first, transformation programs will break down before the soft elements come into play.

That’s a lesson we learned when we identified the common denominators of change. In 1992, we started with the contrarian hypothesis that organizations handle transformations in remarkably similar ways. We researched projects in a number of industries and countries to identify those common elements. Our initial 225-company study revealed a consistent correlation between the outcomes (success or failure) of change programs and four hard factors: project duration, particularly the time between project reviews; performance integrity, or the capabilities of project teams; the commitment of both senior executives and the staff whom the change will affect the most; and the additional effort that employees must make to cope with the change. We called these variables the DICE factors because we could load them in favor of projects’ success.

We completed our study in 1994, and in the 11 years since then, the Boston Consulting Group has used those four factors to predict the outcomes, and guide the execution, of more than 1,000 change management initiatives worldwide. Not only has the correlation held, but no other factors (or combination of factors) have predicted outcomes as well.

The Four Key Factors

If you think about it, the different ways in which organizations combine the four factors create a continuum—from projects that are set up to succeed to those that are set up to fail. At one extreme, a short project led by a skilled, motivated, and cohesive team, championed by top management and implemented in a department that is receptive to the change and has to put in very little additional effort, is bound to succeed. At the other extreme, a long, drawn-out project executed by an inexpert, unenthusiastic, and disjointed team, without any top-level sponsors and targeted at a function that dislikes the change and has to do a lot of extra work, will fail. Businesses can easily identify change programs at either end of the spectrum, but most initiatives occupy the middle ground where the likelihood of success or failure is difficult to assess. Executives must study the four DICE factors carefully to figure out if their change programs will fly—or die.


Companies make the mistake of worrying mostly about the time it will take to implement change programs. They assume that the longer an initiative carries on, the more likely it is to fail—the early impetus will peter out, windows of opportunity will close, objectives will be forgotten, key supporters will leave or lose their enthusiasm, and problems will accumulate. However, contrary to popular perception, our studies show that a long project that is reviewed frequently is more likely to succeed than a short project that isn’t reviewed frequently. Thus, the time between reviews is more critical for success than a project’s life span.

Companies should formally review transformation projects at least bimonthly since, in our experience, the probability that change initiatives will run into trouble rises exponentially when the time between reviews exceeds eight weeks. Whether reviews should be scheduled even more frequently depends on how long executives feel the project can carry on without going off track. Complex projects should be reviewed fortnightly; more familiar or straightforward initiatives can be assessed every six to eight weeks.

Scheduling milestones and assessing their impact are the best way by which executives can review the execution of projects, identify gaps, and spot new risks. The most effective milestones are those that describe major actions or achievements rather than day-to-day activities. They must enable senior executives and project sponsors to confirm that the project has made progress since the last review took place. Good milestones encompass a number of tasks that teams must complete. For example, describing a particular milestone as “Consultations with Stakeholders Completed” is more effective than “Consult Stakeholders” because it represents an achievement and shows that the project has made headway. Moreover, it suggests that several activities were completed—identifying stakeholders, assessing their needs, and talking to them about the project. When a milestone looks as though it won’t be reached on time, the project team must try to understand why, take corrective actions, and learn from the experience to prevent problems from recurring.

Review of such a milestone—what we refer to as a “learning milestone”—isn’t an impromptu assessment of the Monday-morning kind. It should be a formal occasion during which senior-management sponsors and the project team evaluate the latter’s performance on all the dimensions that have a bearing on success and failure. The team must provide a concise report of its progress, and members and sponsors must check if the team is on track to complete, or has finished all the tasks to deliver, the milestone. They should also determine whether achieving the milestone has had the desired effect on the company; discuss the problems the team faced in reaching the milestone; and determine how that accomplishment will affect the next phase of the project. Sponsors and team members must have the power to address weaknesses. When necessary, they should alter processes, agree to push for more or different resources, or suggest a new direction. At these meetings, senior executives must pay special attention to the dynamics within teams, changes in the organization’s perceptions about the initiative, and communications from the top.


By performance integrity, we mean the extent to which companies can rely on teams of managers, supervisors, and staff to execute change projects successfully. In a perfect world, every team would be flawless, but no business has enough great people to ensure that. Besides, senior executives are often reluctant to allow star performers to join change efforts because regular work can suffer. But since the success of change programs depends on the quality of teams, companies must free up the best staff while making sure that day-to-day operations don’t falter. In companies that have succeeded in implementing change programs, we find that employees go the extra mile to ensure their day-to-day work gets done.

Since project teams handle a wide range of activities, resources, pressures, external stimuli, and unforeseen obstacles, they must be cohesive and well led. It’s not enough for senior executives to ask people at the watercooler if a project team is doing well; they must clarify members’ roles, commitments, and accountability. They must choose the team leader and, most important, work out the team’s composition.

Smart executive sponsors, we find, are very inclusive when picking teams. They identify talent by soliciting names from key colleagues, including human resource managers; by circulating criteria they have drawn up; and by looking for top performers in all functions. While they accept volunteers, they take care not to choose only supporters of the change initiative. Senior executives personally interview people so that they can construct the right portfolio of skills, knowledge, and social networks. They also decide if potential team members should commit all their time to the project; if not, they must ask them to allocate specific days or times of the day to the initiative. Top management makes public the parameters on which it will judge the team’s performance and how that evaluation fits into the company’s regular appraisal process. Once the project gets under way, sponsors must measure the cohesion of teams by administering confidential surveys to solicit members’ opinions.

Executives often make the mistake of assuming that because someone is a good, well-liked manager, he or she will also make a decent team leader. That sounds reasonable, but effective managers of the status quo aren’t necessarily good at changing organizations. Usually, good team leaders have problem-solving skills, are results oriented, are methodical in their approach but tolerate ambiguity, are organizationally savvy, are willing to accept responsibility for decisions, and while being highly motivated, don’t crave the limelight. A CEO who successfully led two major transformation projects in the past ten years used these six criteria to quiz senior executives about the caliber of nominees for project teams. The top management team rejected one in three candidates, on average, before finalizing the teams.


Companies must boost the commitment of two different groups of people if they want change projects to take root: They must get visible backing from the most influential executives (what we call C1), who are not necessarily those with the top titles. And they must take into account the enthusiasm—or often, lack thereof—of the people who must deal with the new systems, processes, or ways of working (C2).

Top-level commitment is vital to engendering commitment from those at the coal face. If employees don’t see that the company’s leadership is backing a project, they’re unlikely to change. No amount of top-level support is too much. In 1999, when we were working with the CEO of a consumer products company, he told us that he was doing much more than necessary to display his support for a nettlesome project. When we talked to line managers, they said that the CEO had extended very little backing for the project. They felt that if he wanted the project to succeed, he would have to support it more visibly! A rule of thumb: When you feel that you are talking up a change initiative at least three times more than you need to, your managers will feel that you are backing the transformation.

Sometimes, senior executives are reluctant to back initiatives. That’s understandable; they’re often bringing about changes that may negatively affect employees’ jobs and lives. However, if senior executives do not communicate the need for change, and what it means for employees, they endanger their projects’ success. In one financial services firm, top management’s commitment to a program that would improve cycle times, reduce errors, and slash costs was low because it entailed layoffs. Senior executives found it gut-wrenching to talk about layoffs in an organization that had prided itself on being a place where good people could find lifetime employment. However, the CEO realized that he needed to tackle the thorny issues around the layoffs to get the project implemented on schedule. He tapped a senior company veteran to organize a series of speeches and meetings in order to provide consistent explanations for the layoffs, the timing, the consequences for job security, and so on. He also appointed a well-respected general manager to lead the change program. Those actions reassured employees that the organization would tackle the layoffs in a professional and humane fashion.

Companies often underestimate the role that managers and staff play in transformation efforts. By communicating with them too late or inconsistently, senior executives end up alienating the people who are most affected by the changes. It’s surprising how often something senior executives believe is a good thing is seen by staff as a bad thing, or a message that senior executives think is perfectly clear is misunderstood. That usually happens when senior executives articulate subtly different versions of critical messages. For instance, in one company that applied the DICE framework, scores for a project showed a low degree of staff commitment. It turned out that these employees had become confused, even distrustful, because one senior manager had said, “Layoffs will not occur,” while another had said, “They are not expected to occur.”

Organizations also underestimate their ability to build staff support. A simple effort to reach out to employees can turn them into champions of new ideas. For example, in the 1990s, a major American energy producer was unable to get the support of mid-level managers, supervisors, and workers for a productivity improvement program. After trying several times, the company’s senior executives decided to hold a series of one-on-one conversations with mid-level managers in a last-ditch effort to win them over. The conversations focused on the program’s objectives, its impact on employees, and why the organization might not be able to survive without the changes. Partly because of the straight talk, the initiative gained some momentum. This allowed a project team to demonstrate a series of quick wins, which gave the initiative a new lease on life.


When companies launch transformation efforts, they frequently don’t realize, or know how to deal with the fact, that employees are already busy with their day-to-day responsibilities. According to staffing tables, people in many businesses work 80-plus-hour weeks. If, on top of existing responsibilities, line managers and staff have to deal with changes to their work or to the systems they use, they will resist.

Project teams must calculate how much work employees will have to do beyond their existing responsibilities to change over to new processes. Ideally, no one’s workload should increase more than 10%. Go beyond that, and the initiative will probably run into trouble. Resources will become overstretched and compromise either the change program or normal operations. Employee morale will fall, and conflict may arise between teams and line staff. To minimize the dangers, project managers should use a simple metric like the percentage increase in effort the employees who must cope with the new ways feel they must contribute. They should also check if the additional effort they have demanded comes on top of heavy workloads and if employees are likely to resist the project because it will demand more of their scarce time.

Companies must decide whether to take away some of the regular work of employees who will play key roles in the transformation project. Companies can start by ridding these employees of discretionary or nonessential responsibilities. In addition, firms should review all the other projects in the operating plan and assess which ones are critical for the change effort. At one company, the project steering committee delayed or restructured 120 out of 250 subprojects so that some line managers could focus on top-priority projects. Another way to relieve pressure is for the company to bring in temporary workers, like retired managers, to carry out routine activities or to outsource current processes until the changeover is complete. Handing off routine work or delaying projects is costly and time-consuming, so companies need to think through such issues before kicking off transformation efforts.

Creating the Framework

As we came to understand the four factors better, we created a framework that would help executives evaluate their transformation initiatives and shine a spotlight on interventions that would improve their chances of success. We developed a scoring system based on the variables that affect each factor. Executives can assign scores to the DICE factors and combine them to arrive at a project score. (See the sidebar “Calculating DICE Scores.”)

Although the assessments are subjective, the system gives companies an objective framework for making those decisions. Moreover, the scoring mechanism ensures that executives are evaluating projects and making trade-offs more consistently across projects.

A company can compare its DICE score on the day it kicks off a project with the scores of previous projects, as well as their outcomes, to check if the initiative has been set up for success. When we calculated the scores of the 225 change projects in our database and compared them with the outcomes, the analysis was compelling. Projects clearly fell into three categories, or zones: Win, which means that any project with a score in that range is statistically likely to succeed; worry, which suggests that the project’s outcome is hard to predict; and woe, which implies that the project is totally unpredictable or fated for mediocrity or failure. (See the exhibit “DICE Scores Predict Project Outcomes.”)

Companies can track how change projects are faring by calculating scores over time or before and after they have made changes to a project’s structure. The four factors offer a litmus test that executives can use to assess the probability of success for a given project or set of projects. Consider the case of a large Australian bank that in 1994 wanted to restructure its back-office operations. Senior executives agreed on the rationale for the change but differed on whether the bank could achieve its objectives, since the transformation required major changes in processes and organizational structures. Bringing the team and the senior executives together long enough to sort out their differences proved impossible; people were just too busy. That’s when the project team decided to analyze the initiative using the DICE framework.

Doing so condensed what could have been a free-flowing two-day debate into a sharp two-hour discussion. The focus on just four elements generated a clear picture of the project’s strengths and weaknesses. For instance, managers learned that the restructuring would take eight months to implement but that it had poorly defined milestones and reviews. Although the project team was capable and senior management showed reasonable commitment to the effort, there was room for improvement in both areas. The back-office workforce was hostile to the proposed changes since more than 20% of these people would lose their jobs. Managers and employees agreed that the back-office staff would need to muster 10% to 20% more effort on top of its existing commitments during the implementation. On the DICE scale, the project was deep in the Woe Zone.

However, the assessment also led managers to take steps to increase the possibility of success before they started the project. The bank decided to split the project time line into two—one short-term and one long-term. Doing so allowed the bank to schedule review points more frequently and to maximize team members’ ability to learn from experience before the transformation grew in complexity. To improve staff commitment, the bank decided to devote more time to explaining why the change was necessary and how the institution would support the staff during the implementation. The bank also took a closer look at the people who would be involved in the project and changed some of the team leaders when it realized that they lacked the necessary skills. Finally, senior managers made a concerted effort to show their backing for the initiative by holding a traveling road show to explain the project to people at all levels of the organization. Taken together, the bank’s actions and plans shifted the project into the Win Zone. Fourteen months later, the bank completed the project—on time and below budget.

Applying the DICE Framework

The simplicity of the DICE framework often proves to be its biggest problem; executives seem to desire more complex answers. By overlooking the obvious, however, they often end up making compromises that don’t work. Smart companies try to ensure that they don’t fall into that trap by using the DICE framework in one of three ways.

The simplicity of the DICE framework often proves to be its biggest problem; executives seem to desire more complex answers. By overlooking the obvious, however, they often end up making compromises that don’t work.

Track Projects.

Some companies train managers in how to use the DICE framework before they start transformation programs. Executives use spreadsheet-based versions of the tool to calculate the DICE scores of the various components of the program and to compare them with past scores. Over time, every score must be balanced against the trajectory of scores and, as we shall see next, the portfolio of scores.

Senior executives often use DICE assessments as early warning indicators that transformation initiatives are in trouble. That’s how Amgen, the $10.6 billion biotechnology company, used the DICE framework. In 2001, the company realigned its operations around some key processes, broadened its offerings, relaunched some mature products, allied with some firms and acquired others, and launched several innovations. To avoid implementation problems, Amgen’s top management team used the DICE framework to gauge how effectively it had allocated people, senior management time, and other resources. As soon as projects reported troubling scores, designated executives paid attention to them. They reviewed the projects more often, reconfigured the teams, and allocated more resources to them. In one area of the change project, Amgen used DICE to track 300 initiatives and reconfigured 200 of them.

Both big and small organizations can put the tool to good use. Take the case of a hospital that kicked off six change projects in the late 1990s. Each initiative involved a lot of investment, had significant clinical implications, or both. The hospital’s general manager felt that some projects were going well but was concerned about others. He wasn’t able to attribute his concerns to anything other than a bad feeling. However, when the general manager used the DICE framework, he was able to confirm his suspicions. After a 45-minute discussion with project managers and other key people, he established that three projects were in the Win Zone but two were in the Woe Zone and one was in the Worry Zone.

The strongest projects, the general manager found, consumed more than their fair share of resources. Senior hospital staff sensed that those projects would succeed and spent more time promoting them, attending meetings about them, and making sure they had sufficient resources. By contrast, no one enjoyed attending meetings on projects that were performing poorly. So the general manager stopped attending meetings for the projects that were on track; he attended only sessions that related to the three underperforming ones. He pulled some managers from the projects that were progressing smoothly and moved them to the riskier efforts. He added more milestones to the struggling enterprises, delayed their completion, and pushed hard for improvement. Those steps helped ensure that all six projects met their objectives.

Manage portfolios of projects.

When companies launch large transformation programs, they kick off many projects to attain their objectives. But if executives don’t manage the portfolio properly, those tasks end up competing for attention and resources. For instance, senior executives may choose the best employees for projects they have sponsored or lavish attention on pet projects rather than on those that need attention. By deploying our framework before they start transformation initiatives, companies can identify problem projects in portfolios, focus execution expertise and senior management attention where it is most needed, and defuse political issues.

Take, for example, the case of an Australasian manufacturing company that had planned a set of 40 projects as part of a program to improve profitability. Since some had greater financial implications than others, the company’s general manager called for a meeting with all the project owners and senior managers. The group went through each project, debating its DICE score and identifying the problem areas. After listing all the scores and issues, the general manager walked to a whiteboard and circled the five most important projects. “I’m prepared to accept that some projects will start off in the Worry Zone, though I won’t accept anything outside the middle of this zone for more than a few weeks. For the top five, we’re not going to start until these are well within the Win Zone. What do we have to do to achieve that?” he asked.

The general manager walked to a whiteboard and circled the five most important projects. “We’re not going to start until these are well within the Win Zone. What do we have to do to achieve that?”

The group began thinking and acting right away. It moved people around on teams, reconfigured some projects, and identified those that senior managers should pay more attention to—all of which helped raise DICE scores before implementation began. The most important projects were set up for resounding success while most of the remaining ones managed to get into the Win Zone. The group left some projects in the Worry Zone, but it agreed to track them closely to ensure that their scores improved. In our experience, that’s the right thing to do. When companies are trying to overhaul themselves, they shouldn’t have all their projects in the Win Zone; if they do, they are not ambitious enough. Transformations should entail fundamental changes that stretch an organization.

Force conversation.

When different executives calculate DICE scores for the same project, the results can vary widely. The difference in scores is particularly important in terms of the dialogue it triggers. It provokes participants and engages them in debate over questions like “Why do we see the project in these different ways?” and “What can we agree to do to ensure that the project will succeed?” That’s critical, because even people within the same organization lack a common framework for discussing problems with change initiatives. Prejudices, differences in perspectives, and a reluctance or inability to speak up can block effective debates. By using the DICE framework, companies can create a common language and force the right discussions.

Sometimes, companies hold workshops to review floundering projects. At those two- to four-hour sessions, groups of eight to 15 senior and middle managers, along with the project team and the project sponsors, hold a candid dialogue. The debate usually moves beyond the project’s scores to the underlying causes of problems and possible remedies. The workshops bring diverse opinions to light, which often can be combined into innovative solutions. Consider, for example, the manner in which DICE workshops helped a telecommunications service provider that had planned a major transformation effort. Consisting of five strategic initiatives and 50 subprojects that needed to be up and running quickly, the program confronted some serious obstacles. The projects’ goals, time lines, and revenue objectives were unclear. There were delays in approving business cases, a dearth of rigor and focus in planning and identifying milestones, and a shortage of resources. There were leadership issues, too. For example, executive-level shortcomings had resulted in poor coordination of projects and a misjudgment of risks.

To put the transformation program on track, the telecom company incorporated DICE into project managers’ tool kits. The Project Management Office arranged a series of workshops to analyze issues and decide future steps. One workshop, for example, was devoted to three new product development projects, two of which had landed in the Woe Zone and one in the Worry Zone. Participants traced the problems to tension between managers and technology experts, underfunding, lack of manpower, and poor definition of the projects’ scopes. They eventually agreed on three remedial actions: holding a conflict-resolution meeting between the directors in charge of technology and those responsible for the core business; making sure senior leadership paid immediate attention to the resource issues; and bringing together the project team and the line-of-business head to formalize project objectives. With the project sponsor committed to those actions, the three projects had improved their DICE scores and thus their chances of success at the time this article went to press.

Conversations about DICE scores are particularly useful for large-scale transformations that cut across business units, functions, and locations. In such change efforts, it is critical to find the right balance between centralized oversight, which ensures that everyone in the organization takes the effort seriously and understands the goals, and the autonomy that various initiatives need. Teams must have the flexibility and incentive to produce customized solutions for their markets, functions, and competitive environments. The balance is difficult to achieve without an explicit consideration of the DICE variables.

Conversations about DICE scores are particularly useful for large-scale transformations that cut across business units, functions, and locations.

Take the case of a leading global beverage company that needed to increase operational efficiency and focus on the most promising brands and markets. The company also sought to make key processes such as consumer demand development and customer fulfillment more innovative. The CEO’s goals were ambitious and required investing significant resources across the company. Top management faced enormous challenges in structuring the effort and in spawning projects that focused on the right issues. Executives knew that this was a multiyear effort, yet without tight schedules and oversight of individual projects, there was a risk that projects would take far too long to be completed and the results would taper off.

To mitigate the risks, senior managers decided to analyze each project at several levels of the organization. Using the DICE framework, they reviewed each effort every month until they felt confident that it was on track. After that, reviews occurred when projects met major milestones. No more than two months elapsed between reviews, even in the later stages of the program. The time between reviews at the project-team level was even shorter: Team leaders reviewed progress biweekly throughout the transformation. Some of the best people joined the effort full time. The human resources department took an active role in recruiting team members, thereby creating a virtuous cycle in which the best people began to seek involvement in various initiatives. During the course of the transformation, the company promoted several team members to line- and functional leadership positions because of their performance.

The company’s change program resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of value creation. Its once-stagnant brands began to grow, it cracked open new markets such as China, and sales and promotion activities were aligned with the fastest-growing channels. There were many moments during the process when inertia in the organization threatened to derail the change efforts. However, senior management’s belief in focusing on the four key variables helped move the company to a higher trajectory of performance.• • •

By providing a common language for change, the DICE framework allows companies to tap into the insight and experience of their employees. A great deal has been said about middle managers who want to block change. We find that most middle managers are prepared to support change efforts even if doing so involves additional work and uncertainty and puts their jobs at risk. However, they resist change because they don’t have sufficient input in shaping those initiatives. Too often, they lack the tools, the language, and the forums in which to express legitimate concerns about the design and implementation of change projects. That’s where a standard, quantitative, and simple framework comes in. By enabling frank conversations at all levels within organizations, the DICE framework helps people do the right thing by change.

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An Agile Approach to Change Management

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The business world has arguably seen more disruption in the last nine months than in the last nine years, bringing new and urgent demand for change. Initiatives are being launched by the dozen, adoption can’t happen fast enough, and the stakes are higher than ever. In the midst of a Covid-induced recession, and with some industries on the brink of extinction, change isn’t about fine-tuning — it’s existential.

But traditional change management — often characterized by heavy process, lengthy timelines, and clunky rollouts — won’t cut it right now. As organizations fundamentally rethink their product and service portfolios, reinvent their supply chains, pursue large-scale organizational restructuring, determine on the fly how to operate in a virtual world and rebuild to correct systemic racism from the ground up, the type of change management required in this moment is quick, agile, and (in many cases) virtual.

In the article that follows, I borrow principles from agile software development processes and draw on Korn Ferry’s experience helping clients navigate change in recent months to reinvent the change management playbook. When facing crisis-driven change, consider these modifications to accelerate and streamline your process:

Declare your change vision.

The first step in well-known change management models is often to “create a sense of urgency.” It’s safe to say that 2020 did that for us. Depending on the change you are pursuing, you may be able to skip straight to declaring a change vision that outlines a compelling vision of your future state, including the principles and values that will guide your response and provides specific actions you’ll take. While details are preferable in these types of statements, companies should be confident they can deliver on any stated commitments in the change vision.

Moving quickly will mean that not everyone will be able to weigh in, and your change vision won’t be perfect. But it will make clear where you stand, put an end to any speculation and buy you time (though not much) to develop a plan. Companies without a clear vision will spend too much time fielding stakeholder inquiries instead of tending to the necessary changes.

Empower the people who are best positioned to drive change from the beginning. 

In times of crisis, senior leaders are almost always preoccupied with crisis management. CEOs can accelerate the change process by empowering a group of trusted experts deeper in the organization who can be redeployed full-time against the challenge at hand.

Companies should also look to build an external network of advisors who can quickly be tapped to weigh in on business threats where in-house expertise doesn’t exist. Having these individuals at the ready will reduce your response time and lend credibility to the plans that are created. Your group of experts should include a change management advisor.

To eliminate friction and delays, the group of internal and external experts will also need to quickly align on guiding principles and open a physical or virtual “war room” to drive collaboration.

Encourage self-organizing teams to supplement your efforts.

When time is of the essence, these teams can help tackle challenges and opportunities as they see them, including those that aren’t visible to leadership but are critical to supporting the change agenda.

For example, one such group emerged at IBM as employees transitioned to working from home earlier this year. They took it upon themselves to establish guiding principles to help make work and life easier for themselves and their colleagues, collaborating with business and HR leaders to evolve their efforts into a company-wide pledge. Within a matter of days, thousands of employees posted their individual pledges to an internal social media channel and CEO Arvind Krishna shared his publicly on LinkedIn. This grassroots effort likely did more to accelerate the company’s transition to productive remote work, and on a faster timeline, than any corporate-led initiative could have.

Similarly, many race-based employee resources groups self-organized following George Floyd’s murder to launch grassroots efforts — from hosting “difficult conversations” to lobbying for Juneteenth to be formally recognized with a day off — that complemented top-down diversity and inclusion activities.

Use internal social channels and influencers to drive employee awareness and engagement.

For organizations operating virtually, internal social media and collaboration platforms are likely the fastest and most effective way to drive understanding of your change efforts and recruit the cadre of people who will champion the transformation.

If your CEO or other leaders are not active on these platforms, help them get up and running. One CEO that came under attack for non-inclusive practices following the racial justice protests recently began posting weekly Slack updates on his organization’s transformation efforts. This more informal channel created greater authenticity, enabled two-way dialogue and made it possible for the CEO to assess employee sentiment as the change efforts unfolded.

Employee influencers should be tapped to initiate online conversation around change efforts too, leveraging positive peer pressure to bring colleagues on board and creating a sense of virtual community around the initiative.

Embrace a “test-and-learn” approach.

Recent events have confirmed what many change leaders already knew — though your change vision is critical to driving alignment and buy-in, that picture will seldom stay the same from the start of a change project to its finish.

Even projects on short timelines, like the ones many companies undertook to roll out collaboration technologies in the spring, will need to respond to ongoing volatility internally and externally.

Against this reality, change managers will need to:

  • Establish ongoing listening mechanisms that allow them to keep a pulse on employee and stakeholder sentiment.
  • Welcome changing requirements, even late in the process, and modify change initiatives, or even the change vision itself, to ensure the work continues to be relevant and will deliver value.
  • Lean more into the art of change management than the science, making determinations in the moment about which steps and tools are needed and which aren’t likely to add value that surpasses the lost value of delays.
  • Adopt agile practices, such as daily stand-ups, that enable continuous coordination and evaluation of new variables as they surface.
  • Use “fast-turn” and informal communications channels to update employees on strategy and what is needed from them.
  • Leverage “sprints” that result in minimally viable change management resources that can be tested and evolved for continued relevance.

The fact that many companies are bringing employees back to work in phases allows for the agile iteration and continuous learning. They should take advantage by piloting change tools and processes on early returners and improving them with each subsequent wave.

Shift from long-term to short-term accountability.

The virtues of the shift from annual performance reviews to frequent check-ins should be apparent to leaders looking to drive rapid behavior change. More frequent feedback enables real-time coaching and allows managers to place the emphasis on what is most needed from the employee in that moment. Managers should focus on behaviors that will be critical for the future of work and will support change objectives, such as working successfully on a hybrid team, supporting coworker inclusion, practicing compassion and empathy and, yes, becoming more agile.

Reward programs can also help drive swift behavior change. Retailers instituted hazard and overtime pay to support their change efforts at the onset of Covid-19, and many of their employees rose to the occasion, taking on tough assignments to keep the business humming. Non-financial rewards play an even larger role in more challenging economic times. Korn Ferry research indicates that these non-financial rewards (e.g., meaningful work, career development, training, recognition) are more instrumental in talent engagement and retention than base pay and variable pay programs.

While anyone who tells you there is a way to achieve change management objectives overnight would be lying, there are ways to accelerate change in an increasingly fast-paced and uncertain world. Indeed, many of the world’s most admired companies have figured it out. According to Korn Ferry research, they are more likely than their peers to anticipate change, to consistently capture the next opportunity, to quickly fill people capability gaps and to quickly deploy teams to solve the challenge at hand.

Formal adoption of agile may or may not be right for your organization but now is the time to consider how to make change management work faster and harder. If we know anything for certain in this moment, it’s that more change is coming.

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The road to successful change is lined with trade-offs

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Rather than trying to convince people your change initiative is the right one, invite them to talk openly about what it might take to implement it: the good, the bad, and the frustrating.

At one Fortune 500 insurance company, the IT team had noticed an uptick in quality issues, delays, and dissatisfaction among project sponsors. In response to these unsettling trends, the chief information officer (CIO) decided to adopt a standard software development methodology and replicable project management practices. The intended benefits of this shift — higher quality and reliability — were attractive, but the trade-offs were daunting. Because they would no longer have the license to customize process and standards, project managers would need to give up independence and creativity. Coders would have to make similar sacrifices, as well as face increased oversight through peer reviews.

To address these concerns, the CIO asked a cross-functional group to consider two questions: If the division adopted the new framework, what would the organization gain? And equally important, what would it lose? Participants were invited to weigh the proposed change for themselves and to consider it from every angle — including the reasons the initiative might not work. They brainstormed solutions to potential project roadblocks. These discussions helped build support and diminish the likelihood that people would retrench when challenged by the inevitable costs, frustrations, and hard work of change. In the end, the new methodology and practices were adopted in half the time recommended to achieve the goal, embedded in the company’s culture, and recognized for their contributions to customer satisfaction and project quality.

These were not your typical “socializing” conversations, intended to make people feel included in decisions that have already been made. Instead, these dialogues reflected a departure from many of the current norms for change management. Traditionally, leaders have started with the belief that the change they have launched is patently right. Its merits are not in question, they believe; at most, it might need minor tweaks. With this stance, the work of change becomes convincing people and overcoming their resistance, and all too often, box-checking exercises take the place of frank discussion.

Yet we have found that the most enduring change initiatives — those that drive real results — are based on leaders’ assumption that they are seeing only part of the picture and thus need to learn more. These leaders ask hard questions and engage in trade-offs as early as possible, talking with those who raise concerns not to gain their compliance, but to improve, refine, and pressure test the proposed change.

No easy answers

We are living in a historic moment, one in which trade-offs are central to many of our discussions: Leaders in the public and private sector are weighing the potential costs (economic, medical, and psychological) of opening institutions while COVID-19 is still spreading against the potential costs of staying closed. For many of the hard questions these leaders are asking, there are no good answers. But decisions still need to be made.

When leaders launch an initiative, their ability to achieve “both/and” is not yet proven. By both/and, we mean identifying a solution that moves beyond the historical limits of an either/or trade-off, an idea advanced by the polarity management methodology of management thinker and author Barry Johnson. For instance, companies used to choose either slow, costly, data-driven decisions or fast, intuitive judgment calls. But the use of advanced analytics now allows companies to make real-time decisions that are data-driven.

Yet when leaders assume their answer is the answer, they tend to approach change as they would a political campaign — heavy on slogans and focused on numerical targets akin to contributions and votes. The process can feel forced; people are engaged solely to be converted to the leader’s “side,” rather than to participate in a dialogue about the potential implications of the plan. Leaders speak, but don’t listen. Or they assume that a lack of feedback reflects agreement and acceptance among their constituents.

Success under this approach is typically measured by increases in compliance (“40 percent of staff have logged on to the new ERP system”) and decreases in resistance (“the number of employees indicating the new ERP system will help make their work more effective has increased by 30 percent since last quarter”). Leaders reward those who quickly conform, not realizing that these conversions often represent superficial commitments, not true allegiance or even an accurate understanding of the new way. And because hard questions are minimized, teams may comply with a change that won’t work once it gets underway.

For employees, the pressure to change without truly understanding or committing to the initiative is an unfortunate fact of organizational life. People become used to the expectation that they will limit independent thinking and suspend disbelief, regardless of the lessons of their prior experience. If employees have a few questions, that is usually acceptable, but more can invite censure or ridicule, or, in the worst cases, can be career damaging, even if such questions represent legitimate critiques or sound ideas for improvement.

Consider the case of a leader of an accounting services business who created a consolidated national office to replace a collection of smaller state units. Although the new structure would save on overhead, the company’s services were heavily influenced by state regulations. Employees with the expertise needed to work in their state office could now be assigned to a case anywhere in the country. Many would lack the knowledge needed to do their job effectively — a concern immediately raised by employees when the plan was announced. But the leader was dismissive, instead telling people to stop “harping on the negative.” Those who raised the issue again could tell they were at risk of being branded as resisters. One even remarked that “it was like a cult”; she felt forced to conform or face social and professional isolation.

In the end, the new national structure struggled to deliver for customers in states where employees were not well-versed in local regulations, in ways the resisters had predicted and hoped to avoid. Imagine if the leader had asked, “How might we consolidate into a national structure, but still ensure customers benefit from the regulatory knowledge each of you has developed over time?” Instead of resisting, his team would have been brainstorming how to make the idea work. And instead of failing to meet expectations, they could have been delivering excellent service at scale.

Avoid the temptation to rush in

Leaders should borrow an important concept from the project management world: Go slow to go fast. There is often a rush to dive in at the beginning of a project, to start getting things done quickly and to feel a sense of accomplishment. This desire backfires when stakeholders are overlooked, plans are not validated, and critical conversations are ignored. Instead, project managers are advised to go slow — to do the work needed up front to develop momentum and gain speed later in the project.

The same idea helps reframe notions about how to lead organizational change successfully. Instead of doing the conceptual work quickly and alone, leaders must slow down the initial planning stages, resist the temptation and endorphin rush of being a “heroic” leader solving the problem, and engage people in frank conversations about the trade-offs involved in change. This does not have to take long — even just a few days or weeks. The key is to build the capacity to think together and to get underlying assumptions out in the open.

Leaders must do more than just get the conversation started. They also need to keep it going, often in the face of significant challenges. For example, one of the authors once worked with a division of a Fortune 50 high-tech firm that was going through a period of turbulence. During one nine-month period, the unit was reorganized six times, and each time, another internal technical function was added to the group. The problem was that no one could explain the logic of all the additions. The division began calling itself the “Island of Misfit Toys” — where all the odd, hard-to-place functions were collected.

After first trying the political campaign approach with her team — doing presentations about the burning platform and targeting those who needed to have their concerns assuaged — and getting nowhere, the unit’s leader decided to change course. Over a team dinner one evening, she asked point-blank whether they should give up on making sense of the mergers. The question stunned her colleagues, but also ultimately united them. As they went around the table, they committed to finding a shared purpose, and they were also able to discern a common thread behind the mergers. Each of the added groups had a similar competence they had brought to a range of projects, a similarity that hadn’t been obvious before. The team refocused on that competence, then began seeking new teams to merge into their function.

The leader started the conversation with a challenging question, and this is critical. The questions need to be a little risky, and the context needs to invite people to talk safely about difficult issues. Change champions need to draw out others’ opinions about the reasons their hunch won’t work as a starting point for problem-solving and design. By treating the potential downsides and limitations of an idea as legitimate, rational concerns, people can work together to design solutions that both achieve intended goals and preserve what the organization wishes to safeguard while building commitment to implementation. Leaders may ask, for example: Is this a distraction or something that can truly make a difference? What will we have to do to make this work? What might be the unintended consequences if we succeed?

Engage with the “other side”

So-called resisters have a point. Opposing views often have clear, important messages that leaders would do well to heed. The people who hold these views may be the ones who most vividly see the potential losses or risks associated with the initiative.

Organizational change expert Rick Maurer explains, “There [aren’t] ‘resisters’ out there just waiting to ruin our otherwise perfect intervention. People resist in response to something. The people resisting probably don’t see it as resistance; they see it as survival.” Critical voices are important and ultimately essential in breaking through superficiality and developing the thinking needed to wrestle with trade-offs successfully. Many times, in side conversations, people have told us stories about speaking up out of a sense of accountability, realism, or integrity.

When change leaders gloss over unintended consequences and contradictory perspectives, they lose the opportunity to capitalize on the tension between views that can lead to unexpected and valuable insights. They sacrifice the chance to achieve real commitment from the people whose job it will be to implement the change.

Methods such as skillful dialogue encourage groups to slow down conversations and truly listen. The Lewis Deep Democracy approach takes it further. Developed in South Africa to help corporations recover from the effects of apartheid, dismantle embedded racist systems, and model the new, democratic nation, Deep Democracy works with what can be called a strict, no-interrupting, one-side-at-a-time policy.

This technique helped one behavioral health organization decide how to change its approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). A choice had emerged among the senior team. They could make diversity a top-level priority or they could embed it into everyone’s day-to-day work. Both approaches addressed the underlying imperative to improve, but each also came with trade-offs and potential drawbacks.

Rather than alternating arguments, the team dove into each side in depth. Some members of the senior team believed that DEI should be part of the strategic agenda. The discussion started with supporters articulating their perspective that the organization’s commitment to diversity should be shared with the world as a top-level priority, in order to signal the seriousness of the issue. They expressed a fear that if diversity wasn’t prioritized in this way, it would eventually be neglected or pushed aside by other priorities. All participants were encouraged to discover what parts of this position rang true for them, even if they initially held another perspective. This is a central tenet of the method: It is often possible to find something that the opposing side can empathize with, and slowly the confrontational stance begins to soften.

The next step was to hear from the other side. These members of the senior team turned the group’s attention to the reasons that DEI should be embedded into everything the organization did, so that it became every person’s responsibility. This group shared stories of other companies in which diversity became a public relations gimmick that was ignored by staff and rolled out only when expedient. A similar process was followed as the whole group explored that position.

When participating in this method, people begin to experience fluidity in their stance. This fluidity is also the core of Johnson’s polarity management method: By engaging multiple perspectives and asking questions, people start to recognize both the benefits and the risks of their preferred side of either/or and tap into the creativity needed to craft an effective both/and solution.

The company in our example found that using the Deep Democracy approach allowed them to come to an agreement and develop plans that avoided the pitfalls feared by the other side. The solution was elegant. The company embedded DEI into the fabric of the organization, but did so by writing it specifically into the scope of each high-level strategic priority. For example, leaders responsible for financial health, customer experience, technological innovation, and so on were expected to explore the DEI implications of their work. No strategy would be considered successful unless it demonstrated how these issues had been woven into the work.

The leader’s task is to create an environment in which different perspectives can be fully explored consciously and collectively. The conversation should not take the tone of a debate or competition. Instead, people “think together,” exploring best- and worst-case scenarios, grappling with challenges, and imagining how their innovation could ensure success.

Model vulnerability and lack of omniscience

Initially, people may struggle to open up; after all, most have experienced situations in which they were permitted to ask only a few questions or in which follow-up questions were perceived as disruptive. To overcome the negative effects of people’s past experiences, leaders must model openness, clearly invite people to speak candidly, welcome questions and critiques, and listen with a willingness to be influenced.

One global leader of an agricultural company crossed six continents to visit almost every outpost in her division and to listen to staff express their hesitations about adopting a more interconnected approach among the regional offices. At each location, her message was clear: We need to become more connected and collaborative. But her approach was humble. “Would you tell me,” she asked, “how things work here? What worries you about becoming more interconnected? What do you fear you might have to give up?” Her questions and her clear commitment to listening to her staff instilled trust and confidence.

Her employees shared their concerns. They feared that if the regions were more connected, they would have to comply with what headquarters told them, even when they knew it was wrong for their local market. As things stood at the time, these workers often superficially agreed to headquarters’ mandates and then did as they wished, knowing they could fly under the radar. In theory, the proposed organizational change would free staff from being beholden to a strict hierarchy. In practice, they admitted, becoming more interconnected would limit their autonomy.

It would have been easy for the agricultural leader to present strong, rational arguments to prove to the regional staff that their perspectives were wrong. Instead, she did something radical that increased trust dramatically. She affirmed their concerns. She agreed with their belief that there would be losses. She asked the group to delve into their worries, explore them, question what responsibilities and freedoms they hoped to maintain, and then strategize how to protect those boundaries. The method was successful: After a year, a network map revealed a greater level of communication and coordination among regions, and a retrospective showed the organization had responded more quickly and with more coherence to several important global challenges.

When leaders take actions like these, they create change by inviting people to think for themselves and to find their own answers to tough questions. These leaders are willing to be influenced and acknowledge that there are elements of the change that still need to be figured out. This strategy, rather than requiring the leader to balance and address everyone’s concerns, allows people to share the responsibility for change by publicly wrestling with the trade-offs, collectively coming to a resolution, and then committing to the plan’s execution.

Engage both peers and top leaders

In our experience in working with organizational change leaders, it is often executives at the next level up or peers in other functions who undo promising new initiatives. The idea may sound good at first, and, amid the flurry of competing priorities, these people may not examine the new idea too closely. Then, as the organization begins to experience the costs and hard work of change, support wanes.

Peers in other functions may be most concerned about trade-offs that affect them. Will marketing bear the cost of new purchasing guidelines? Will customer service suffer from reduced product functionality? Eventually, these other functional leaders may decide that the costs outweigh the benefits and will roll back the work that has been done. Or they may unwittingly dismantle a larger effort by overriding key components of it — sometimes because they lack a shared understanding of the context.

For example, amid rising demand, one factory was tasked with drastically improving output and reducing defects. The team of frontline employees and supervisors assigned to develop a solution found that performing more frequent machine maintenance and building new jigs to speed up changeovers between production runs were the keys to achieving higher productivity and quality while lowering overall costs.

Unfortunately, shortly after the new system was up and running, the team’s peers in accounting approached the division leader with concerns that maintenance costs were above historical levels. Those added costs were more than covered by the benefits to output and quality, but because the factory team had not engaged the senior executive to explain their plan and prepare him for the increased cost, the leader responded to it as an isolated issue and ordered the team to bring their maintenance costs back in line. They complied, but forfeited the gains they had made.

To prevent a positive change from being overridden in this way, it is wise to connect with a wide range of people when discussing the potential costs and trade-offs in a project. Change almost always occurs in a complex ecosystem with many cause-and-effect relationships; no one has the full picture, and investments made in one area may pay off in another. Senior leaders generally have a more global view of the situation and the factors driving change. Frontline folks tend to have a richer sense of the particulars. When leaders engage with hard questions and listen to different perspectives, they enable everyone to see more of the ecosystem they are trying to influence.

To help with this approach, leaders can run scenarios: What if X happens? How will we handle Y? Is it worth giving up A to get B? Through those conversations, executives and peers have space to express their concerns and hesitations, assess whether the effort is truly worth its costs, and prepare for strategic investments that might otherwise have raised red flags. This shared understanding helps them avoid unintended consequences, generates greater alignment and commitment, and provides the context needed for individuals to make effective judgment calls as conditions evolve.

The trade-offs of engaging trade-offs

Even as the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, it is clear that other critical issues — climate change, racial injustice, political instability, income inequality — will challenge organizations in the future, forcing them to continuously adapt. In this context, the change management tools designed for more stable, predictable environments will not work. When it’s unclear what will happen next month, leaders cannot “manage by objectives” or create three-year plans.

Despite this fast pace of change, leaders should not default to an aggressive timeline and succumb to short-term pressure to roll out change initiatives and push them through to the finish. Instead, the approach we propose will force people to go slower than they are accustomed to at the start. It requires the involvement of people who have been labeled as troublemakers, resisters, or annoyances. It challenges leaders’ ideas about the need for change being self-evident and indisputable. And it invites leaders to be vulnerable — something many executives shy away from in favor of being perceived as powerful.

When they take this approach, leaders are able to identify and invest in the highest-value areas that are ripe for reinvention, then invite others to participate in the design. Employees in this scenario are not just implementers but rather innovators, figuring out ways to break through historical limits and difficult realities. This all may seem daunting, but it’s well worth the effort. The work of engaging trade-offs and hard questions creates a stronger, longer-lasting change.

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Successful Change Management: 6 Surprising Reasons People Resist Change And How To Motivate Them To Embrace It Instead

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Everyone knows change is hard and the most difficult part of any change effort is obtaining buy-in. Relatively speaking, it is often the change itself—new software, new organization charts or new work methodologies—that is the easiest to manage. The more difficult part of change is building buy-in, channeling shifts in behavior and accelerating acceptance.

Peter Senge was right, “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” Change can cause fear or discomfort when people are asked to stretch out of their comfort zones. In addition, it often requires incremental work—time to learn new concepts, build new skills or adopt new approaches. This worry, unease or extra effort can result in a wave of push-back or skepticism about the change and its value.

Given these challenges, it’s helpful to realize that the reasons people resist change are often not about the changes themselves, but about the implications of the change. The six surprising reasons people resist include the following:

People want clear future direction. Sometimes changes to systems or approaches in the way work will get done can make people question the direction or the future of the company. If there are job cuts, is the organization still viable overall? If changes are occurring in an enterprise management system, will customers still be adequately served to ensure success in the organization? In order to accept change more easily, people will benefit from understanding the overall reasons for the change—the why—and how the changes support the purpose and long-term mission of the company. They will also need to understand the expected positive impact of the change and why it will be worth the effort. Leadership must be visible as they share this kind of information. They must also be accessible in order to answer questions and they must model the way—demonstrating acceptance of the change through their own behaviors.

People want control and autonomy. In addition to having plenty of clarity from leadership, people also want to know they are empowered. When things change in the company, people may perceive they will lose control of the way they work, of their options or of their performance. In fact, one of the number one concerns people have about change is whether it will negatively impact their ability to get their work done and achieve results. Control at work is associated with greater effectiveness and even improved physical wellbeing. Increase acceptance for the change by giving people back as much control as possible. For example, the new enterprise software system may be non-negotiable, but it may be possible for teams to customize its implementation. The new workplace design may be a given, but it may be possible to give people more choice about where they work throughout the day.

People want to save face. Employees naturally have a stake in the current state and many of them may have helped create it by making decisions about or participating in previous implementations. Increase acceptability of changes by reassuring people that the past isn’t bad or wrong. In fact, previous decisions were likely made with the best possible information available at the time. Work moves fast—usually faster than systems or workplaces can move—so let people know new information and new situations are driving the changes being implemented today.

People want security. Neurologically, humans want to reduce threats and achieve security. When changes occur in an organization, they may wonder about the bigger picture or about potential implications. For example, will the change in organizational structure result in job cuts? Will the shifts in the sales management system impact their own performance if they can’t learn it fast enough? Reduce resistance to change by letting people know why the change is occurring in terms of business objectives, and reassuring people as much as possible given the true implications of decisions. Respond to the underlying concerns they may have about the changes taking place.

People want to be competent. New systems can be upsetting to people because they worry their competence will be challenged. They have likely achieved success in the current system and may worry their ability to perform will be negatively impacted in the new system. Reassure people that they will receive the necessary support to develop their skills and time to learn new approaches without negative repercussions.

People want connections with others. No matter their personality preferences, employees need both time alone and time together with coworkers. They need a sense of connection and positive relationships with colleagues. When change occurs, they may have questions about how their work with others will shift. For example, will an organizational restructure separate them from their teammates? Will a change in the workplace still allow people to sit near their friends? Reassure people about the value of relationships and collegiality by showing them ways they’ll still be able to connect, despite other shifts that may be occurring.

Companies can mistake a lack of understanding about a change with a lack of agreement. Simply communicating more or deluging people with the same information ad nauseum won’t help increase acceptance. The most effective change management requires an understanding of the root-cause issues driving resistance. Future direction, autonomy, saving face, security, competence and connections—all of these are concerns which may prevent people from embracing change. Understand the issues, clarify messages and reassure employees in order to motivate change and drive positive outcomes.

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