A transformation is underway at my home – we’re remodeling! We’ve lived in the home over 23 years and it desperately needed an update. In the last decade of two careers and three kids active in school and sports, we neglected our home. But with all three in college the last few years, we began conversations about ‘fixing the place up.’ We tried to find an incremental approach to this – a way to break this into reasonable projects… but too much of what we wanted to do was integrated. Our goal couldn’t be attained through incremental improvement. We needed a full-scale transformational change.
Now in my role as facilitator and coach to TeamStrength CEOs and executives over the years, there have been countless discussions about managing change. We’ve researched this and hired speakers and found articles for you on the topic. I’ve watched many leaders successfully lead their organization through changes – sometimes dramatic change. But when you use the phrase ‘transformational change’ the articles are longer (and there are complete books, too) and you find lists of ways to make this work with a lot of guidance about strategy, alignment, culture and communication. But I feel like some miss a simple fact of transformation change.
Things will get worse before they get better.
True transformation demands an initial backward step. The thing you want to improve will deteriorate initially. No real transformation is possible without accepting the law of ‘Worse First.’
Think about highway improvement projects, like the nightmare that is currently I-4. Our major central highway could no longer support the amount of traffic effectively. But there was no easy way to add some lanes here and there to fix it. It required transformational change. And a lot of time, planning and investment was made in creating the transitional roads that would get us through the change. But I am sure you would all agree, this stage is not an improvement.
Or consider a simple need for transformation – like the closet you need to clean out. You’ve been piling stuff in there and then cramming in more, and it’s a mess. It needs transformational change, and there is no real way to do that without taking everything out creating a mess in another part of your house at least temporarily. Worse first.
So while yes – strategy, alignment, culture and communication are all necessary considerations in transformational change, I encourage you to remember that a path to the transformed organization starts with steps that take you backward. Not to be negative or discourage you, but because it’s actually quite helpful to recognize this. Here’s why:
- Make sure you’re really up for transformational change. Timing matters for transformational change. We would have been crazy to attempt our remodel in the high-demands years of our kids’ high school and swimming. We had no room for deterioration. In your business, you need to carefully consider what your company can handle. In most successful companies, ongoing incremental change can continue to spur successful growth and profitability. Transformational change is harder and riskier.
- Do a lot of planning on how you manage the ‘worst first’ part of your transformation. Yes, spend a lot of time on your analysis, strategy and vision for the future of your organization. Make sure the transformation is well-designed and the decisions behind it are tested and sound. Then spend a great deal of time planning for how things will go backwards, and how you and the team and your customers will manage all of this to minimize the negative impact. And still be ready for it to be challenging. Because it will be. And if you haven’t prepared for this, you’ll lose your way and not accomplish your goals.
- Keep yourself and your team focused on the vision of the future. This is always your job as a leader – to paint a positive picture of where you are headed – but it’s even more critical during transformational change. Because even with all your planning and preparation to mitigate the ‘worse first’ part, it will be tough. You’ll keep energy through it with that vivid picture of where you’re going.
My house needed a lot of work, but it was a livable, functional environment. For the last few weeks, it’s been a complete disaster. We have no kitchen, and we’re down a bathroom as well. Sometimes we can’t even enter through our front door, and have to go around the house to get to our back patio and master bedroom. But understanding the demands of transformational change, we predicted that and planned for it. We built a walkway to get us there without having to walk in the grass so even in business attire and heels, it’s manageable.
We actually spent hours before starting the remodel carefully considering how we’d manage our lives through the process. We’re still managing two demanding careers, and our college-aged kids come home often (which is a good thing!). We created detailed strategies for how we’d make this work. We’re doing the bathrooms one at a time so we always have two that are functional. We crafted an alternative kitchen. We built the walkway. And we timed the remodel for winter and spring months, and redid our pool and deck before we started so we would enjoy our time outside.
And there have still been unforeseen challenges… why do we keep blowing the breakers?! But we are keeping our eyes on the 3-D rendering of our new home, and keeping a sense of adventure in diversity.
We’re going to be thrilled with our transformational change in the long run. And sometimes in business, there is no path forward in incremental steps that will get you where you really want to be. So go for transformational change when it’s the right answer strategically. Just don’t gloss over the ‘worse first’ stage so you can navigate effectively and get to the other side!