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Hacking transformation: understanding what you are getting yourself into

Transformations – I’ve done about 15 of them; on the business side and on the people side, in divisions and companywide; as an employee and as an implementer. I love them – got to be a certain kind of madness. If you have one underway or you are about to embark on one, it’s time to get really clear about what you are getting yourself into.

Building transformational capacity is also a business imperative since One study suggests that 75% of the S&P 500 will turn over in the next 15 years. Another says that one in three companies will delist in the next five years. A third shows that the “topple rate” of industry leaders falling from their perch has doubled in a generation. – HBR 2016.

Hopefully the following will help.

OPERATIONAL FOUNDATION VS. TRANSFORMATIONAL THINKING Operational programs are designed to institute new processes or practices. They are a very useful way of refining or ‘tweaking’ an existing system. Operational practices are the very foundation of our businesses.

Transformational thinking on the other hand is all about innovation. It is bringing in and embedding new thinking into our businesses. If this new thinking is powerful, effective and our businesses (aka the people in the company) can change to embrace it, then it can create a leap forward in our competitive capability.


This Operational Foundation can cover a few or many efforts from the following list:

  • Project Management

  • Technology evaluation

  • Project Reporting

  • Metrics gathering and reporting

  • Scope definition and management

  • Requirements gathering

  • Vendor Management

This Operational Foundation is usually run by IT and reported on quarterly, in the form of an Ops Review or Program Status Update to the CEO and perhaps also the executive team, depending on the size and cost of the transformation. The reports are usually both quantitative and qualitative in nature and are designed to move the company towards the stated goal of the transformation.

If the above list made you nod, you probably have already paid the price of entry, you are playing the game, you may have benefitted from some early returns but you are struggling to expand the game and stabilize or grow those returns. And you are also concerned that this substantial investment is a little like owning a boat – as they say: “A boat owner’s best days are the day you buy and then day you sell.” So now what? It’s time to get really smart about how to leverage your what you have built to date to support your transformational initiatives. If the above list did not make you nod – I’ll be writing about all of the above, and their role in transformation in subsequent articles.

Learning how to build Transformational Capacity is of most value to organizations that have:

  • Made a quantifiable commitment to transformation programs and innovation

  • Have used initial Operational Programs to reach revenue, productivity or operational goals but are struggling to maintain or exceed

  • Have the full commitment of the Leadership Team

  • Have a solid PMO program in place

  • Acknowledge that this is not just a IT


In his 2016 article in HBR ‘What do you really mean by business transformation?’ Scott Anthony does a nice job of pointing to what he terms ‘Operational transformation (tweaking/improving the existing), Core transformation (doing what you are doing but in a fundamentally different way) and Strategic Transformation (Capital ‘T’ intended, changing your identity and offer in the market e.g. Google search to driverless cars). He looks at them as one or the other or dual.

I have seen that the Operational Foundation and Transformational Thinking build on each other and that most successful transformation programs, have both an operational technology foundation and a transformational agenda. These are the ones that I focus on. These types of transformation can be purposed to deliver both core transformation and strategic transformation. Made sure that, as early as possible, you are clear on what you are seeking to accomplish. That sounds obvious, but people get romantic notions about what is possible and pin them on you and then become very disappointed if you don’t deliver.

Regardless of the scope and ambition of your planned transformation. Plan to train teams, not just in the technology that supports or drives the transformation, but in the principles of transformation. Give yourself time to sell this requirement internally since the investment in the technology for a major change is substantial and so invariably people expect that to also cover the cost of the transformation work. Even if the transformation work is being done primarily by an internal team, make sure you budget for training for the team, since it is likely that very few of them have prior transformation experience or even any transformation training.

Jennifer Kenny helps companies innovate better together with a focus on applied Human Centered Design Thinking for Innovation and Transformation. She is passionate about helping amazing people thrive in highly complex technical environments.

For more on her Innovating Better Together, How Women Innovate and Human Design Thinking programs please contact her at or

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