The transformation chasm

Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% transpiration. We all know that.

Change, even more so transformational change, is 10% strategy and 90% psychology. Yet, like with genius, we keep ignoring it, even as we very well know it.

Discounting the drudgery in retrospect for a “heureka”-moment is understandable. But why are we discounting psychology so often when working on real-life transformation? I believe the answer is simple: because most people involved in or subject of change are telling us that they are excited about it. That they fully support the transformation, they understand the need very well and they are really glad about it finally happening. Until we all, change agents and change subjects, actually believe it to be true. Then we think: “Excellent! The books tell us about resistance and psychology. But here we are in the rare and lucky situation of having a team that is pulling forward 100%. Let’s focus on strategy and execution!” That is just before we hit the quicksand.

Who has not heard about the other theories? There is, for example, the famous Kübler/Ross change curve with its trough of disillusionment. The pitfall of that theory is its optimism. Just carry on and the curve will climb out of the trough by itself, given some time. Really?

And then there is the theory of winners and losers. 10% love transformation, they have indeed waited for it to happen and they will thrive on it and are driven by opportunity and the hope to be a winner in the process. And 10% are the likely or unavoidable losers-out. They hate the transformation and will fight it tooth and bone, albeit in a stealthy bush fight. 80% simply do not care.

As the theory goes, the second 10% make the noise and much energy is wasted to catch them, convince them, win them over, compensate them. So much energy, that the supportive group feels neglected. And while the transforming manager is losing the fight with the resisting group she or he is also losing the support of the ones that are actually driving change. That is when the indifferent 80% feel confirmed: “never try and remember a name that is not around for 2 years!”

Yet, in real life, it is sometimes not as mechanic and clear cut. Frictions may run along the lines of scripture. More often they follow different rifts.

One special case is what I call the transformation chasm. We have learned to think in categories of support, indifference and resistance. These categories however implicitly assume, that all parties have a somewhat consistent understanding of what the intended transformation is and what it needs. Else they couldn’t be for or against it. Even if feedback may not be fully transparent, as transforming managers, we assume an underlying common understanding. Because we understand it and nobody else mentioned, that they don’t.

However, can we assume a common and correct understanding to be the case?

Transformation is about taking an organisation towards a related but entirely new context. From filling out red tape to following a workflow. From car sales to mobility concepts. From travel agent to experience manager. From news”paper” to validated information hub. From highstreet shop to multi channel seller. From curing disease to managing health. Etc. etc.

More often than not, we describe the objective, the new state in the best of colours. And surprisingly all the change resistant organisations turn out to be fully on board, even excited. In the end, who would debate the need for mobility concepts, workflows, web presence and the like. We turn out to be excited ourselves. Mission accomplished: the troops are bought in. They agree with the objective and the importance.

Yet for most people that new state, that objective, is an “and”. It is something else. Something in addition, that comes on top of their world as it exists. In most people’s perception, it has thus nothing to do with their day-to-day routines. It is what the “project team” is working on. They just carry on and wait for the new thing to arrive someday.

Not too long ago a team from the University of Virginia published the results of an experiment.[1] Humans appear to have a very strong tendency to add to a given situation or construction rather than change anything when asked to improve on the status quo. The majority of suggestions, in the experiment, consisted of net additions in order to solidify a given Lego construct – rather than change the given set up. Even if the change approach was monetarily incentivised, the addition approach sanctioned, even when a change was plainly obvious and much simpler than adding bricks, the majority always wanted to add more bricks.

Our brains seem to deconstruct complexity by segregating status quo and change and treat it as two separate things.

If transformation – by definition the replacement of a status quo – is to succeed hence, we will need to find ways to address the 80% indifference. Because it is not indifference in the first place, it is the perception that change has nothing directly to do with us. If that perception holds ground, people can be fully committed, even excited and in approval, yet it will not result in any engagement. To overcome that misunderstanding is what I call the transformation chasm.

Yet, too, the remedy is simple: make it personal.

When we communicate the needs and objectives of transformational change, we need to make it personal. We need to find ways to connect the imminent shift with our team’s personal context, their concrete reality and what it means for them. We need to explain, why a webshop is no add-on and will not work, unless workflows in order-management, billing and collection are supporting it. Guess what, they are still on paper… well, let’s digitalize the backend first, before we create a front-end, that will annoy anyone involved, including our customer. A webshop is not an “and”, it is a different way of doing business for the entire organisation.

Overcoming the transformation chasm is hard work. It is over-communication on top of over-communication. And it is hard, because we always only know about a fraction of the real-life implications that our intended change really causes. We will never be able to verbalize all of the impact beforehand. There will always be a strong element of finding-out.

Transformation and overcoming the transformation chasm needs flexible project management. It needs listening. And adjusting the plans. Improvising and communicating, communicating, communicating. It is hard work.

90% transpiration.


[1] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03380-y

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