Transformation as a life force

I’ve been thinking a lot about the term ‘transformation’ lately. Some people see transformation as a ‘project’, something with a beginning and an end. Transformation can also happen at the personal level. Transforming once life. Many people make us believe that something happened that ‘changed their life’. Suddenly there’s a flash of insight and the next thing you know ‘everything is different’. I’ve never experienced that. I think transformation is a gradual process, ignited by the environment we’re in, the people around us, the situation, the time, the stuff we expose ourselves to. 

I just read an insightful article about the transformation at Haier, the large Chinese electronics company. The conclusion of the HBR article is:

‘The Haier we see today was nearly a decide in the making. The company began testing the concept of small, entrepreneurial sales and marketing teams in 2010….As Zhang (the CEO) often reminds his colleagues, it’s impossible to engineer a complex system from the top down. It has to emerge through an iterative process of imagination, experimentation and learning. When asked how Haier can accelerate its transformation, he has a simple answer: run more trials and replicate the most successful ones faster, because revolutionary goals are best achieved through evolutionary means. 

For decades, most companies have worked diligently to optimize their operations. More recently, they’ve raced to digitize their business models. Important as this is, Haier has done something even more consequential: it has humanized its management model. As Zhang said in a long-ago meeting with one of the authors of this article: ‘We want to encourage employees to become entrepreneurs because people are not a means to an end, but an end in themselves. Our goal is to let everyone become their own CEO, to help everyone realize their potential.’ 

What’s interesting about this conclusion is that a big part of the transformation is about ‘liberating’ people, changing the way they operate in the ‘system’. In most transformations I play a role in (with a couple of exceptions), the focus is on the ‘hard side’: we want to create business outcomes. If Agile or innovation helps us get there faster or create ‘more’, we’re in. We (partly) forget the ‘soft side’. There’s a simple reason for this: it takes time. Which means we need leaders who see the long game. Investing in people: mindset, behavior and the structures that enable people to become true entrepreneurs, focusing on their strengths, ambition, potential. You can’t switch a button and get results from that within 2 quarters. 

Now I might be getting philosophical, but sometimes I wonder: how can we human beings groups ourselves and create large bureaucratic organizations in which the main objective is creating a better bottom line. Most people will argue they’re not part of that. But think about it. If you’re in a leadership position: are you getting out of bed to inspire your people, to change the way they get to work, to ignite passion in what they do every day? If you’re not in a leadership position, are you energized to get to work every day? Do you feel passionate about having an impact on your company, your colleagues and the customers your organization serves? Now you might think ‘yeah sure Hugo, that’s just not how things work’. And that’s the thing! Why not? Why do we settle for less? Who told us to fit into this ‘system’? Who told us we can’t change it?

Transformation is about you, about the individuals in an organizations. It’s about transforming the way you think about life and work. From there, other people can start theirs. The more people get on board, the stronger the transformation will be. So instead of assuming ‘this cannot work in a large enterprise like ours’, think about what CAN work. What CAN you do tomorrow to try things a different way? If the challenge you see are ‘your leaders’, then start finding ways to change their perspective. Find ways to inspire them by showing stories of others or by showing the outcomes you have created using your ‘new ways’. Share solutions to challenges in your company or industry. 

One of the most powerful forces for transformation is empowering people to change the important ‘stuff’. If budgeting needs to change: find a group of volunteers (with a decision making coaching them) to invent a better way of budgeting. If performance management is not working anymore, empower a cross functional team to come up with an alternative. In the old paradigm, the leaders had to come up with the DNA of an organization. Consultants helped them by providing models and cases from other companies. In the new model, leaders understand that transformation isn’t top down, it’s co-created. There’s many smart, educated people in every organization. If you allow them, they’ll use their talent and brainpower to come up with ideas, structures, products, innovation. 

When talking about transformation, the term ‘BAU’ (business as usual) always comes up. Standardized ways of doing things. Routine tasks that are measured by KPI. The question is: do you want to live the rest of your life ‘as usual’ or are you ready to get out of your comfort zone and transform?

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