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11 July 2023

The 8 key lessons of Organisational Transformation

Justine Middleton

“To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived — that is to have succeeded.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century poet”

As organisations grow, they evolve to respond to a changing environment. Some are reactive to the political, social and economical pressures. Others reject change in favour of stagnancy. Both responses require a closer look at how strategic business goals and work culture aligns because when it does, great things happen — this is organisational transformation.

Hippo has delivered multiple organisational transformation projects across lots of different sectors. We’ve acquired a wealth of knowledge along the way. These are the principles we use to guide these projects and deliver meaningful organisational transformation.

1. Each project or organisation has unique characteristics and needs

One size definitely doesn’t fit all, and neither should it. We often need to adapt common approaches to fit the specific needs of the client. Taking into account political, economic and structural constraints.

We do this by immersing ourselves in an organisation to understand its unique dynamics. This involves actively listening to the hopes and fears felt at all levels, and providing a space to discuss challenges and co-create potential solutions.

This was an approach we took when working with a recent client, who were undergoing a huge change migrating their data into the cloud. The client wanted to use this change as an opportunity to rethink and restructure how the teams worked. The teams were delivering but the leadership level didn’t know where work was coming in, how it was being prioritised and allocated, and whether extra work was being billed back to the customer.

We interviewed 4 core teams within the directorate and 6 teams that sat outside the core function. We wanted to get a holistic picture to help us understand the upstream and downstream impacts of challenges they faced.

We listened. We digested. We created an end to end map of the teams, their workflows and how it all feeds in.

When we presented it back, the Associate Director breathed a sigh relief, “I’ve been working here for years and didn’t fully understand what everyone did, and you’ve understood it in a couple of weeks!” Understanding the breadth and depth of the problem is one aspect of what we do, we are focused on co-creating a solution for the organisation to own. After all, you are the ones who will be tasked with implementing and driving the work after we have gone.

We actively work with key stakeholders to design a strategic approach that integrates insights, addresses core challenges and has a clear definition of what success looks like. We often find that there is a disconnect between creating a strategy and delivering it. Using key insights and best practice, we work with organisations to craft an effective transformation roadmap. We aim for ambitious but deliverable, ensuring that we have ways to measure and track progress.

2. You can’t transform a project until the conditions are right

Transformation stories are often recounted as straight forward and formulaic. Holding onto this idea is inaccurate because change is messy, incremental and non-linear. Effective transformation relies on a long term sustainable approach in the right conditions. If the conditions for success aren’t present then progress, momentum and appetite for transformation will be hindered. As Kate Tarling notes in her book The Service Organization, “Doing anything else is futile.”

We, as practitioners, can help reframe thinking around what transformation looks like and what the conditions for success are specific to an organisation. This involves looking at where the organisation is on their transformation journey, the level of appetite for change and taking a holistic approach to ensure a balanced delivery.

In our recent work with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), we built a picture of transformation and innovation work that was happening across a sample of its 32 Armed Length Bodies (ALB). This enabled us present back a holistic view pinpointing where efforts were focused and where they weren’t.

Transformation takes a balanced approach across key pillars and in Defra’s case it needed to be consistent across all ALBs. There were some key conditions for success that needed to be put into place to enable sustainable and attainable transformation to happen. We helped work out what these were so that the work could be done to put them into place. Sometimes you have to focus on preparing the ground before you can grow anything.

3. Real change is slow — don’t rush it

Organisations that require transformation are usually messy, sprawling and ineffective at communication. They come gift-wrapped in constraints: Politics, limited budgets, toxic work cultures, frozen middle management, ways of working, siloes…the list goes on. These constraints slow down transformational efforts and, if left untouched, can render efforts costly and ineffective.

“Digital reformers will find their path inevitably brings them into conflict with other parts of the organisation. One person in the right place can do a great deal to unpick the hard work of hundreds”

Digital Transformation at Scale: Why the Strategy is Delivery, 2018

Part of the work we do, is to slowly and gently unravel these constraints and get to the core root of the problem. This means that we are not just remedying the symptoms of the problem, we are looking at the systemic, cultural and strategic changes that will deliver a far reaching and long lasting impact.

4. Think big. Start small. Scale it.

There is a power to indulging in big picture thinking. It enables a purpose and a vision to be established, however to take that picture and make it a reality can be overwhelming.

We work with leaders and teams to break this daunting task into smaller deliverable goals adopting an incremental approach to success. This could be through agile delivery, increasing capabilities, streamlining workflows or even just facilitating conversations.

In the NHS Covid Vaccination programme, we worked hard at all levels to introduce user centred design and product delivery. We upskilled individuals and teams in user research, introduced an agile mindset, reshaped teams so they could deliver user centred products and streamlined the flow of work into the teams to enable effective prioritisation and delivery of value. Taking the time to do the hard work, creating an exemplar of what good looks like and bringing the team along the journey provides the foundations upon which these transformations can be scaled.

Whatever you want to do, we can help make sure it’s scaleable.

5. Take a pragmatic approach to manage expectations

On approaching a new transformation project, we interrogate the opportunity by asking some key questions; is it actually feasible? What is the scope of opportunity here? Do we have a wide enough sphere of influence to deliver real value? What is the most valuable thing that we can deliver in the time that we have?

By initially asking these questions we can more accurately discuss and agree the scope of what can be done, what will deliver most value and ensure that expectations are aligned.

6. Recognise the pain and effort required in growth

As consultants we are often brought in as “fixers” to help solve challenges and organisation, leader or team may be facing. This means that we often see apathy amongst employees who are going through their third transformation initiative.

“It’s not complicated; it’s just hard.”

Michael Slaby, Obama’s 2008 chief technology officer

By recognising the level of difficulty in enacting organisational change and acknowledging that the resilience required to overcome these difficulties is not a never-ending source, we can plan ways to mitigate the risks. By helping to overcome apathy, we can find the champions of change and uncover the pockets of innovation to use as exemplars.

7. Change is only as effective as those who champion it

We can help set you up to succeed, but what that success looks like, is entirely up to, and driven by, you.

Things can happen that are outside of our control or sphere of influence; change in leadership; a toxic culture; ministerial pressure; untenable deadlines. All these things can affect the rate of progress and success of a transformation, which makes it increasingly important to ensure that our clients are equipped to drive the work past our end date. We can give you the tools to champion the work, quantify value and sustain transformational delivery.

8. “Failure” is an option, as it encourages growth

Not all transformations are successful first time around. Implementing change is a constant uphill battle and can sometimes mean taking a few steps back.

We can help organisations adopt a growth mindset that enables teams, colleagues and leaders to learn, adapt (and grow) from mistakes, taking a scientific approach to failure, being curious, pragmatic and honest. Innovation is grounded in failure and we can help you fail fast and fail safely.

Embarking on a transformational change project requires a pragmatic, flexible and bespoke approach. Here at Hippo we will use our expertise to help guide you, leaving you with a set of tools, techniques and strategies and insights to feel confident in starting and continuing your transformation journey.