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People: the engine of successful transformation

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People: the engine of successful transformation

You remember the transformations that truly change your business and your working life. They are big and bold in conception; they are well planned, but not rigid; they respond quickly to problems.

But most importantly, the people are the engine of transformation. Not always from the start. And not everyone. But sufficient, and in growing numbers and influence, so that the momentum becomes irresistible.

Business transformation is an adaptive challenge, with multiple moving parts and interdependencies – a bit like building a plane while flying it. Nous’ business transformation map (Figure 1) lays out the four major streams of work involved in transformation:

  1. Nous’ proven change engagement methodology – applied at scale to focus, engage and motivate to ensure an enduring result.
  2. The people design elements – leadership, culture, capability and partners – to intimately understand and intentionally design.
  3. The technical design elements – process, structure, technology and partners.
  4. The foundational elements – strong governance, project management, strategic guidance and benefits management – which occur throughout the transformation until value is realised and change embedded.

The engine of transformation

Successful business transformation efforts understand that people are the engine that drives transformation

Attention to the people side of transformation is critical, particularly leadership capability [1], organisational culture [2] and employee engagement with the business case for change [3]. A focus on the technical/process elements alone will result in the direction and future requirements being well formed but never realised.

So how do you ignite the people engine for transformation?

Our experience highlights a number of things we can do to ignite the people engine for transformational change. Listed below are some key ideas, the challenges they address and applied examples across each of the work streams.

CHANGE AND ENGAGEMENT: Address decision bias and fear honestly

Transformation in a dynamic environment is complex and easily overwhelms even the most experienced manager. When overwhelmed, decision makers substitute difficult questions with ones they find easier to answer and control – often the technical components [4]. Decision makers tend to focus on current events that achieve a short‑term outcome and discount the long‑term implications [5]. For example: top-down strategy and goal setting to set the course quickly; or assets sales or staff reductions that deliver short‑term financial gain. In addition to bias, individual beliefs, fears and anxieties can leave leaders ‘immune’ to change [6].

Instead: Break down the challenge, tackle both people and technical components and rigorously think through the long-term implications of each decision. Actively reflect to surface and confront your fears and to challenge tightly held assumptions.

Examples: After failure to get traction from a technical program of work over 18 months, a community care provider built their leaders’ capability to engage staff to the new way of working with great success. Leaders in a large military organisation challenged long held and well entrenched assumptions through the engagement of a large number of staff at all levels of the organisation in new system and process design. The organisation focused on people systems, capability and behaviours as the key part of the transformation.

CHANGE AND ENGAGEMENT: Harness creativity and energy through workforce involvement

Whilst the right transformation strategy is situational and includes a mix of directive and consultative strategies [7], traditional top down change programs that are ‘rolled out’ from the top often create cynicism and resistance; particularly if commitment to implement is required at the business unit level.

Instead: Harness discretionary creativity and energy through workforce involvement.

Example: A newly merged Commonwealth department rapidly engaged with the workforce to define the new department’s vision, values and core behaviours and design the program of work. The Australian arm of a global consumer goods company implemented a creative, manager‑led process to enable intact teams to identify the key shared behaviours required to bring the values to life and deliver upon an aggressive growth target.

LEADERSHIP: Recognise that transformational change starts with self

Leaders often approach transformation with the view that ‘others’ need to change their mindsets, skillsets and behaviours. In addition, many ‘cheer on’ the transformation effort of others as a spectator from the sidelines.

Instead: Every leader of change should ‘hold the mirror up’ to themselves and consider what they personally need to more consistently say, do, prioritise and recognise to accelerate the transformation. Leaders need to drive the transformation with relentless energy and impatience.

Example: Leaders in a Commonwealth department reflected on the leadership shadow they cast on the business and developed a personal plan, shared with colleagues, about what they will say, do, prioritise and recognise to accelerate the transformation. The senior leadership team of another large Commonwealth Government department completed a 360 process at the start of a transformation and shared their individual reflections and insights as part of a collective process to determine the best way for them to engage their people and lead the change.

CULTURE: Work with cultural strengths, not against them

A strong culture is a power to be reckoned with. It is pointless to continually push against the tide in attempts to execute upon that winning strategy.

Instead: Harness the cultural strengths of your organisation by choosing an approach that fits the culture, yet starts to shift a few critical behaviours.

Example: A global resources company recognised its frontline leaders’ focus on looking out for others and built upon this strength to enable leaders to help others to drive productivity. This delivered unprecedented impact in the business. An aged‑care provider with a cultural strength of respect and sensitivity adopted a multimodal communication approach (with the client at the centre of all its messages) to keep people connected, informed and comfortable that their colleagues and clients would be treated with dignity throughout a change process.

CAPABILITY: Give a lot of attention to capability development

Traditional development focuses on instruction rather than immersion; and learning rather than growing [8].

Instead: Move to what really works – vertical development (complex ways of thinking), not just horizontal development (skills and competencies) [9].

Example: A leading Australian insurer implemented an inquiry and discovery process that immersed executives in another part of the business with a learning partner, to create insight about the business and develop strong, sustained learning and professional relationships.

EXECUTION: Plan to adapt iteratively along the way with no finite end
Transformation efforts often attempt to drive a rational and linear change process from the top. However, transformational change is unpredictable and uncertain, particularly in turbulent times, and can’t be dealt with in a series of linear steps. There is no one-best-way.

Instead: Plan for change but take a holistic and contextual approach to adapt iteratively to the unexpected twists and turns in an ongoing process with no finite end. Ensure deviations from the plan still stay true to the strategic intent and expected benefits. Revise the plan,  don’t abandon it, particularly when key interest groups oppose the change.

Example: A private higher education provider emphasised governance over structure and planning. They decided who made the decisions as things evolved, rather than envisaging and developing a clear staged pathway. A significant, state-based education reform paused to take stock of the positioning and impact of key reforms within their dynamic environment. This stocktake to re-orient, based on rich feedback, clarified what was instrumental to reform success.

Transformation by its nature is big, complex and unpredictable. Fortunately, successful transformations also generate enormous returns compared with the status quo.

Each transformation has its own distinctive characteristics, but there are common themes in many as described in this paper. Over the last 15 years, Nous Group has partnered to enable dozens of successful, large‑scale transformations, drawing on our expertise across people, strategy, digital, and organisational performance. Investment to enable people to act as the engine of transformation has been core to the success of every transformation in which we have been the consulting partner.


[1] A Gilley, H McMillan & J Gilley, 2009; D Herold, D Fedor, S Caldwell & Y Liu, 2008

[2] R Jones, N Jimmieson & A Griffiths, 2005; M  Rashid, M Sambasivan & A Rahman, 2004

[3] B Fedor, S Caldwell & D Herold, 2006; H Miles, 2010

[4] Kahneman, D., and Frederick, S., (2001), ‘Representativeness revisited: Attribute substitution in intuitive judgment’

[5] Trope, Y., and Liberman, N., ‘Temporal construal’, Psychological Review, 110(3), (July, 2003): pp.403-421

[6] Keegan, R., and L. L. Lahey. "Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organisation." (2009).

[7] Dunphy, Dexter, and Doug Stace. "The strategic management of corporate change." Human relations 46.8 (1993): 905-920.

[8] P Cottrill, Enterprise Leadership, Nous Perspectives at: http//www.nousgroup.com.au/perspective/enterprise-leadership

[9] Petrie, N. (2015) The How-To of Vertical Leadership Development – Part 2, Center for Creative Leadership

Tags: change, implementation, organisational change, transformation,