Are you ready for a new way to think about business transformation?
It seems like you can’t turn on the news nowadays and not hear about some spot in the world that is being ravaged and destroyed due to some political power struggle. It leaves me thinking about all the knowledge and technology and other advancements that have been lost due to war in the history of our planet. Where might we be in this world if we had been able to hold on to knowledge rather than destroying everything in our path?
I try not to ponder this question too long because I noticed it breeds in me a dismal view of humanity. While I continue to be critical of the human tendency to destroy knowledge and history rather than embrace it, I also feel inspired to learn more about other places, people, and cultures—to find what I can learn from them and apply to my life. This is my way of strengthening my hope for humanity in a world where the news always seems to be filled with destruction and despair.
But it also has me thinking about how often we sabotage the work of others in our daily lives. On a small scale this happens every time we dismiss someone’s ideas, spread gossip or create doubt in someone’s mind about their ability to be successful.
On a larger scale, this sabotage creates higher stakes. I can’t count how many times I have seen a new CEO come in and want to institute changes on day one. Programs are torn down; policies and branding are overturned. I understand a new leader needs to make their mark, but oftentimes it feels as though the changes are being made simply because the old way of doing things was established by someone else.
When leaders make changes without first showing recognition for what is already in place and without knowing the chain of impact they are creating, it can wreak havoc on the company. Regardless of how great the changes are, when someone new comes in like a bulldozer, employees can feel that all of their previous work is being annihilated. Annihilation leads to alienation, which is not usually what new leaders are striving for.
Building VS Destroying
To make changes without losing all established institutional knowledge, new leaders need to take a moment to acknowledge current successes. They should recognize what things the company takes pride in. When changing established systems, programs, and procedures, they need to clearly articulate a rationale for those changes. Oftentimes the underlying desired result driving a change is not different from what already exists; it is a change in approach or method. Showing how core values are being enhanced by the changes is a way to assimilate the old and new together.
One reason people resist change is because they focus on what they have to give up instead of what they have to gain. —Rick Godwin
There are lots of ways to merge the history and traditions into the new direction of the company. Three easy ways institutional knowledge can be transferred are through onboarding, systematic archiving, and mentoring.
Onboarding is a training program for new employees that typically begins with an orientation session. It then goes further to provide ongoing support for a couple of months while the employee acclimates to their new company. This support includes explanations and guidance related to company culture and accepted standards of behavior. Onboarding also provides the perfect opportunity to teach about company history and how/why current processes were developed.
Systematic archiving is an established process by which companies record their history. It is a mass repository for electronically storing company artifacts. This may include information about: any major decisions or shifts in the company’s way of doing business, changes in leadership, copies of significant reports or media, and procedural instructions on current and previous systems of process. It is important that all employees are aware of both how to contribute to this system and how to access and utilize the information it holds. This allows everyone the ability to be part of the ongoing development of the company.
Mentoring is frequently used to help rising stars understand higher level positions. This is done to develop their skills toward those positions. But it is also an opportunity to help employees learn the historical significance as to why certain decisions were made or why certain processes are used. This information is valuable for decision makers and needs to be actively taught to up and coming leaders.
These three assimilation strategies allow the old to coexist with the new. This helps everyone to understand what it all means and what to expect from the new path going forward. It’s also important to make sure that everyone has the resources they need to implement the changes. So often, a lack of training or equipment holds employees back from executing a successful transition. This leaves them frustrated with the changes and the leader. Making sure that all the ducks are in the water and know how to swim is important. But knowing which direction to go before you hit the starting bell is also crucial to a successful business transformation.
Putting It All Together
What might the world look like if all the advancements we’ve made over the history of humankind had been preserved? What if those advancements were built upon rather than tossed aside or overwritten? Consider all the ways technology, medicine, transportation, economics, and civilization would be impacted by this altered approach. The world might be very different today if conquerors had built upon their discoveries instead of erasing them. There are times when tearing down and rebuilding is necessary. But leaders must be thoughtful in the way they approach innovation and understand their motives if they truly desire improvement. The focus should be on the benefits of the improvements themselves and not on glorifying a new leader’s ego. This is no easy task when you have been hired to create a business transformation.
How often do you consider why you want to change something before you make the change? Do you tend to start from scratch each time, or do you build upon what you have? I challenge you to think about change as a way to build upon current strengths rather than deconstructing an entire system to build something completely new. What can you do to help everyone involved in the change feel validated for past contributions? I challenge you to think of business transformation and change in terms of growth rather than destruction.
Revised February 2022. Originally published under The OD Pro in November 2019.