Five things transformation leaders can do to ride the inevitable ‘cycles of renewal’

Transformation is rarely linear, occurring in cycles. I was talking with Chris Green recently, and he introduced me to the notion of ‘cycles of renewal’.

These cycles can be triggered by leadership changes, a project that stagnates due to a lack of clear direction or unclear measures of success, or forces outside of the control of the organisation (e.g., geopolitical forces, the rapid rate of technological change, or market disruption).

Whilst understanding the context and environment for transformation is crucial, it's easy for those involved to become paralysed by cycles and other constraints. It gives people an easy out or make it too hard to do what they want. Ultimately, these cycles get in the way of transformation and inhibit progress.

You've spent time getting people on board, but the cycles derail efforts, so how do leaders ensure that their transformation agenda can ride the cycles of renewal and emerge wearing the yellow jersey?

While results, structures, and systems are important, leaders can ensure transformation can endure by putting most of their time and energy into people.

In our experience, there are five things that leaders can do to support people through transformation activities:

  1. Assemble and inspire an A Team that can (and will) deliver
  2. Work with the A Team to create a North Star that can ride out the cycles
  3. Empower the team to be creative, working collaboratively to seek out quick wins, before focussing on the meaty stuff
  4. Focus on succession planning and people development
  5. Proactively build a ‘legacy culture’

1. Assemble and inspire an A Team that can (and will) deliver (not quite Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, but it’s close!)

There are a couple of important points here. First, this needs to be a true A Team – not just a team of one or two stars (that smattering of talent is the equivalent of Lionel Messi playing for Albion Rovers). We know leaders often say, ‘But I need my best people delivering, not transforming!’. Nope – you’ve got that the wrong way around. If your best people aren’t designing and delivering the future, you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s painful to remove your stars from their day jobs, but it’s even more painful not to. Second, this needs to be a cross-functional (and ideally cross-organisational – involving your customers, anyone?) team. Just like the Team Leader at the Tour de France needs climbers, time trialists, and domestiques, no single person can ensure transformation success. Group together cross-functional might to support future transformation, accepting that you won’t get everyone on board initially.

As you build the A Team, ask yourself:

  • Does the team align with the scale and complexity of the challenge and organisation?
  • Do they have experience and confidence as well as skill?
  • Do I have sufficient representation from the parts of the organisation that are affected?

If not, scale back your ambition.

You also need to think through some of the unintended consequences of this cross-functional collaboration of superstars. Will they feel threatened? What can I do to discourage defensive behaviours and provide reassurance?

An A Team doesn’t guarantee success but does improve your chances. Without an influential A Team, opposition will fight against the transformation sooner or later, derailing any efforts. Building this team (and continuing to add to it with top talent) helps plan for, manage the consequences of, and ride through the cycles of renewal. That A Team can continue the work when new people take charge.

2. Work with the A Team to create a North Star that will ride out the cycles

Cycles can be unsettling and may feel like you need to course correct in response to them. Some leaders focus intently on describing – in detail – the future they want to create, which can prove to be limiting. Whilst it’s vital to create a vision or North Star for the transformation programme to make it clear the destination, leaders must leave enough room to get through the inevitable changes in the environment. In other words, leaders must build in flexibility in how they get to the finish line. Working to anticipate what those changes could be will help with this. This ensures the North Star has enduring utility as you move through the cycles.

When developing the North Star, leaders should be aware that the creation is just as much about ‘process’ as strategic intent. By this we mean, getting the A Team to define it while bringing more people onboard (a ‘community of the bothered’) to help co-create the future state. This helps foster a greater sense of ownership and means they will carry the message throughout the organisation.

Leaders must be front and centre throughout the transformation, communicating the North Star relentlessly and using the messages to inspire others. This isn’t an ‘autograph signing’ where you turn up at the beginning and leave, rarely seen again. Test your messaging. Are you getting people on board? If you see inaction (or worse, rebellion) you haven’t got it right. Try again until you begin to see the behaviours you’re looking for. Leaders must walk the talk too – not acting in ways that run counter to the vision. They must support the A Team when future ways of working are alien to them (indeed leaders may need to seek support themselves).

3. Empower the team to be creative, working collaboratively to seek out quick wins, before focussing on the meaty stuff

There’s rarely any glory in big bang transformation. Leaders are still in credibility-building mode at this point. But it does call for different ways of working. This could include sandpits to develop, test, and refine new products, services, or ways of working. Or it could involve trials, setting up shadow teams to try new approaches, or even sharing information differently. Bottom line is that leaders must foster a climate of psychological safety to allow team members to take risks and challenge the status quo. Like the North Star provides unconstrained direction, leaders must provide autonomy and cultivate a continuous learning culture. This allows teams to test-and-learn and build on their ideas.

Leaders must then publicly recognise (and where appropriate, reward) successes – no matter how big or small. This helps build momentum towards the North Star, bringing more people on board.

Once you have realised quick wins, this gives leaders the agency to go out and tackle meaty issues or opportunities.

4. Focus on succession planning and people development

Ensuring there is a clear development and succession plan is critical to seeing out the cycles and ensure the unyielding focus on the North Star. Quite clearly the A Team and the mushrooming ‘community of the bothered’ is a useful source for the ‘who’ (if you have overcome an influential resistor, they might be a good option, but must be people who can champion the change) – they’ve been bought into everything until this point after all. But good succession planning needs to consider where organisations are. To reference Mike Watkins’ First 90 Days, are they in ‘turnaround’ mode? ‘Realignment’? ‘Sustaining success’? These considerations support succession choices both now and in the future. For example, you may need turnaround specialists initially, followed by a steady Eddie to sustain success and maintain focus. Regardless, leaders must clearly define strategic roles, ensure continued development of talent, and clearly communicate the succession planning framework, which should be linked to your North Star.

The outcome should be that there is an enduring high willingness to change and people in place to continue the good work, no matter the cycle. 

5. Proactively build a ‘legacy culture’

History is awash with stories of great leaders whose organisations struggled to cope without them. Think Jack Welch at GE, Howard Schultz at Starbucks, or Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Whilst these examples clearly point to the strength of those leaders, the biggest legacy leaders can leave is that their organisation positioned for long-term and sustained success in the future. Part of this is clearly that their people feel ready to succeed (and so the recommendations above are critical). This helps organisations overcome cycles. 

Just like the 2010-formed Team Sky / Ineos won the Tour de France on seven occasions with four different Team Leaders during that decade, leaders must ensure they put solid handoffs in place. This helps leave their organisations in a better place. CXOs must recognise their tenure is a cycle of renewal (in of itself!), so must ensure their actions, words and behaviours are aligned, creating the right environment for current and future success.

Image credit: Bono Tsang on Pexels

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