How often have you talked about the concept of “transformation?” It seems that the textbooks, lectures and management gurus alike talk about transformation. The word gets referenced frequently, but what does it actually mean, and how can we define in the context of our organizations? I took on a new role and used the transformation goal liberally, until I realized that most of my team has no idea what I meant. So, after a bit self-reflection, here’s my definition: At its core, transformation is about the ongoing ability of an organization to survive, adapt and prosper in an ever-changing competitive market.
If the goal is a transformed organization, there is a tendency to envision an organizational endpoint where the endpoint becomes the focus. I liken this model of transformation to the caterpillar becoming a butterfly – which is an impressive transformation, but ultimately ends in the butterfly’s death. So, if transformation is not about an endpoint of perfection, what is it?
I would suggest that transformation is an organizational competency grounded in the ongoing ability of its people to fundamentally adapt to a constantly changing competitive environment. Transformation portends a continual adaptation versus a desired specific end state.
This phenomenon is especially critical when considering the health care landscape. It is fair to say that we are facing unprecedented change including shifting demographics, rising consumer expectations, accelerating technology and scientific innovations and declining reimbursements. Today’s health care leadership must understand how to pivot and adapt in a way that allows for sustained financial and operational success.
Planning for Transformation
I love this quote from author B.J. Neblett: “We are the sum total of our experiences.” In practice, our organizations inherit this collective experience, so to understand organizational transformation, we must examine the team along with more traditional elements like assets, strategies and competitors. No matter how large and complex an organization is, it’s only the sum total of its people. Our personal history affects us every single day in every decision we make. Today, we recognize this “history” as embedded bias. In an earlier time, it was described as our shared experience influencing our impressions and insights. To look anew at our environment, organizations must be able to put their history in context and assess the competitive environment with new eyes and attitude.
As we consider building this competency to transform, we need to recognize that organizations only change if people change. Employees’ past reactions to change are strong indicators of a transformation initiative’s odds for success. If an organization has struggled with change in the past, there might be a foundational issue to address before executing another transformation effort.
Three organizational traits for successful transformation
Organizations must possess three primary traits to achieve successful transformation: foresight, humility and resiliency.
Trait #1: Foresight
The first organizational trait necessary for successful transformation is the ability to understand the current environment and use that information to forecast what the future market landscape will look like. No leadership team has a crystal ball, and fortunately, that’s not what forecasting change is about anyway.
While the pace of change has accelerated, much of what we will see in the next five years is known today. Observing those trends and technologies provides base insights into the future, but those insights only come through a disciplined process of reviewing the surrounding environment.
I like to use the analogy of the 360-degree view: An organization’s environment extends far beyond its competitors and client base. For health care organizations, this means examining consumer trends, technology, labor, policy, regulation, community health, economic growth and other factors to gain a full view of the industry. For some successful leaders, it’s about having a strong gut instinct. For the rest of us, successful leadership spurs from being an avid observer and a disciplined student of the market.
Trait #2: Humility
It takes great confidence to grow an organization, yet it is through a sense of humility that leadership recognizes that what got an organization where it is today isn’t necessarily what will propel it forward in the future.
I remember listening to the legendary W. Edwards Deming speak over 25 years ago to a room full of Baltimore based executives from various large companies. It was a prosperous time, and yet he gazed out at these powerful leaders and said, “You do not have a God-given right to survive.” This challenge has stuck with me through the years, and I believe it exemplifies what it means to realize organizational humility. (I would guess that over half of those companies in that room a quarter-century ago don’t exist today.) Leadership must recognize that though their organizations may be strong and successful today, if they are not willing to reinvent themselves in response to future markets, they are doomed to mediocrity at best and failure at worst. Conversely, successful leaders demonstrate humility and are constantly challenging their organizations to keep pushing the boundaries and evolve.
Trait #3: Resiliency
When all is said and done, an organization’s ability to transform depends on its resiliency.
One of the best definitions for resiliency I’ve heard came from Paralympic skier and gold medalist Bonnie St. John. She spoke about one of her downhill events, during which every skier fell at some point in the race. Ultimately, she said, the winner was the person who got up the fastest. Resiliency isn’t about whether you fall down or you get back up; it’s about how fast you get back up. To embrace a transformational mindset, leaders must prepare their organizations to try new things, fail quickly, get back up, and try again.
Preparing the culture for organizational transformation
Beyond the brick and mortar, organizations are a collection of people organized around a shared purpose. All people need a certain amount of stability in their life – and that need extends to the workplace.
Psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists all agree: A feeling of safety is one of the most important things people need to be effective over the long term. They need to feel like their organization and their leadership cares about them and will take care of their basic needs. Once people feel safe, it’s easier to inspire them toward a greater mission.
Health care has an incredible advantage over other industries in this regard: We have a mission that virtually every human can embrace. Once a safe and positive culture is established in the organization, employees will be more receptive to supporting and mobilizing transformation – especially if it aligns with the mission of helping people.
It’s leadership’s responsibility to ensure a healthy culture and environment are achieved. Every change a health care organization makes should serve the purpose of improving the lives of those who provide and receive care. When executed effectively, transformation and improvement are complementary.
Through foresight, humility and resiliency, an organization can face the ongoing challenge of staying relevant in a changing landscape by leveraging the collective talents of the employees who share a common purpose.
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