I bet you cannot think of a single large company that is not in the midst of a transformation. All large corporations are undergoing a profound, often digital, shift in the business that keeps the top management incredibly busy. Yet, none of these executives and companies have found the winning formula for succeeding with transformation. We know this from the statistics: Digital transformations have a dismal 16% success rate, and we know this from the anecdotal evidence: Many executives express that they do not know how to secure and measure employee buy-in to the transformation journey.
A recent report from UN Global Compact, reveals that 1.000 executives across 21 industries and 99 countries feel the pressure to find new sustainable approaches to business development and that they still haven't found the winning formula for how to approach the challenge.
What do you think, dear reader? Is it a good idea to leave transformations that will save businesses billions and fundamentally change our business development approach to top executives who openly admit that they have no idea what they're doing?
On the one hand, no: it makes no sense to hold on to the age-old notion that just because you sit on the top seat in the company, you are also the one with the best vision and thus the best conditions to make the right decisions.
Whether you are a top manager, middle manager, or at the production line, your vision is limited by the position you see the company from, and you are completely unable to see what the people who experience the business from other positions see. It is not a matter of personal leadership style or ability - it is a human condition.
And, on the other hand, yes: Top executives who openly admit they haven't cracked the code are exactly what is needed in major transformations. Only the top executives who recognize that their vision is as limited as everyone else's have a chance to get employees and managers on board, and ensuring the transformation is successful. And so the good news is that more and more top executives are admitting that they are in the exploratory phase. They are more than executives, they are also explorers - on a quest for a better way to understand and do business. And while they, as executives, are often alone, the search for a better way to do business is undertaken with others.
But the good news, unfortunately, stops here. The bad news is that, even though top executives have become more explorative, the methods they use to explore and develop their businesses are stuck in the past paradigm.
Whether they resort to questionnaires, interviews or observational studies, they only get answers to the questions they themselves have imagined to ask, and they have no idea what questions are being asked by the employees who work far from the top, but close to the products and customers that are the bread and butter of the company.
Without access to the experiences, insights and ideas that are exchanged between managers and employees in their companies, top executives must rely on luck and good fortune when making strategically important decisions - such as to cut several thousand positions or invest in major transformations. Or, put another way: The risk of executives cutting or investing in the wrong areas is huge.
The most common storyline for a company’s transformation journey involves a senior executive being hired to make big changes - and then fired because they fail. The reason is simple: The executives are busy wasting their time. Because they do not know what actually matters in their particular business. Since they do not know, the decisions they make do not take into account the specific circumstances that make managers and employees think and act the way they do.
Paradoxically, this gordian knot only tightens by hiring a new top manager, who in most cases knows even less about the specific problems and solutions that exist in the company - and who therefore makes even worse decisions.
And that is why top managers need to spend more time:
1) Listening to the experiences, insights and ideas that live in their businesses
2) Ensuring that everyone is focusing on and talking to each other about the most important strategic issues
3) Developing a culture where everyone works together and is responsible for realizing the company's goals
This is what determines whether the transformation - and the executive - will be a success or a failure.
NOTE: The main points and arguments in this piece also appear in an opinion piece I published in Danish in Børsen October 2019.
Co-founder and Chief Methodologist at Qvest. Pia is the inventor of the Qvest method. She has a PhD in Philosophy and has spent the last 20 years researching and writing about the nature and impact of questions.
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