Following one of my interventions in a seminar on transformation, some participants regretted that I did not propose a method. This is not the first time that, faced with the difficulty of leading an organizational transformation, the need for a method has been strongly expressed. But I resist it because I am convinced that not only is transformation not a question of method, but that a method, whatever it may be, is often an obstacle to its success.
In a previous article, I analyzed the failure of General Electric’s transformation, which, after huge investments in an entrepreneurial approach, gave up and dismissed Jeffrey Immelt, its President and Chief Executive Officer. The approach was based on the Lean Startup method, which is very popular in the entrepreneurial world. Hundreds of managers were trained in this method and it was supposed to turn them into entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, Immelt had just forgotten that these managers also have a normal job to do and do it in an institutional context that is very difficult to change, due to the pressure of short term performance. Whatever Lean Startup’s appeal, it cannot transform the organization in any way because it is only a method for managing a project to develop a new product or service. In other words, a method is tactical: it acts at the level of a given process, or task, and as such can be very useful and effective, but it is not strategic: it does not act at the level of the organization; it does not solve the dilemma facing a company like GE between the renewal of its historical activity and the creation of new activities that are disrupted. It may be necessary, but it is not enough.
But a method poses another problem: it suggests that it suffices to find the right method to miraculously solve the problem of transformation. In doing so, it perpetuates a scientist vision of management, putting the organization’s employees out of the equation. The general management “lays out” a strategy (or what it thinks is a strategy) and places it on the desk of managers who only have to “implement” or “execute” it. Thinking the solution in terms of method means not understanding how an organization really works and especially being at the mercy of the magic potion of the moment, be it Lean Startup or other Holacracy. Transformation is not a question of method; dozens of large companies like GE, which are currently stuck with their major programs, particularly in the digital sector, are there to testify to this.
It’s not the others, it’s you.
Putting employees out of the equation is all the more problematic as it is already largely assumed by the employees themselves. When in a seminar we examine the obstacles to transformation, the one that inevitably comes back is “It’s the fault of the management”, i.e. it’s above that it happens. Interestingly, I have this answer at any level, including the highest (the senior management will tend to raise the problem in terms of bad execution, which is the same thing). It’s always the fault of others. Such a posture has many advantages, and in particular to indulge in learned helplessness. As one participant recently told me: “It is easier to suffer or complain than to act.”
The method is you
And so the loop is closed: the illusion of a magical method that only one has to wait for, and the rejection of immobility on others, explains in large part why transformation projects are failing. Only a radical reversal of posture can get things moving again: the starting point of the transformation is you, and not the others. Or rather it’s you with the others, the ones you can convince to help. You can cry about what the leaders should do, or you can try to do something, anything, no matter how small, because you don’t have to aim big to start with. And so, as a result, the method is you. It’s the only one that can work. And that’s good because you can start right now.
Read the article about GE: What the Dismissal of Jeffrey Immelt (GE) Tells us About the Limits of a Tactical Approach to Innovation. Read also Getting things changed: We must talk to the boss!.