Don’t believe the transformation hype – at first

Transformation programmes always start off with big ideas but reality soon sets in.  It’s a bit embarrassing for the communicator who believed the hype at the beginning and has to explain later on why things are not quite as promised says Liam FitzPatrick.

It seems to happen on virtually every single change programme I’ve ever been involved with.  And I don’t think I’m the only communicator to experience this – transformation hype.

The Comms team is briefed at the beginning – or around the time the strategy consultants have prescribed a solution – and we’re told that “this time the CEO is serious” and that a wide range of robustly planned initiatives have been put in place to transform the organization.

We’re then asked to prepare a communications plan to unveil this comprehensive new vision.

But, time and again, the initial enthusiasm of the Programme Management Office (PMO) doesn’t quite follow through.

It might be that the CEO loses interest as soon as some drastic cost reductions have been delivered.  Or everyone gets a reality check when they see the detail of the complicated assessment model that the HR consultants think they have sold.

It could be, that under close examination, the detailed proposals that seemed so simple in the diagnostic phase of the programme are actually unrealistic, expensive or just fantasy.

My experience is that every single transformation I have ever worked on has its “OK let’s think about it” moment.

That’s the moment when reality creeps in.  The Operations Director may have got wind of the disruption being planned, the brilliant technological solution turns out to be a decade away or the Regional MDs have worked out that this is another one of those ignorable Head Office initiatives.

Whenever it happens, it always leaves the communications manager in a difficult position.

If the communicators believed the initial hype they can find themselves having to explain why the programme has been scaled down or “handed over to the divisions for implementation” and the Programme team broken up.  They can end up answering uncomfortable questions about the missing training that was so lavishly promised.  Communications gets the blame when people discover that the capability assessment is painful and pointless.

That’s not to say that the transformation programme won’t go on to deliver some amazing results.  It’s just that my experience is that what is promised at the beginning is rarely what is delivered.

There seem to be two main approaches.

There’s the semi-vague intention and there’s the defined micro plan.

The semi-vague intention comes in all shapes and sizes but almost always combines a clear financial outcome (such as slashing costs or bolstering cash flow) and a general aspiration such as “planning for the future” or “leapfrogging the competition”.

The communication manager should be wary that the nicer or more exciting elements will be relatively undefined and will inevitably be dropped as soon as the CFO gets his or her results and can declare some form of short-term victory to the markets.  In anticipation of this happening, the comms team protects the organization by avoiding the hubris of the PMO.

Until there is clarity about the follow-up actions, it’s always wise to avoid commissioning a fancy video or website.  And, even more than ever, we should resist demands for a funky logo because we know that in six months time the whole thing will have become yet another example of the fads of management.

The defined micro-plan appears to be the solution and projects confidence.  It comes with defined work streams and milestones.  Often, I’ve arrived on projects to find a consultancy already installed with a mandate to implement their tried and tested proprietary approach.

Despite the apparent clarity of the work plan, the complexity of the moving parts normally brings it to a shuddering halt – too many parties depending on each other to hit deadlines followed by a growing realisation that the organization simply can not digest the volume of work coming its way.

If the communications team has done its job, it will have seen this one coming.  A deep understanding of the organization will tell us what people can realistically cope with and will enable us to ask annoying questions about explaining inter-relationships between work streams.  It takes a degree of courage, in the face of the unstoppable logical plan, to maintain an air of reality.  However, our core skill is always to see things from the point of view of people outside the project team.

Sadly, it is not always obvious which early transformation approach one is dealing with.

The communicator therefore has two primary defences against making a fool of the programme team:

1. Take no one’s word for the wisdom of the plan

2. Be the most expert person around when it comes to knowing how the workforce and stakeholders think.

People in the PMO may not always like it at first, but the organisation will always thank you for being the voice of reality.

Featured image – what some people thought 2011 would look like in the 1940s. Source: Vippers (Japanese) via Rocket News 24