It takes time for an organisation to ‘rethink everything’ and develop a new vision for itself. The first step is to believe change is possible.
We have a tendency to idolise business leaders who transform sclerotic businesses into dynamic, growing concerns. Too much so: we shroud these activities in an aura of magic and mystery, as if the individual responsible had performed some supernatural feat, something mere mortals could never attempt. Systemic change always lands in the ‘too hard’ basket, except for those blessed few who have ‘the gift’.
In this way, most businesses run out the clock, unwinding slowly, then collapsing suddenly – with Dick Smith Electronics as only the latest, most visible example. Avoiding that fate takes leadership, strategy and dedication – but no magic.
In episode 4 of the Lenovo "Think Forward CIO Series" podcast, Katherine Squire makes one point repeatedly: ‘change is possible’, even in massive, fundamental business transformations. That attitude ticks the first box – leadership. A leader believes change is possible. That’s all that’s needed, at the start.
This belief establishes a beachhead within the unfriendly territory of those who resist change. A leader uses that beachhead to articulate the vision for change throughout the entire organisation. Some, reflecting on past failures, will disagree. Squire recommends winning over these ‘negative voices’ – first with words, and then with deeds.
This is where leadership plays a supporting role to strategy. A strategic leader picks battles wisely, going for a small win – something that’s easily transformed, with outsized consequences and outsized visibility. This victory becomes a beacon, a rallying point and a counter-argument to those inside the business who say it can’t be done.
With that, the beachhead becomes an invasion, a vector to ‘infect’ the organisation with the virus of transformation. Squire’s mixed metaphor reflects the fact that large organisations transform in exactly the same way that they fail: slowly, then all at once. It takes time and dedication to prove the value of transformation within an organisation that has never seen a reason to do what it does differently. It takes time to get people out of their comfort zones and into new roles. It takes time for an organisation to ‘rethink everything’ – Squire’s words – and develop a new vision for itself.
As transformation reaches deeper into the core of the business, authenticity and transparency – essential leadership qualities, practised from day one – reveal themselves as fundamental strategic elements. In a business where little has ever changed, transformation feels apocalyptic. People need to know where they’re going, why and how they’re getting there. Too many businesses get cold feet when confronted with a transformation of their core, because these unanswered questions become the projection screen for every imaginable fear.
The ‘culture of safety’ Katherine Squire creates in her role as General Manager of Applications at the ASX extends beyond an understanding of the importance of 24 x 7 uptime and resilient systems. In an organisation undergoing transformational change, this ‘culture of safety’ reassures employees that their experience matters, even though their roles, titles and skills may change. A culture of safety gives the organisation permission to experiment, learn and grow – and to fail. The right kinds of failures, within a culture of safety, are the best and fastest of ways to learn. Painful, yes, but a satisfying education almost always is.
At the end, the transformed organisation finds itself with a new vision, and new capacities to realise that vision. From here, it’s all about execution: as Squire notes, a great strategy with mediocre execution leaves an organisation worse off than before.
Here, Squire invokes a commandment from one of those legendary business transformation leaders – Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, “Hire great people – then get out of their way!” Execution is leadership realised across the organisation, where the virtues of authenticity and transparency, multiplied by strong strategic direction and endless determination, yield their final result – an organisation rethought from the ground up.
From the outside this may seem pure magic. From the inside it looks more like a long, hard slog. “How do you eat an elephant?” Squire asks. “One bite at a time.”