Are organisational transitions so different to personal transitions?
Digital Transformation is one of the most over-used and least understood of business buzzwords. The majority of digital transformations focus on technology because technology (specifically cloud technology) underpins them. But the essence of digital transformation is the transition from one type of business or organisation to another. The success of a company’s digital transformation depends very much on their ability to understand, accept and embrace that transition. For most, this is hard.
Over the last year or so, I’ve been going through my own transitions - both personal and professional. A series of conversations with friends and colleagues over recent weeks about some of the challenges our own transitions have thrown up made me think about what we can learn from our personal experience of transition and apply to organisational transitions, and vice versa. It turns out, they’re not so different, which I guess shouldn’t be surprising given an organisation is simply a collection of individuals, each person with their own narrative.
Why are Transitions Hard?
Transitions of any type are often hard. Something is ending and something new is beginning. Even when a transition is actively sought out and desired, there's frequently a bitter sweetness to it. Think of big life events - leaving school and going to work or university, moving house, having a baby, changing careers, retirement - there’s usually a sense of loss about what you are leaving behind or giving up but also excitement about what is to come.
Sometimes though, transitions aren’t our choice. We’re forced into a transition by circumstances beyond our control. Examples include: being made redundant, a partner you still love ending your relationship, or having to relocate for work and leave friends and family. Often in these circumstances, we’re not ready to say goodbye to the part we have to leave behind and we’re not ready to move on. We resist the transition, but that doesn’t change its inevitability.
And so acceptance that the transition must and will happen is the first step. But even then it can be hard to step into our future. The uncertainty of what lies ahead can keep us stuck in situations that do not serve us well for years. We’ll invent reasons to justify our inertia, clinging to unrealistic chinks of hope that we can keep hold of what should now belong in our past.
At the heart of transition is the cycle of life and death - a natural and inevitable part of life. But of course, this in itself is something our culture does not deal with well. We’re taught to move on quickly from feelings of grief and sadness, distracting ourselves to help us ignore those uncomfortable feelings. I’m not suggesting that it’s healthy for us to wallow indefinitely in sadness, but by ignoring it or pretending we are fine when we’re not, we are hiding from reality.
Feeling sadness about something ending is entirely normal and letting ourselves acknowledge and feel the sadness is our next step to moving forwards. The ending of one thing, even something we’ve loved greatly, creates space for something new to emerge. New experiences, new relationships, new jobs. The simplest analogy for this is our breath: we have to let one breath go in order to fill our lungs with the next.
Letting go of something doesn’t have to mean that thing was somehow wrong or worthless. We don’t have to demonise it in order to move on. If we can honour what has been and respect the ending that has now arrived, the transition will be a much healthier one.
“I’m learning to love the sound of my feet walking away from things not meant for me.”
This quote from an unknown source encapsulates the acceptance of something ending and the possibility of moving towards something new, something that is meant for you. It suggests we’re in the process of moving away from one thing and towards something else, and in all likelihood, that journey is going to be as important as what came before and what will come next.
How do transitions, this cycle of life and death and our resistance to it show up in our work and organisations?
Organisations embarking on (digital) transformation tend to focus on the adoption of new technological capabilities. Not enough time, executive attention and priority is afforded to the cultural and people transitions that need to happen. There will be skills that are no longer relevant and new skills that will be essential. There will be behaviours and mindsets that need to be left behind and new ones developed. It may mean the end of one business model and the emergence of something completely new. Often, it involves a transition in organisational identity. These are hard conversations for organisations to have and, in my experience, they’re most often avoided.
But we need to find the courage to have them. We need to free up space in our organisations in both a psychological and physical sense.
Psychologically, we can’t imagine and create new business models or new products and services if we cling for dear life to the status quo. We’ve all heard the case studies of those that have suffered from this, Kodak and Nokia being two of the most notorious. I recently heard an interview with Tony Fadell who invented the iPod and founded Nest Labs, which he sold to Google in 2014. When asked if giants of the business world like Amazon and Google were here to stay, Fadell spoke about cycles - the inevitability of an organisation’s decline as disruptive technologies and business models emerge. Of course, in the technology industry that is happening faster than ever. The point at which an established organisation's business model is challenged, whether that challenge comes from a startup or another company, is the point at which they must either let go or reinvent. Fadell hypothesised that established organisations may need to experience “near death” in order to find the courage to reinvent - he drew on Microsoft’s resurgence as an example. IBM in the 1990’s is another.
Physically, resources and money are finite, always, and we have to find a way to release and reinvest precious resources. The Lean Product Lifecycle, devised by Sonja Kresojevic and her team at Pearson, includes a retirement phase and stresses the need to actively manage the retirement of old products and services that are no longer serving the business. This enables us to release resources - people and money - to explore new opportunities and build new products and services that will drive the company’s revenue in the future. If we don’t, we end up maintaining legacy systems with increasingly low value and ROI.
The process of innovation itself also follows this pattern. Often, innovators and entrepreneurs fall in love with their ideas. Confirmation bias sees them run experiments designed to prove rather than disprove their hypotheses. When data does invalidate their hypotheses, they find ways to explain it away - the data is somehow inconclusive or we didn’t set up the experiment right or the data is simply wrong. But again, if we don’t have the courage to move on from something that isn’t going to work, we don’t have the mental or physical capacity to create something new, something different, quite likely something better.
Transitions, whether personal, professional or organisational, are often hard. Even when the transition is desired, there is often still sadness about what we leave behind and anxiety about what is ahead. When a transition is not our choice, when we must still walk away from an idea, a business, a person or a career we once loved, it is harder still. Instead of giving ourselves time to feel and explore those uncomfortable feelings, we avoid them. But to move forwards, to find new possibilities (and those possibilities are endless), we must find the courage to have those difficult conversations and let go of what was.
“I must let go now,
Let you go.
Love is too often
The answer for staying.
Too seldom the reason
I drop the line
And watch you drift away.”
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens