In doing so, they look to companies that are obsessed with speed: Amazon, Google, Apple, Tesla, Netflix.
As the global pandemic - and in our native Ukraine, a full-scale invasion - continues, companies’ ability to adapt quickly to a dynamic environment and transform themselves is even more critical.
This is not just a question of avoiding the ‘organizational swamp’ – this is about companies’ survival and future existence. Now that the initial shock of various global crises has worn off, companies have begun to see them as a stimulus to jump into organizational changes they had long put off.
I personally see how more and more companies are looking to turn a slow, unwieldy corporation of 3000 employees into 300 dynamic teams. It sounds good, but how does it work in practice? The reality is that top management often wants to see change happen without getting personally involved in the process.
Why engage top management in organizational transformations?
Top executives (CEO, CFO, CIO, COO, CMO) handle a multitude of transformational tasks that cannot be resolved without them knowing.
This includes organizational design, prioritizing project portfolios, removing systemic and repeating obstacles in the work of their teams, reacting to feedback in the “client-team-top management” cycle, transformation of processes and functions, and more.
In addition, executives’ behavior and ways of thinking are a role model for the organization’s corporate culture.
Without their support, the company's transformation process is doomed.
Engaging top management in a transformation project can turn them into a true team where the members trust each other, have (and believe in) the same goals, and get together to make decisions.
This is much better than the unfortunate situation we often observe, where top managers do “un-team” things – especially by focusing only on their own area of responsibility and their own direct reports.
When I meet with a company’s top management to discuss the necessity of transformation, I often hear something like “we need change at the team level; management is doing just fine.”
Sometimes I face outright skepticism: “What do you mean when you say that top management needs to think and act according to agile principles? You want us to hold standup meetings?”
It’s rare for top management to admit that transformation is needed on their level as well.
Before the full-scale invasion, my team used a wide range of instruments to handle this situation. These are proven ways to overcome resistance and misunderstanding from top managers.
They’ll work just as well in any disruptive crisis.
- Specialized programs for top management: leadership, organizational design, strategic thinking, and the like. Don’t use one-size-fits-all programs for all company employees. Top management are a separate cohort. Learn their needs (through interviews and personal histories) and create a corporate training program together.
- Homework for top management on the material covered. These should be practical tasks so that management can quickly implement their new knowledge. In our experience, top management like to tackle ambitious tasks and cases. As an example: after a workshop on organizational design, we gave top management a homework assignment to formulate a draft for a new organizational structure. They did a thorough job and passed the draft to change agents the next level down; the latter in turn fleshed out the plan down to the level of specific employees.
Transparency in processes and results
- Obeya-room, or decision-making room. This was first introduced by Toyota and later used at Nike, Boeing, Volvo, and other companies. Obeya visualizes the most important metrics and artefacts (e.g. sales trends, a road map of strategic changes, hiring trends for critical positions, marketing backlog, etc.) on the walls of a physical or virtual room. Unlike traditional corporate presentations, the Obeya walls don’t let you hide inconvenient truths or lack of reasoning behind the curtain of fancy design. These walls are a single source of truth in the organization, which speeds up decision making and stimulates collaboration between top managers.
- Informal team meetings. I often see a lack of quality communication between top-level managers. This includes both formal and informal communication. This can lead, for example, to managers avoiding making important strategic decisions, instead using strategy sessions to handle operational or tactical issues. One way to improve communication is to hold regular “morning coffee” meetings, which support an atmosphere of trust and make it easier to discuss inconvenient but necessary business issues. This type of meeting has become vital during the pandemic. When the situation in the world made it possible to leave the house, the team I was working with offered to set up regular offline sessions. At first, we did it just to talk. After we made up for the lack of face-to-face communication, people were ready to discuss business matters with great enthusiasm.
Facilitating and coaching to help in making decisions
- Strategic offsites. Find an interesting location outside the office to get top managers outside the “same four walls” and their usual views on what is happening. POV: your top management goes to Amsterdam for a couple of days. You enjoy the views in the morning and discuss the company's strategy in the afternoon. Traveling to a new reality will set the team up for positive thoughts about planning much better than another office meeting. In an unfamiliar setting, it is easier to form new connections between neurons in the brain; the usual mental comfort of familiar walls disappears. This encourages coming up with non-standard, innovative solutions.
- Reformatting and facilitating regular meetings (committees). In private conversations, managers often complain about the number and quality of “management committees.” In practice, changing familiar ways of communicating and making decisions is not always easy – you have to change not just one or two committees, but the entire system.
- Individual mentoring/coaching sessions for top managers. Each leader is above all a human being. Each has their own worries, fears, biases, and convictions. It is important not to tackle these things as a team. Instead, work with them 1-on-1 with a coach or mentor. However, it's not that simple, either. Few people like to receive "instruction." Others believe they can do it all by themselves. So mentors have to resort to tricks.For example, if I'm already working with one of the company's top, I do not directly offer my advice to other managers. Instead, I suggest meeting for coffee or lunch. This way I can build trust and reduce the formality of coaching. By the end of the day, that person will see me not as a coach but as a partner.
One more thing: don't let skepticism stop you. This is a pretty normal reaction of a high-level manager. In my practice, there was a case when the head of the department was doubtful about the idea of transformation but agreed to hold a strategy session. A few years later, he returned ready for personal mentorship, regretting the time lost.
Getting outside the box
- Visit other companies to share experience. Such visits provoke useful discussions and debates: “How did they do that? What can we use in our own organization?” Carefully choose the host company to minimize resistance from top managers.
- Visit another country and culture. Team trips to Silicon Valley or a conference like Expo in Dubai are a full-fledged dive into a world of innovation and an atmosphere of change and growth. This will help teams of executives to create a vision for the organization and its future business context.
- Undercover field trips to see what’s happening “in the real world.” For example, top managers could be taken without warning to a sales outlet, where they become regular customers trying to buy a product or service. These real world intelligence operations help to see the gap between strategy and its implementation. Another example could be a visit to a call center, where top managers will see how the operators work. Such visits help to develop empathy for clients and give rise to concrete ideas on how to improve business processes.
- Executive rotation. For example, having the Sales Director and IT Director change places for a month. This experiment helped one client to achieve mutual understanding and look at cross-functional tasks from a different angle. It also energized the entire executive team, who observed with great interest.
- Make changes in the company’s organizational design. If you’ve tried everything but the problem hasn’t gone away, it’s time to think about structural changes. For example, a full-fledged cross-functional agile team with a focus on business goals can help to speed up time to market several times faster than boring dysfunctional committees made up of representatives of various departments.
- Form smaller teams to manage transformations. Large companies often have 15 or even 20 top managers – far from the ideal number for an effective team. Especially since not all of them are needed for every decision. For this reason, we recommend forming a smaller coordination team for quick decisions on strategic transformational tasks. Those not included in the team should be regularly informed of the team’s work.This is how we did it for a giant Ukrainian bank. We identified seven responsible for the transformations of the 18 people used to make the decisions. Six months later, we figured out that three top managers were enough to help this machine work.
- Quick feedback cycles for all, by all. This means regular discussions focused on one or two questions, e.g., “What great thing did you do this month?” or “What could be improved?” Leaders both share their own actions and get feedback from the team.
How to become an agent of change
You’ll often hear from managers that they “don’t have any allies among top management.” What to do? The answer can be found in the change management model of Wilfred Kreuger.
Under this model, there are four groups that influence the implementation of changes: opponents, hidden opponents, promoters, and potential promoters.
Try to make contact (say, over lunch) with the promoters among top management – those who look favorably at change and who like challenges.
You can also engage external consultants to help handle opponents and get the attention of top management.
Crises — whether a global pandemic or a war - are not a reason to stop or even slow down. By building alliances with top management and more strongly promoting transformations, any mid-level manager can become more visible and advance their career.