November 2, 2017

Making Organizational Transformation a Bridge to the Future instead of a Cliff

In the recently released annual Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Report, 88% of respondents reported the need to redesign their organization to meet the needs of the future as Important or Very Important, making it the most important issue of the year for the 10,000 executives in 140 countries that were surveyed. No less striking: Only 11% reported feeling competent to build the organization of the future.

Why such a big gap between urgent need and capability? One reason may be the way that change is represented as the need to get ready for a completely different and unrecognizable future right now.  Preparation starts to look like the need to jump off the solid ground of the present into a dark and uncertain abyss.  Alarming indeed.

But what if preparation were more like building a bridge between the past and the future?   That would be a much more stable and reassuring approach to the unknown, and we could leave the past behind slowly as we became more familiar with the contours of the future.

The is the premise of the transformation planning framework offered by the Strategic Narrative Institute, and why I have written so much about the importance of drawing strength from the past. Neither organizations nor people can simply shed the narratives, habits or muscle memory of the past when they want to do something new.

But they can review the past, bring to the surface the many voices and actions, decisions and processes that generated the present, and make decisions—in the same way they  do about the future—about which elements of the past they most want to retain to set the course of the journey to the future.

Here are a few ways to get started:

  • Incorporate a review of existing official and unofficial narratives of the organization into strategic planning sessions, or into transformation planning. The explicit and implicit narratives about how the organization came into being makes it clearer which will serve the future, and which may need to be abandoned
  • Gather different stakeholders from within the organization to generate ideas about the narrative of the past, especially if they will play a role in driving the narrative of the future
  • Put together a timeline of the official past, based on published accounts, leaders’ speeches or other media or lore as a baseline for the narrative the organization tells about itself
  • Ask questions such as:
    • When did the narrative of this organization begin? It may have been on the day doors opened for business, or when the founders got their big idea, or for others, when they first arrived on the scene.
    • What were the most important events that shaped the present? These may be those recorded in history, or never recorded.
    • Are there critical events that should be considered part of history that have been forgotten?
    • Which events were changing points for the organization?
    • Are there exemplary events that embody the values, or traits that will be required going forward?

Even a simple activity organized as a discussion can produce a recognition that the past, that solid and comforting ground under our feet, can play a useful role in preparing people for innovation and new practices. It is surprising on its face to make the claim that the past is as open ended as the future. After all, it happened. But new discoveries, recovered artifacts of our physical and cognitive experiences, and revisions in what we believe is important mean that there are always choices about how to remember.

As you prepare for organizational transformation, you can interrogate the past as well: What will serve as a critical touchpoint for continuity? What parts of the past is it time to lay to rest? In what ways are the organization’s intended future already present in the life of its past?

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