Why Failure is Important to Your Transformation Strategy

Every organisation should be on a transformation journey in some shape or form.  It’s necessary in order to remain relevant, competitive and innovative, for the sake of the customer’s experience. Transformation comes in all shapes and sizes, from a small organisational design to full business transformation that replaces systems, processes and fundamentally changes how your organisation operates.

I still come across organisations that find the word “Transformation” daunting. It can mean so many things to different people, and here lies the first issue when working on these programmes – fear.

Anybody that has or is about to undergo a transformation of some kind will know that executive sponsorship is imperative for success.  Change will not happen unless it comes from the top, is endorsed with the right messaging and drive but most importantly aligns to a strategic business goal.

Establishing executive sponsorship isn’t always easy and there are a couple of reasons why:

  • Leadership skills – we have a huge gap within organisations of all sectors of leaders who don’t really understand the need to transform and are not suitably equipped to steer thei rorganisation through change.
  • Strategy – alarmingly, nearly 1 in 4 of UK organisations run without a strategy and survive on a month by month basis. Not being clear on where the organisation is going stunts growth and innovation.
  • Resources – everybody is too busy. A common theme in driving change is the perception that everybody is too busy and couldn’t possibly take time out to think about longer term plans when we need to ‘keep the lights on’ in the organisation.

But I want to come back to the number one reason getting executive sponsorship is difficult – fear.  Change makes people nervous, it takes them out of their comfort zone and it almost always will divide an organisation into positive and negative camps.

What I personally find interesting is that organisations still haven’t cottoned onto that this should be embraced.

You see, transformation is all down to one thing.  Many people will talk about new systems, new structure or new business processes.  It has nothing to do with that at all.  To really succeed in delivering transformation you must focus on behavioural changes.  Remember the term “Hearts and minds” and recognise the need to have this at the forefront of your agenda.

I purposely use the word behavioural changes for a number of reasons.  Most will refer to this as culture change and how this is important to support their ambitions, for me it’s one step further than that.

Yes, culture absolutely does play a key part in these programmes, but ask any of the top performing leaders within business and ask them about culture they will all tell you one thing – it can’t be dictated or enforced.  “If you think you can change your organisation overnight by working out a new “culture” you are in for a long journey”

 In life and in business, at the end of the day it all comes down to one thing – people.  And as complex machines we have to acknowledge everyone is different, has different needs, emotions, drivers and intentions – this should be embraced.

There are typically three types of people within an organisation:

Embracing – this group of people will love change.  They will be innovative feel passionate and be very excited for transformation.

Doing – these are your “Steady Eddies”.  A reliable group of individuals who you will have to accept won’t offer much opinion but will support decisions and do everything they can to deliver what is required from them

Resisting – these individuals hate change.  Often perceived as a negative group that will moan and resist everything about your plans to block it.  They will be fearful and critical.

The point is, all 3 archetypes are totally welcome.  The reason why?  To really embrace transformation within your organisation you must accept failure and make mistakes.  Any business story we admire has this within their DNA, yet in my experience of transformation everybody ignores this as a forbidden word and focuses on successes and what good looks like.

So, if we come back to first part around executive sponsorship.  Once your leadership team has established the strategy, need and demonstrates the intent to follow through it’s very important to then come up with a vision.

A vision isn’t a fluffy document that cannot be articulated nor is it a huge piece of work that is written in a language nobody can understand or action against.  Keep it simple, keep it visual and keep it relevant.  Everybody should be able to understand the vision, what it is, delivery and more importantly their role within it (even if it is nothing).

Now in most cases an organisations vision will just focus on successes i.e.

To increase sales by 20%

Customer retention is above 90%

International growth supports 30% of annual turnover

New systems to replace legacy antiquated platforms

New website or app to improve customer engagement


The challenge with this type of vision is that it’s all positive which some would think is great.  But it doesn’t allow room for mistakes or failure.

Which brings us to the main point, your vision and strategy for transformation should also included failures.  What does bad look like?  What don’t we want it to do? How will measure if this has been good or successful?

The reason for this is two things.

1 – Mistakes in every organisation should be embraced.  Yes, that’s right mistakes should be embraced and encouraged, it is the only way for innovation to really get within the behavioural cycle of your organisation.  If people fear repercussions of making mistakes you have suffocated any change.  They provide incredible lessons nobody could have predicted.  Remember when Microsoft launched Vista?  The whole world told them how rubbish it was and that they were a laughing stock of the tech world.  Not in Microsoft’s opinion, this actually provided them incredible lessons on how to change things and go on to launch new services that would revolutionise the world – Mistakes are key to successes in every organisation regardless of a desire to transform or not.

2 – failure brings everybody onto the journey in a sub-conscious way.  Remember the personalities of people in your organisation, we don’t all have the DNA to accept change.  It’s basic survival human instincts not to in order to survive.

If you accept there will be failure, provide workers the platform to do this you can achieve two important things to successfully deliver transformation –

  • Bring everybody on the journey with you. Regardless of their behavioural type, allowing good bad and ugly will ensure you have the right leadership skills to impact the strategic transformation you desire
  • People will put measures in place to avoid this or work around it. Be clear that things will happen that weren’t part of the plan and that’s OK.  Circumstances happen and how we deal with them is the real survival guide in business.

Finally, remember to coach, not change.  Your job as a leader in an organisation that needs to transform is to be a mentor in bringing everybody on the journey.  You cannot dictate culture and you cannot be successful without failure, embrace this and build a legacy for your organisation to grow to the next stage.


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