Know who you are as a business before your ‘transformation’ decides for you

‘Transformation’ programmes appear to be solidly in the works for many large corporates this year. Everyone is at it. Understandably, there is a survival agenda here; many larger businesses need to be able change at an operational level in order to have any chance of competing with the emerging multitude of nimbler options becoming available to customers. Corporates believe that they need to be more digital, more customer-centric, more innovative and more disruptive.


More often than not, business transformation starts with a great vision of the future; the outcome of many months of market research and trend mapping courtesy of a relatively pricey consultancy process. The result is usually a number of aspirational values supporting a vision. The organisation rallies behind a vision that is usually about putting the customer first by being more ‘relevant’ or ‘personal’ or ‘honest’ or ‘innovative.’ And who would disagree with visions or values such as these?


Yet every time I see one of these vision documents I am reminded of a UK Design Council talk I attended over 10 years ago, presented by Michael Johnson, the founder of the design studio Johnson Banks. The talk was focused on his intelligent rebrand of Christian Aid. In addition to presenting a smart brand strategy, he described the process he had gone through with stakeholders. He had shown them multiple annual reports for similar NGOs, but removed the logos. All used the same imagery, the same styling, the same language. He went one step further and swapped the logos, recounting the fact that the clients had not picked up in his trickery. His point was clear; the same brand values result in indistinct offerings.


So this brings me back to transformation visions, most of which are almost identical, often designed to remove contention from within the organisation. I’d go so far as saying they are often purposefully bland to avoid any tangibility that may encourage scrutiny. However, as most transformation programmes map to macro trends, it is understandable that they are often all alike. But here lies the extremely expensive flaw in a top-down approach; the gap between vague macro ambitions and what a business is able to deliver on a micro level. Although it makes sense to pick a point on the horizon and aim for it, until you know who you really are as an organisation and what you can do, any vision will be random at best and impossible to act on, causing an impasse when it is time to get going.


So do you know who you really are? Medium to large organisations will mostly recount their brand story when you ask them this question, because that is what they can uniformly claim to be. It is highly unlikely that they really know what the department next door actually does, day-to-day, which is the stuff that makes an organisation what it is. I’m guessing no one individual will really know what every part of the business does.


If this individual existed, they would have a menu of every activity that every department performed, and they could break it down this way, in no more than 150 words:


  • Description
  • Purpose
  • Steps
  • People
  • Time
  • Outcome


By every activity, I do mean everything, from ordering inventory to writing a press release to writing a business case. If it is part of somebody’s job, it’s a legitimate activity.


They could also connect all of those activities to a project or a goal, connecting activities across departments. They could keep connecting until they worked up to all the macro level projects or missions. This is how bottom-up transformation begins, by creating a clear source of truth for every activity and why it is performed.


In a business-centric approach, this kind of activity would be undertaken to create efficiencies, making employees understandably reticent about being transparent for fear of the consequences. In a human-centric transformation, the purpose is to understand how people operate, how they feel about it and what they are capable of so we can incrementally transform behaviors and processes towards a better future state. If you don’t do this, you might as well start from scratch, which isn’t the purpose of transformation at all.


Bottom-up is a truly effective approach to transformation because, before you know who you want to be, you need to know who you really are as a company. This is the approach an experience strategist would take when tackling transformation. We start with tangibles, real behaviors and daily motivations in order to design new business processes that will be usable by the people who will operate them. We know that transforming a company involves behavioral change and, faced with that kind of complexity, a relatively generic ‘vision’ is often water breaking on rock if it isn’t partially derived from a knowledge of the people who need to implement it.