Interim Insights: The steps to a successful transformation

Interim Insights: The steps to a successful transformation

Daniel Wood, Consultant, Consumer and Retail Practice, spoke to Gerry Shaw about his career as a Chief Transformation Officer and the steps to executing a successful transformation.

What motivated you to pursue a career in transformation, and how has your background prepared you to operate as a Chief Transformation Officer?

It all stems back to my year out at university and it was actually a bit of an accident.  I was studying business and accounting with a gap year. I wanted to spend the year with a marketing company, but that didn’t work out and I ended up spending it with a bank instead in their electronic banking division. This was the part of the business that looked after all of the existing and new technology for the bank and it was very project focused. We were working on new initiatives such as telephone banking, internet banking, chip and pin etc, which were all really cool things to do back then. I also got to work on things like Economic and Monetary Union, which involved massive changes such as the replacement of the national currency in the South of Ireland. Some large-scale and very interesting transformation topics. This gave me exposure to the front-end ideation, the planning and the delivery of large-scale projects and I really enjoyed it. I continued to work with the bank after returning to university and from there it’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve never worked outside of business change and transformation, so doing what I do now is just the natural progression. I’ve been fortunate to have a pretty expansive career, working across many different sectors and disciplines in both hands-on operational roles and senior executive positions.  I think this is extremely important for leaders of transformation as having broad sector and discipline knowledge means you’ve seen the same problems being solved many times in different ways. This type of experience also helps me to navigate enterprise-wide transformations as I tend to know a reasonable amount about every aspect of a business. 

The Chief Transformation Officer role is relatively new, but one that we are increasingly seeing organisations appoint. Why do you think that is?

When I lived in Belfast I sat on the committee of the Association for Project Management in a couple of different positions. I was the Corporate Client Rep and also the Education Network Liaison. When I was doing the education piece I got to spend a good amount of time with the academic world, interacting with pure academic researchers, professors and the like, all from the discipline of business change and transformation. What struck me from my interactions with academia was how very little was changing over the years in terms of the performance of business change and transformation initiatives. The statistic for projects failing was 70%, same as it had been for the previous 20 years. The same could be said for the main reasons for project failure i.e. unclear objectives, unrealistic goals, limited resources, poor communication etc.

Why am I setting this context?  I think smart business leaders are recognising that if they repeat what has been happening for the last 20+ years then they are most likely going to fall foul of the statistics.  They want more predictable outcomes and they want certainty of financial and other business benefits.  As a result they are investing in professional support and the professionals need to be cultivated to continually improve on the predictability of transformation performance and outcomes. 

I also think that there’s a recognition that there will not be less change in the future of any going concern, there will most likely be more.  As a result, I think a lot of CEOs are recognising the value that a CTO can bring in terms of being a critical friend and a catalyst for change.

Can you provide an overview of your role as a Chief Transformation Officer and how it fits within the organisation's structure and goals?

As a CTO you need to be able to see the big picture, but you also need a strong bias for action. It’s your job to take a big picture, and often vague, strategy and turn it into something that is tangible and realistic. You also need to have the ability to sell the plan to every level of the organisation, starting with the top table. That’s just the start. When you get into execution you need to be three steps ahead of everyone in terms of what is happening in the market and the business that could have a material impact on your plans. Resilience is also key as the only thing that you can be sure of when you embark on your transformation journey is that things will change. 

Can you share an example of a transformation initiative that didn't go as planned? What were the key learnings from that experience?

Strictly speaking, none of them ever go to plan! I believe it was Prussian military strategist Helmuth von Moltke that came up with the expression ‘no plan survives the first encounter with the enemy’. This is true of every transformation that I’ve ever led and it is why, as a leader of transformation, you need to be resilient and adaptable.  The journey will not be linear, of that you can be sure. This is where a good CTO really comes into their own as they can roll with the punches as opposed to becoming stunned by the first unexpected right hook.

It’s not really a key learning from one particular experience, it’s a series of key learnings and battle scars that you develop over time. Again, it helps greatly if you have the multi sector, multi disciple background. It’s almost an intuition that you develop over time, that enables you to intervene quickly and often avoid undesired issues. You learn how to read people, events and experiences and utilise this to improve your probability of success.

If I was really pressed to come up with one key learning that I’ve taken from my career I’d say it’s ‘major on the people, not the process’. When I look back at the transformations that have gone really well it has all been based on good relationships with the team, the stakeholders and the suppliers.

What role does technology play in driving transformation, and how do you ensure alignment between technology initiatives and business goals?

More often than not, technology is at the centre of transformation either because it has disrupted the industry or because it’s the backbone of the change.

Aligning technology with business goals in theory is really simple. It should be a top down planning process, usually referred to as project portfolio management. You put in place selection criteria upon which all new and in-flight initiatives can be assessed. The criteria should be aligned with the business goals and as a result anything that is not aligned will not make the cut during the assessment process. However, in reality most business that I’ve worked with have not been very good at this initially. For some reason, organisations find it really difficult to stop doing stuff.  Every sponsor comes up with a host of reasons as to why their initiatives are critical to the businesses success and delivery of the business plan.  Also, for some leadership teams it feels counter intuitive put ‘good ideas’ on ice.  This is where influence, education and good mediation comes into play.  You also need to be unwavering and resolute. Once you’ve agreed to business goals and the selection criteria for initiatives you need to be ruthless in the culling process otherwise you’ll be left with a dogs dinner plan and not a great deal of alignment to the business goals. This is true for all initiatives in a business, not just technology.

What advice would you give to organisations embarking on a transformation journey, based on your experience and insights?

Do not underestimate the impact that a transformation professional and a dedicated team will add. I’ve seen examples where businesses have embarked on transformations that have hundreds of millions of pounds of benefit attached to them, but expect it to be done by the business leader as opposed to hiring a dedicated professional and team with the skills and experience of delivering business change and transformation.  To this day and for the past 20 years this has been one of the top 3 reasons why business change and transformation efforts fail.  Don’t skimp on the team!  


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