Thailand lantern festival of light

People sometimes accuse me of not appearing focused on the problem at hand. And every time I give the same answer: we might just be seeing the problem differently.

Picture a bottomless pitcher of milk turned on its side, spilling milk onto the floor. Some people grab a mop and start cleaning up the milk. I choose to pick up the pitcher instead.

A Distinction with a Difference

Many professionals claim to be change agents. A few refer to themselves as change artists. Beyond both of these lies a realm that even fewer can lay claim to: transformational leaders.

In a world where foolishness is the standard, what does it mean to be wise? Change agents everywhere struggle with how to not just stand fast against the tide but also how to turn it. This is one of, if not the, essential questions of transformation. 

All those who have achieved success at instilling large change within an organization (especially the kind that lives beyond their own participation) know that the real battle is fought and won on the ground of conditions and beliefs.

Making Change Count

Conditions are the underlying factors in an environment that help to drive reflexive cultural behaviors. Environmental conditions reinforce cultural norms. Any attempt to modify behaviors without paying attention to the environmental conditions from where those behaviors arose has no more chance of success than a boy or girl with their finger in an already bursting dike (or a person attempting to mop up an endless supply of spilled milk).

Beliefs are the mental constructs in employees minds that shape the input coming from the conditions surrounding them. This act of shaping — both conscious and subconscious — catalyze critical thinking and the mental synthesis into a decision. 

Sometimes the decision turns into an action and sometimes not. The bias for action or inaction is also a function of the conditions and beliefs in the environment (e.g., is there a fear of punishment or reprisal, is the ecosystem so complex that unintentional consequences are frequent and dire, are people told they are empowered or are they actually empowered, etc). 

Attempting to change actions without first changing conditions or beliefs is a more foolhardy task than the boy or girl with their finger in the dike (or the mop in their hand), because in the absence of sympathetic belief, people will shun or actively prevent the change from going through. 

Skilled change agents know all of this, but transformational leaders know something greater: All of the internal conditions and beliefs don't matter if the world outside no longer finds your endeavors relevant — no matter how well conceived.

Look at Yahoo! and Marisa Meyer. Meyer attempted to change conditions and beliefs within her company, because we all know the axiom "culture eats strategy for lunch." What Meyer may not have considered was that irrelevance steamrolls over both strategy and culture (although culture does have a shot at recreating itself anew which is why culture beats strategy in the first place). 

Yahoo has become an irrelevant behemoth nobody cares about, except for the one relevant asset it retains: the 15 percent stake in Alibaba.

Transformation Starts with Letting Go

So what's a transformational leader to do when irrelevance has made all the cultural and environmental improvements, shall we say ... irrelevant? At times like these, a true transformational leader, just like the caterpillar entering its cocoon, looks to shed the current conceptual models of the organism for something bigger and better than what currently is.

In business terms, this means shedding the current business, brand and operating models the organization currently holds dear in exchange for new models where the barriers and constraints no longer apply. 

This effort is not for the faint of heart. 

True transformation is disruptive. Disruptive in conditions, disruptive in beliefs, disruptive in labor, disruptive in economics and other aspects as well. In other words, the very business model that made an enterprise successful may need to be thrown into the recycling bin.

People hold Apple up as a good example of successful business transformation. But Apple did not have to engage in what can be the hardest task of radical transformation — it didn't have to let go of stagnant or irrelevant business models. 

IBM on the other hand has successfully transformed several times (first from a mainframe enterprise to a personal computing company and then shedding that to be a software and services enterprise). It is midway through yet another transformation, where it has shed its deep expertise in basic materials R&D to go after health informatics and machine learning through a mix of acquisition and focus on the Jeopardy! winning Watson.

Not every company has the bravery to let go of what once was the beating heart of its business to focus on what could be. What's harder is that in large enterprises, there are no shortcuts, because much of the management team and key staff members have to come along in order to fulfill the transformation (and these are some of the individuals who have the hardest time letting go).

If it were easy the business world would be full of brilliant butterflies, rather than a few butterflies and a sea of caterpillars looking on in envy.