Five ways to save a faltering transformation

By taking thoughtful, timely actions, leaders can turn transformation setbacks into opportunities for growth and success.
By: | November 29, 2023

A close colleague of mine was asked to facilitate a workshop with the senior leadership of an organisation wrestling with its ways of working. To describe the session as challenging would be an understatement, as my colleague was immediately faced with either bored indifference or outright hostility. They shared that it was heartbreaking to see the sponsor of the workshop slowly lose their optimism as participants threw barriers and resistance at every turn.

Given that most transformation professionals have experience in de-thorning every rose, we are not strangers to conflict. Having done this work for over three decades, I have personally been yelled at more times than you would imagine, marinated in a variety of beverages that were poured on me, had to physically separate warring factions in the C-suite, had my phone thrown on the ground and cracked, my laptop slammed shut and swept off the table and locked arms with security as we Wizard of Oz-ed together out of the building. While it is certainly not the norm, some senior leaders do not always show their best behind closed doors.

In most transformational work, there is a clear impetus for change that galvanises the organisation towards a particular goal or outcome, regardless of personal preference. In this particular workshop, my colleague realised something awry. Suddenly stopping the session, they asked each leader an important and direct question: “Do you intend to transform?”

Nearly all leaders responded with a resounding “No!” Thus, the relatively new HR leader who championed the workshop was confronted with the reality of the situation: Neither the board, their C-suite peers, nor their HR leadership team were ready or willing to change.

Let us face it. Being an HR leader is difficult enough on a typical day, let alone during a transformation. You are constantly peppered with demands and emergencies, and it can be a struggle to balance the needs of the business with the wellbeing of your people.

And although you are most often part of the C-suite, separation is required due to the highly confidential nature of your work and the requirements of the CEO and board. Yet, it is within this storm that you must find a way to regroup, embody the calm and move the organisation forward. It is exhausting.

Getting momentum back on track

HR transformations are complex initiatives with massive goals, often aimed at enhancing organisational efficiency, employee experience and overall workforce effectiveness. However, even with the best intentions and meticulous planning, HR transformations can sometimes face setbacks and challenges that lead to a moment like the one experienced in the workshop above. The good news is that failure is not the end; it is an opportunity for learning and course correction, especially for the HR leader spearheading the change.

To reignite the momentum for faltering transformation, there are five tried-and-true methods that are worthy of your time.

Make an honest assessment of what happened

Understanding why the transformation is struggling is the crucial first step. It is one thing to acknowledge that there is a problem, but without learning the root cause of the issue, you risk perpetuating the factors that caused the transformation to falter in the first place.

To make an accurate assessment, become an HR private investigator. Gather feedback from key stakeholders, including your fellow leaders. Assess project documentation, including planning, communication and other deliverables. Study the impact of internal and external factors, such as capacity constraints or economic challenges. Remember to recognise your role in the transformation, not to beat yourself up about what is going on, but to assess what you can do in service to the large initiative. These clues, when combined, turn the mystery into insight and action.

Regain leadership alignment and buy-in

Executive support is crucial for the success of any transformation initiative. This requires true alignment around the objectives, scope, timing and expected outcomes. In the workshop example shared above, it was clear that there was a disconnect between what the HR leader thought the business needed and what the business truly desired.

Leaders should act as change champions, promoting and amplifying the value proposition throughout the organisation. This is where you will leverage existing relationships (or build new ones) to understand any concerns your peers may have and to work together to find a way forward. If leaders cannot tangibly connect the outcomes to their business area, there is more work to be done.

Incorporate employee involvement and feedback

Employees are at the heart of any HR transformation, and often a key component of any business case to gain support for moving forward. It is important to involve them in the process early and often by seeking their input and feedback. This is particularly crucial when you hit a roadblock involving resistance to change or adoption.

Create forums for open dialogue, address concerns and incorporate valuable insights into the transformation plan. Pull quantitative and qualitative data from your listening and engagement surveys to add some heft to the sentiment analysis. When employees feel heard and valued, they are more likely to embrace change positively. Noise in the system can be deafening, and we want them to be heard.

Reassess and adjust the plan

Transformations are remarkably prone to shifting requirements. That is just the nature of change; it never stands still. As the transformation leader, your challenge is to let go of your carefully crafted plan and serve the needs of the project. Many leaders struggle to find the right level of flexibility and adaptation—too much flexibility and nothing gets done; too little flexibility and you risk missing every deadline.

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If the initial transformation plan has proven ineffective, it is time for a reassessment. Work with key stakeholders to identify areas that need adjustment or refinement. This may involve revisiting the project timeline, reassessing resource allocations or redefining specific goals. Flexibility and adaptability are crucial in the face of changing circumstances.

Intentionally celebrate small wins

Transformations often have a long timeline, and at times, it can feel like there is no progress being made. For a transformation that is struggling, it is possible there would not be significant progress for a very long time. No matter what, find ways to identify small wins and celebrate them, even if it is just the success of getting everyone on the same page.

This not only boosts morale but also reinforces the positive aspects of the transformation. Acknowledge the efforts of teams and individuals, fostering a culture of appreciation and motivation.

Turning around a transformation that has lost its way requires a combination of strategic planning, effective communication and a commitment to continuous improvement. It also takes courage: courage to acknowledge things could be better, courage to voice your concerns and courage to take that metaphorical look in the mirror to examine your own role in the process.

By taking thoughtful, timely actions, leaders can transform setbacks into opportunities for growth and success. Remember, failure is not the end of the road; it is a chance to learn, iterate and ultimately achieve a more successful outcome.

About the author: Mark Stelzner is the Founder and Managing Principal of IA, an advisory firm that helps organisations achieve their HR transformation goals. This article was first published on Human Resource Executive.