5 tips to improve the odds of business transformation program success

Have you ever been in a situation when your business needs to execute a “must do” business transformation program? The completion date is fixed, delay is unthinkable – but traditional approaches always result in failure.

The solution is simple – but not easy.

Follow these tips to increase your chances of succeeding with a “must do” business transformation program.


1.    Communicate clearly

The first step in making a business transformation plan concrete is to explain the facts, without spin. Being brutally honest about the whys of this particular plan – what’s known and what remains to be done.

If you use presentation packages, such as a Power Point, be specific and use reasoned arguments, rather than carefully picked summaries to stimulate emotional responses.

Even if a plan is seen as abstractly correct, there may be widespread scepticism about its practicality.

If any presentation content is open to interpretation, people will read between the lines; they’ll dismiss crucial points and do what they think is right.

The foundation for good execution is based on being very clear about what’s required. Communicate proposed changes face-to-face to show executive backing. Benefits only come when a strategy is fully implemented. Half measures don’t work.

Keeping communication clear helps key stakeholders to remain focused on what they need to do – and why they’re doing it.


2.    Build a credible plan

With a “must do” business transformation, there is never enough time. The clock is ticking and execution has to start before the ‘perfect’ plan is ready.

There is no magic formula for creating the ‘perfect’ plan.

The first rough-cut schedule is always optimistic – filled with made-up numbers and speculations – and will probably presume everything works perfectly.

But hundreds of decisions that affect the schedule have yet to be made.

When you’re short of time, a common error is ‘over-analysis’. At some point, the research must stop and the plan must go.

There are usually 2 years, or less, to complete a business transformation; teams will have to work backward from the expected result to get within shouting distance of the objectives.

There are risks – but there’s no such thing as a risk-free plan.

Activating a plan before planning is finished means it’s essential to run incremental confidence-building trials and then adjust planning assumptions and probable completion dates, based on experience and feedback.

Small steps first, then accelerate. Try and beat the odds.


3.    Organise for results

The key to accountability is structure. It’s amazing how quickly progress moves where there is clear accountability, with enough budget and resources.

If there is limited structure, a mob mentality quickly develops scattering the organisation’s energy. The organisational style chosen has a major influence on the success of any business transformation plan.

The most common styles are ‘coordination’ and ‘matrix’ structures.

Program ‘coordination’ is a lot like the role of a reporter in a war zone. The reporter is there observing the conflict, reporting on what’s already happened – but has zero influence on the outcome.

A matrix structure makes sure there is a “General” directing operations, setting priorities, making pre-emptive moves, judgements and adjustments in response to unfolding events.

A business transformation program is much more likely to be successful with a formidable ‘core’ team of specialists, coupled with a strong cross-functional organisation to build momentum quickly.

A core team – plus a matrix structure.

Matrix structures first appeared to force managers to collaborate. But they were never meant for extensive use.

They’ve mushroomed adversely in many businesses in the mistaken belief it increases management collaboration. But a proliferation of matrix structures causes confused and weak management reporting relationships and has given ‘matrix management’ a bad reputation.

But used carefully, they can be extremely successful for managing complex business transformation initiatives that require massive cross-company action.


4.    Select “proven” managers

In many businesses, the barriers to becoming a senior program manager are so low that a turtle could jump them. A major transformation is not the time to test a manager with a suspected case of “ready-aim-aim-aim-aim syndrome” or to test if an emerging rock star has what it takes.

A demanding business transformation program is the one occasion where key execution jobs must be given to experienced “heavyweight” people – people who have managed this type of venture before.

Without experienced program managers, all the tools and techniques on the planet will have no effect.

On a major business transformation, the CEO must field his First Team. He must ask the decisive question – how good is this person at getting things done? He can’t delegate this job. He must make sure that he has the right people in the right place.

Real ‘doing’ skills are fundamental to lasting execution success.

Transformation programs are always one of the most challenging schemes ever undertaken in any business and must be driven by people with an enormous obsession for winning – and a willingness to embrace change.


5.    Face the facts

Realism is at the heart of execution and the performance management system is pivotal to control. It asks four basic questions:

1.    What has happened?

2.    Why has it happened?

3.    Is it going to continue?

4.    What are we going to do about it?

There is nothing more important than getting the absolute facts on the table. On critical execution tasks, many businesses ‘don’t know what they don’t know’. And it’s hard to fix problems you don’t know about.

The basic purpose of any control system is to provide feedback relative to the plan. Measurement is not just about judging progress but also to find ways to do the job better.

Managers tend to offer “canned” justifications for what’s happened – normally attributable to events outside their control. Symptoms of an underlying mess are often dismissed as ‘indigestion’.

But performance measurement can cause fragmentation. Traditional functional management nurtures a distorted view of performance and it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.

There’s little point in achieving functional targets if the overall program is behind schedule.

The reluctance to face facts, particularly when the news is bad, is rife in business and a major cause of poor execution.

The level of abuse, cynicism and self-interest connected with performance management should not be underestimated.  People want to look good at the expense of reality. There is no linkage between a manager who talks a good game and a ‘doer’ who gets results. But often, a ‘doer’ is brushed aside in favour of a crowd-pleaser, to the detriment of the execution task.

This means that there must be an extraordinary level of intensity in the review process – a willingness to have an open and robust exchange – and to focus on the truly significant drivers of the task.

Control must be an integrated system and focusing on the key elements of the transformation plan.


These tips will dramatically improve the odds of success on any business transformation program.

They’re simple – but so simple that many companies find them too easy not to do.