Crisis Can Accelerate Change

Source: Institute for Digital Transformation 

Author: Raymond Sheen

Publication Date: April 2020

Change is hard, and culture change within an organization can be very hard.  The organizational culture is often infused within the business processes and departmental relationships.  Certain people and departments don’t talk with others.  To get things done, one must follow the rules – either written rules or informal ones.  All of these become part of the culture, and all of these become barriers to digital transformation.

I was working with an academic institution to improve its admission process through process simplification and digitalization.  As we mapped the process, we found a step where an individual manually entered all the application information into a notebook.  Then the information from that notebook was used to create an applicant’s profile in a second application within the system.  When I pointed out that the first application could directly export the applicant’s information to the second application, I was told that couldn’t be done because “We wouldn’t have any notebooks and we have always had notebooks.”  However, no one could think of a reason why we still needed the notebooks.  Never-the-less, that opportunity for process simplification and digitalization was ignored in the eventual process changes that were adopted.

I wish that was an isolated condition, but it is not.  Time and again, when working with an organization to simplify and improve the process through digitalization, we run into cultural barriers, not technology barriers.  In many cases, people are in a comfort zone of known processes and procedures with familiar organizational relationships.  They see no reason to change and therefore resist the unknown.  Machiavelli once said, “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”  A mark of an effective leader is that they recognize the barriers and develop strategies that overcome them.

A silver lining in the Coronavirus pandemic is that many of those cultural barriers have now been dropped.  Because of the shutdown and virtualization of many organizations, the old order is impossible to maintain.  The old processes can no longer be followed, so change must be adopted in order to survive.  And everyone in the organization recognizes the need. Please, don’t misunderstand, I am not endorsing or applauding pandemics.  However, I am acknowledging the reality that the way work is done has changed.  And it has changed everywhere.  In every country, every industry, and every demographic sector of society, the old way of doing things is changing to a more virtual approach.  And given that this is a time of massive change in society and the economy, it is prudent to re-examine your organization’s processes and digitalize them where appropriate.

The organizations that do this, and create processes that can quickly and easily scale, will not only survive, they will likely thrive during a period of an economic slowdown.  And when the pandemic is past and industry and the economy recover, they will be positioned to dominate.  Some aspects of the business operation that are being transformed during this time include:

  • Customer expectations are changing. Customers are clarifying the difference between “needs” and “desires.”  In addition, due to shortages and supply chain disruption, customers are being exposed to new products and services which changes their expectations about service levels and performance.  Customers now expect to be able to digitally connect with either the seller, the product, or both.  And new relationships are developing as customers are interacting in new ways, with new suppliers, and through new applications.  The result is most organizations need to change their product and service offerings.  Fortunately, the barriers down, both internally and externally, and now is the time to do it.
  • Another area of change is internal organizational processes and systems. With many of the staff working from home offices and conducting business virtually, organizations are discovering which processes are necessary to get work done, and which ones are not.  The staff is discovering workarounds for processes that were inefficient.  Most of those workarounds involve significant levels of digitalization.  Some of those workarounds should be the inspiration for an improved process that is faster, more accurate, and better meets the needs of the organization. The barriers of familiar routine and relationships have been dropped and this is the time to re-engineer how work is done.
  • In fact, moving up from the details associated with specific customer orders and internal processes, this is a great time to re-imagine the entire organization. Given that the world economy will be operating differently as it recovers from the upheaval due to the pandemic, how should an organization position itself for competitive advantage?  What sectors of society and industry should it serve?  What needs does it intend to meet?  How best should it organize, deploy, and manage its resources?  Again, the barriers are down, the stakeholders are open to making changes so let’s take advantage of this time to position the organization for the future.
  • In fact, this is even a good time to change how the organization implements and manages change. You don’t need to have focus group meetings and “socialize” the ideas through innumerable levels of the organization to convince people that a change might be better than their current situation.  Emotionally and intellectually they are already there.  Everyone recognizes that the “old way” is untenable.  There may be a bit of nostalgia, but there is very little resistance.  This is the time to try new management techniques including how change is implemented.  Use Agile to manage improvement projects.  Create analytics to manage information about markets, processes, performance, and the impact of change.  Involve everyone using online collaboration applications.  The barriers against digitalizing how work is being managed are also down, so make those changes that have been discussed but never tried yet.

A crisis inevitably leads to one of two outcomes.  Either an organization and society focus on the danger and difficulty to point that fear immobilizes them and ultimately destroys them.  Or an organization and society focus on the opportunities that the crisis reveals how to react, change, improve, and overcome the crisis event.  While it is important during the crisis to protect your employees, your customers, and your community; it is also the time when leaders emerge that direct the changes which can strengthen their organization and expand opportunities. The barriers to change are lowered, and your organization is ready to follow your leadership to bring them through this time of crisis.

About the Author: 

Raymond Sheen, PMP® LSS BB, is president and founder of Product & Process Innovation, Inc. He is a veteran business leader with over 30 years of executive, engineering management, and project management experience deploying new technology and improving business performance.  He has consulted and trained companies in various industries and business functions including marketing, engineering, manufacturing, service, IT, and Finance.  Ray is author of the book, Guide to Building Your Business Case, published by Harvard Business Review Press.   

Ray received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the United States Air Force Academy and his M.S. in Astronautical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has a graduate certificate in Digital Leadership and Strategy from Boston University.

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