When you begin a transformation project, you will of course believe in its success. But let’s face it: that’s at an intellectual level. On an emotional level, truly disruptive change that transforms your company or your entire industry, and that enables entirely new ways of doing business — nine times out of ten, that level of success just feels unreal. A long shot, a hail-Mary pass, a last-ditch effort—choose your metaphor. It’s not that you lack confidence—but rather that this degree of success is just hard to imagine.
However, as you do the hard work and execute your technical transformation strategy, at some point it will hit you viscerally: “I’ll be darned, this whole thing just might work.” This might be after a demo, some wins with an MVP, with early-access customers or focus groups or receiving some other concrete or somewhat unexpected support.
When that “gut check” point comes, it’s time to start actively planning for success—that is, to start thinking concretely about the actions you and your company should take when you have in fact transformed to a new type of company. You’ve already thought about it abstractly, of course, but now it’s time to get down to nuts-and-bolts. In particular, you need to decide when to go “all-in” and start cannibalizing existing work streams to feed the new initiative. In general, it’s good to hedge your bets as long as significant uncertainties remain. However, the point will come, soon, when you need to commit fully and as a company so that your transformation initiative will succeed.
Some signs of looming success include:
Perversely, political struggles may actually increase as your success is seen as more likely. When the previously uninvolved or peripherally involved fully understand that a transformation will actually happen, many will start jockeying for position in the new order. Your task as a transformation leader is to keep things focused so the value of the transformation is not diluted. There’s the old saying that “There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” But at the same time, you need to mitigate the risk that your transformation initiative will be hijacked into familiar alignments and “more of the same” thinking, and therefore lose a lot of its value.
Unless you have a truly Machiavellian turn of mind, it’s unlikely that at the outset of the transformation project you will be able to predict the political issues that will arise near the end. I’ve found that the alignments that occur are often surprising and unexpected; in particular, many (though not all) of the initial detractors may become strong and principled supporters. And, of course, the opposite can occur as well. My best advice is to stay alert for both opportunities and threats that arise from the success of your initiative, both personally and for the initiative itself. I also have come to believe that the best sign that people really “own” something is when they come to believe it was their own idea. But, of course, as the change agents, you and I both know better.