What does this mean to you? I ask because I think it is interpreted in many different ways and the efforts at achieving it can be somewhat varied. John Kotter once stated that half of all transformation efforts fail at the start and if that isn’t a sobering statistic I don't know what is. I have seen and been involved in numerous change programmes over the years. Some were labeled change, some transformation but here are my top 5 bear pits that might be avoided with a little forethought and planning:

 1. WHY: No real purpose, no clarity

 Answering the question ‘why are we doing this?’ is a good start. Is it to:

  • Improve performance (how is it measured?)
  • Solve a problem (define it please)
  • Sort out staff issues (someone abrogating responsibility?)
  • Because everyone else is doing it (???)
  • The consultant told us we should employ them…

 The list is endless and may seem obvious but I shudder to think of the occasions when I have been asked to kick off a staff workshop with staff who have been given no context and are struggling with questions about what it might mean for them.

This bear trap can be avoided by spending time up front to invest in dialogue with the wider organization. I use the word dialogue very specifically to distinguish it from one-way communication or ‘telling’. My presumption is that only rarely do a top team who are wanting to kick off a serious change in the organization have all the facts to hand. If they do, then engaging with staff by listening rather than telling is a good place to begin because they might learn something new while increasing levels of trust with their staff. And this can help to clarify purpose and answer that question that every child can ask but not every adult can answer: ‘why are we doing this?’

 2. WHO: No clear ownership or priority

If the senior team don't know what the vision is or can’t plan and communicate it to their staff then change efforts are headed for disaster. If the requirement is for transformation (rather than some improvement work in one area) there needs to be alignment at board level about who does what and how the effort needed is to be created and sustained. This generally needs clear ownership and clear communication and, critically needs to be seen as affecting the senior team as well as everyone else. If not then people will regard it as something being done to them rather than with them. Some organisations have used the approach of creating (or acknowledging) a ‘burning platform’ imperative to try and put impetus into a plan but over time this will be seen as nothing more than a ploy if it isn’t based upon hard facts and full ownership from the top.

Bear trap avoidance can be achieved by building ownership and priority at multiple levels in the organization. It has to start at the top and one way to do this is by investing time from board to top team through to middle managers with strong links to purpose and maintaining on going communication throughout all levels. Clear owners, clear messages and clear purpose maintained over time with behaviours to match are the only way to demonstrate that there are owners who act consistently from a stance of an imperative need to make progress.

  1. HOW: The method and approach is unclear

Popular change methods labeled lean, six sigma, BPR and the like aren’t intrinsically flawed but tend to focus on processes, whether manufacturing or services.

In order to be effective, transformation usually needs to involve a somewhat wider sphere of influencing factors. Examples of these might include performance measures, reward and recognition systems, training, appraisals and staff development, recruitment, promotion and exit to name but a few.

There needs to be effective methods which allow meaningful exploration to take place and the learning considered, understood and acted upon.

So avoidance of bear trap three might be achieved by having the ability to respond appropriately to need which as well as process reviews might require coaching, mentoring, training, project management in a broad spectrum approach. This can only be affected by knowing why you want to transform and there is ownership, desire and openness to finding the right approach to each problem, no matter how obscure.


  1. INTEGRATION: It is not seen as integral to the business

I guess this links strongly to the bear pits of purpose and ownership but there is a deeper need to create a sustained step change if effort is not to be limited to small fixes, quick wins and a few improvement projects. Integrating the effort into the business so that it is improving has to include some very specific elements. Not exclusively I think these include:

  • Embedding knowledge (we can do more of this ourselves)
  • Creating new possibilities (not just doing things the same way we always have)
  • Development (both improving and creating but not standing still)
  • Learning and growth (a learning organization is one that sees mistakes as learning opportunities rather than problems to be blamed on someone)

These aspects need to be addressed in the strategy, business plan and operating practices so that bear pit four can be avoided. By ensuring the skills, methods, discoveries and opportunities have a solid foundation that will stand the test of time the chance for true integration is more likely.

  1. CULTURE: It doesn't address the cultural aspects

Probably the most important aspect of an organization is its culture. The culture of the organization comprises the visible and less visible aspects of how the business and the people in it operate. There is some critical ‘soft’ stuff in here around behaviours, trust and openness which if not explored are almost guaranteed to severely limit deep and lasting transformation. Addressing this requires courage as well as conviction and can only be successful if the top team truly walks the talk. To do this they usually need to set aside some clear time with an experienced coach or facilitator to support them exploring these aspects of how they function together and individually.

I read Patrick Lencioni’s Dysfunctional Team book a while back and was both impressed by the approach and shocked to realize how many of the dysfunctions he describes I have witnessed in senior teams.

So, if you want to avoid my fifth bear pit…. be brave, step into the unknown and set aside some time with a skilled facilitator to explore how you can create a winning team. A winning team can create a winning organization and that has to be a great place to be.

In the context of this article on transformation I have a working assumption that you are reading it with a desire to transition from wherever you are now to somewhere that is better. On this basis I’ll finish with a definition of ‘slow suicide’ from Theodore Zeldin and a plea that we all refuse to accept it:

‘A long drawn out suicide occurs in all who earn their living in work which leaves them feeling less than alive. Some people give the impression of engaging voluntarily in self mutilation but it is very often the institutions they belong to that drive them to it.’

If you are a leader in an organization I would gently ask that you consider how you might transform yourself, your colleagues and your organization to help your people be alive.


Thanks for reading