Carrot & Stick of Sustainable Transformation
'Transformation’ – a word used so frequently across corporations worldwide that it is more conspicuous by its absence. Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury to avoid transformation – it confronts us at every turn – in the way we work, deal with our clients, lead our teams, organize, behave. It is a way of life, an explanation of an experience, a call to action. It is an urgent, dynamic, and hopefully progressive response to our context – the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world in which we live. It is here to stay. And yet, when organizations exhort their employees to transform, a vast majority fall short of expectations. What are the hurdles that come in the way? Or, put differently, what conditions are conducive to successful, sustainable organizational transformation?
My contention is that it all boils down to finding the right combination of carrot and stick. At its heart, the carrot answers the "What's in it for me?" question that motivates us to change. It could be an incentive in cash or kind – although, such transactional rewards tend to have a superficial and relatively short-term effect. A deeper and more sustainable change includes the carrot of internalizing the "Why?" of transformation and then, aligning that ‘why’ to the individual involved in executing the change. We like the status quo, it is comfortable and safe. We need someone ‘inspiring’ to pull us toward something different, something better. That's where the leader's ability to articulate the ‘why’ persuasively and to walk the talk in terms of practicing what he or she is preaching is critically important. And it's not just about communicating an intellectual understanding of ‘the why’, but also about tapping the emotional gut feeling around it. The rational plus emotional combination converts a plan into a dream, engenders hope for a better future, motivates us to overcome despite setbacks, empowers us to embrace transformation!
The pull of the carrot is necessary but not sufficient, however. A contrarian voice from within the depth of my gut growls back in resistance. I am paralyzed by the fear of the unknown and then angry at the painfulness of the churn to come. But mostly, I am tired of the persistent nature of transformation. It just keeps coming in waves: inexorable, inevitable, unrelenting. Perhaps I need to allow myself time to go through the Grief Cycle before I am ready to accept. And still, I wonder how to mobilize the strength to "become comfortable with the uncomfortable." I ask myself, “Is it really worth the effort?”
Turns out that it is not enough to count on the promise of a carrot to drive transformation; we also need the burning platform of a stick to force an individual, a team, an organization to change. The stick provides the urgency to counter Dilbert's trenchant, "Change is Good! You go first!" It adds the imperatives, "I should", "I must", to the "I will" of change. At its most extreme, the stick is a threat of loss of job, loss of status, loss of anything that one holds dear. But it does not have to be a threat. Fundamentally, the stick eliminates the option of going back to the status quo and, thereby, fosters a commitment to look ahead to change. It gives us that necessary push to fight our natural inertia. It makes it no longer only a choice but also an imperative to transform or to perish.
The success of a transformation initiative is seldom about the quality of the decision and direction of change. It is far more about the commitment behind the decision to change. And that commitment is reinforced and sustained when the pull and push come together when both carrot and stick align to make transformation sustainable.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)