Leading Through Change: Is Transformation even the right word to use?

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In a recent conversation I found myself discussing the merits of referring to transformation with a capital T and a lower-case t to provide greater clarity. Having reflected on this conversation it suggests to me that the word and subsequent overuse of the word has meant it has lost its meaning.

With McKinsey & Co. highlighting that 70% of transformations fail and others suggesting the percentage is even higher, should we even be using the word at all to inspire and drive change?

This question, along with others around maintaining change momentum and the role of AI in change came up in a recent gathering of our Leaders in Transformation community, and led to a really interesting conversation full of insight and perspective.


Vision, Leadership and Communication – Pillars of Successful Transformation 

A recurring theme was the need for a strong vision and leadership to guide major change, coupled with clear communication of that vision at all levels of the organisation. “It just comes back again to strong leadership, a strong strategic direction, and good communication across all levels,” said one participant. “If you don’t have those three things working for you…it doesn’t really matter.”

Creating an inspiring vision and narrative around transformation is crucial for motivating people and sustaining momentum. “Use the word transformation to inspire. It’s big and it’s important,” one leader noted. However, translating that high-level vision into tangible objectives is equally vital: “You’ve got to get it down to terms of reference, frames of reference that people can then get behind.”

When undertaking sizeable change initiatives, a hybrid model that centralises standards and strategic oversight while distributing execution was cited as often the most effective approach. As one participant who had led major banking transformations explained, “We owned those big strategic [programmes]… the rest were decentralised and delivered. Yet we owned the whole agenda and that strategy.”

Fostering leadership at all levels also emerged as indispensable for embedding change. Passion and conviction from the top must permeate the organisation. One executive noted the vital role of energy and inspiration: “I haven’t quite worked out what it is yet, but there’s an energy thing that sits in the middle of those three pillars – strategy, leadership and communications. The leadership team needs to have real passion and conviction behind the vision to spark organisational momentum.”

He went on to explain how this emotional energy cascades through the company as change champions emerge: “It sort of trickles down into the organisation, especially if you create champions around the organisation – it works very powerfully. I’ve seen major initiatives fail when all key elements were in place except that inspirational leadership, that energy to rally the troops and bring everyone along. It’s about the behaviours and culture that senior leaders model and cultivate.”

Authentic enthusiasm and commitment from those charting the course thus acts as an accelerant for driving transformation success outward to the edges. Without it, even the most well-constructed plans tend to stagnate and falter. Tapping into this inspirational force is essential as today’s leaders guide their organisations through ongoing waves of change.


The Potential of AI to Transform Change Initiatives

Artificial intelligence (AI) promises to be a game-changer for business change and transformation, yet the group agreed it remains largely untapped so far. “I’m not seeing any application at the moment,” said one leader. “There’s still a journey to go to even understand what is AI today.”

However, truly unleashing the power of AI as with all big technology breakthroughs before it starts with the business need or use case not the technology. As one participant put it, organisations should “join the dots between the people innovating on a technology basis and people who have problems that could be solved.”

Rather than pursue AI tools for their own sake, the key is to start with core business challenges and encourage experimentation. “Sometimes you’ve got to try things and figure out what works,” advised one attendee. Small tests of concept can reveal practical applications.

Yet to scale AI, underlying data structures must be orderly and accessible. As one leader noted, the great promise of AI relies on “the cleanliness and orderliness of data.” Unfortunately, many firms struggle with fragmented systems and information silos that stifle broader innovation.


Overcoming these barriers demands leadership vision paired with an experimental mindset across teams. But by unleashing AI on stubborn challenges, firms can take transformation initiatives to new heights. More C-suite focus on core problems to be solved rather than AI advancements alone will be the key to unlocking value.

Ultimately, thriving in a world of accelerating change demands leadership that can inspire and align people around a compelling vision while also empowering innovation, adaptation, and skill-building at all levels. It’s no small challenge, but it was encouraging to see from the insights of our Leaders in Transformation community that many businesses are embracing that challenge and acknowledging that change is constant and essential.


Click here for more information on our Leaders in Transformation community.


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Robin Hobbs
Written by Robin Hobbs
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