How to uproot entrenched processes and plant the seeds for transformation

by Nis Frome
March 28, 2019

If success in the digital age were as simple as calling for a transformation or reorganization (yet alone two or three), companies born in the industrial age would be thriving and there’d be no Netflix, Uber, or Airbnb. That’s clearly not the case though.

According to an article in Harvard Business Review, a study of 57 reorgs found that fewer than one-third produced any meaningful improvement in performance: “Most had no effect, and some actually destroyed value.” A Fortune 500 executive recently told me, only half-jokingly, that “reorganizations are highly successful, if you’re a management consulting firm.”

Despite the unfulfilled potential that each reorganization promises, there are some notable examples of so-called ‘traditional’ organizations successfully returning to their innovative roots. Numerous product leaders explained to us how, with the help of on-demand insights technologies like Alpha, they’ve been able to introduce cutting-edge products to market and impact meaningful metrics like user engagement and revenue. Overall, companies succeed by following three critical steps.

1. Start with a hard-sell to get buy-in from the top

The one thing that reorganizations have going for them is that they are definitionally supported by company leadership. Substantial top-down support is indeed critical for creating the environment and incentives in which innovation can take hold. Product and innovation teams must figure out how to channel leadership’s involvement toward the right initiatives.

There’s an inherent paradox with urging leadership that change is needed though: convincing folks who have had highly successful careers that what got them here won’t keep them here. Communicating from the executive’s perspective is therefore key.

To begin, emphasize the company’s history and recognize meaningful achievements. Successful transformations mean valuing and giving credit to the present, but then being direct and realistic about the future. I’ve seen two types of ‘hard-sells’ work for this next part: selling aspiration and selling desperation.

The aspirational sell means fixating on a real or imaginary superior version of your organization. If the former, Amazon is often cited as a strong role model, given their performance and transparency into their customer-focused processes.

On the other extreme, selling desperation may feel like fear mongering, but it can be extraordinarily effective. No leader wants to oversee the sinking of the Titanic. Painting a bleak picture is sometimes the only thing that works.

2. MacGyver your way toward traction

While digital transformation champions are working toward getting buy-in from leadership, they must simultaneously explore ways to generate evidence to support their arguments. Adapting behaviors and practices from innovative companies like Amazon may mean first finding creative ways to experiment and deploy ‘makeshift’ customer-centric methodologies.

It’s becoming increasingly common for product teams to shift from solution-oriented product roadmaps to problem-oriented roadmaps. By reframing defined products and features to problems and testable hypotheses, teams can embed workflows that allow for more customer input and iteration. Data is transformed into actionable insights, rather than acting as a distraction.

Getting started with generating such data from users doesn’t require a PhD. or multi-million dollar budget. “[To] people inside large companies who are struggling with this, I’ll say, ‘You might want to just do some interviews guerilla-style and then come tell everyone what you learned, versus saying, ‘We’re going to do this’ or ‘We’re going to get buy-in for it’ — just do it,” Cindy Alvarez, a Group Product Manager and behavior change expert at Microsoft, explained in an interview. “Then, find some interesting stuff and kind of dangle it in front of your manager and say, ‘hey, there’s more where this came from, we just need to keep talking to people.’”

Alvarez’s advice is supported by countless examples. Many of Alpha’s early clients found manual, sometimes primitive, ways to generate user feedback before they had access to our on-demand insights platform. That’s how they made the case in the first place to invest in scaling their activities.

Alex Gruber, the Director of Product at Vonage, encouraged his team to simply meet potential users at a local Starbucks to get their input. It was a critical step as he introduced a startup mindset and culture within his organization. “The way we use Alpha is to try to narrow down the focus in where we make some of the investments around prototyping and validation. We can solve many different problems many different ways, but there’s only so many hours in the day,” he explained. “With Alpha you can talk to thousands at a time which is not practical just going to Starbucks – you’d be pretty well caffeinated at that point.”

3. Recognize that success doesn’t speak for itself

While top-down buy-in will create the right environment and incentives for continued progress, entrenched behaviors won’t change overnight. In large organizations, success needs to be showcased, evangelized, and, at times, politicized. It has to be presented as a path to career advancement. The two most powerful ways to do this are data and stories.

Thought leadership content and case studies demonstrate new methodologies, provide exposure for early adopters, and highlight tangible business outcomes. All together, that’s a recipe for turning success into viral success, and viral success into a full-blown, high-impact digital transformation.

To accomplish this, consider creating a recurring demo day-style meeting for sharing surprising user insights, rather than merely celebrating the launch of new, but perhaps unvalidated, products and features. Create multimedia content featuring teams working in forward-thinking ways. Determine frameworks for communicating ROI and benefits to different stakeholders, from the C-Suite, to finance and procurement teams, to R&D.

Our clients that have the most success regularly collaborate with us on such initiatives and programs. We’ve created videos highlighting Northwestern Mutual’s impressive transformation and outcomes and frequently feature clients like The Advertising Council on our podcast to discuss how they’re evolving to keep up with rapidly changing member preferences.

By combining executive buy-in, initial proof points, and an atmosphere of enviable success, digital transformations can take hold and lead to meaningful results for any business. No PowerPoints or broken promises required!

This post was originally published on Octane blog by Entrepreneurs’ Organization and has been reprinted/posted here with permission.

Nis Frome

Nis Frome is the co-founder of Alpha, the platform that enables management teams to make data-driven decisions about users, products, and new markets.