By Kim Atherton – Chief People Officer, OVO Energy / CEO & Co-Founder Just3Things
A now well-cited statistic from the Deloitte Human Capital Survey (2017) reveals that although leadership in nearly every business sector are clear on the fact that they must transform their organisations in order to compete in today’s economy (over 80% reporting) – very few (less than 13%) are clear on how to even begin to embark on that journey. Whether your business is undertaking a re-org, a digital transformation, or a new innovation programme, chances are you’re grappling with the painful details of cultural change and the resulting political fallout amongst your employee base.
This is precisely what I found myself faced with when, in 2016, I led an agile change management programme in my role as Chief People Officer of Ovo Energy. Ovo is a green energy company – recently valued as a £1 billion ‘unicorn’ – and has always been a very dynamic and technology-driven start up. On paper, moving from agile practices within the technology teams at OVO to an organisation-wide network of cross-functional squads and tribes should have been a relatively smooth transition. Yet it bred all sorts of new workplace anxieties and unintended cultural distractions that we were not prepared for. Managers no longer understood how to coach their employees once they were dispersed in these new cross-functional teams, and individual contributors lacked context as to how their team-based experiments laddered up to the company’s overall strategy.
In short, confusion prevailed because we, like many companies, had focused heavily on the end behaviours we hoped to embed once the transformation was complete, and not enough on the conditions required to support the employees through transformation process itself. My team and I quickly went out to market searching for a piece of software that could help address those conditions by building transparency and alignment across the company. When we couldn’t find a suitable solution,I hired a few developers and built a platform that has since spun out as an autonomous business: Just3Things. Today, my co-founder Erinn Collier and I work with a huge range of businesses – from global financial services giants to high-growth tech start-ups – to help ease the pain of transformation programmes. We’ve uncovered some fascinating trends in the ways in which these businesses approach large-scale changes to ways of working and collaborating cross-functionally, regardless of whether these change programmes are driven from the digital team, the people team or the CEO’s office:
The pain points are universal, and they are rooted in issues of alignment. Whilst no one would argue that it’s unimportant for employees to understand the broader context of their day-to-day work, it’s remarkable how ready we are to assume that everyone shares the same priorities and do little to ensure that is a reality. In fact, MIT Sloan research found that only 28% of executives and middle-managers surveyed could list their company’s top three priorities. We need to be putting in the work to ensure everyone not only can recall but actually understands why we prioritise the workstreams that we do as businesses.
There’s a lot of focus on what happens IN the teams, but less on what happens between them. It’s only natural to want to explain to members of a new team how they are going to work in a post-transformation world, and to introduce some of the fantastic tools (Slack, MS Teams, Trello, etc) that facilitate team productivity, but often this is at the expense of any sort of cross-team knowledge sharing. What other teams are working on a related problem? What senior stakeholders own the initiative I’m aligned to? How important is the project I’m assigned to? These are fundamental questions that can’t be answered by members of the same team, and require a broader, more comprehensive overview from the leadership team.
Many larger businesses are successful in setting up an ‘innovation hub’, but struggle to scale change across the business. Time and time again we’ve encountered well-intentioned enterprises managing well-funded innovation ‘experiments’, often isolated in a separate office and/or within a distinct business unit, and used as a test bed for new organisational and delivery frameworks. Whilst these testing grounds yield valuable insights for the broader organisation, it can prove impossible to scale those learnings to the rest of the organisation because of broader implications around reporting lines, budgeting and project cycles that have not been properly considered. These experiments should be planned from the beginning with the intention of impacting large-scale change across all lines of business.
Of course, software is only one part of an ever-shifting puzzle of technology, literature and expert consultation that contributes to these ambitious transformation programmes across a huge range of businesses. What is comforting is the knowledge that no one is going through this alone; as compared with just four or five years ago, it’s clear that more businesses than ever are serious about making changes to the way they approach their customers and design new and innovative products/services for them. Thinking through these essential conditions for alignment will only help smooth and accelerate that path to superior innovation.