The essential ingredient for a successful transformation

Do your leaders expect their already over-stretched workforces to implement change whilst striving to meet their near term business goals?  If so, it is unrealistic. It sets up transformation for failure. Leaders must make sure they set up and support a dedicated team of transformation specialists whose day job is to convert the company’s vision into an executable program of work and support businesses in implementing the change.  

At DBS CEO, Piyush Gupta described the transformation team as his secret weapon.  He realised he needed a small team of people who had built up a capability in transformation to define executable programs of transformation, align the leaders, train the people and support the businesses in implementing new concepts.  This was my team’s role and we became pretty good at it simply because we built up over a decade of experience.  Many companies see such centralised resources as an overhead. However such a team is essential and if supported by leadership will pay for itself many times over.  Having a transformation team avoids the need to pick up the phone to a favourite and expensive management consultancy every time transformation work is required.  It builds corporate capability to allow new ideas to be adapted to suit the context. It helps provides a sounding board to the executive team as they evolve vision and strategy, it acts as an independent assessment of progress and most importantly provides the necessary resource to work along side business teams as the change is implemented.

I set up DBS’s transformation team up shortly after I joined DBS in 2009.  Initially the “team” was myself and one other person I had hired from my previous company. The two of us ran process improvement events or PIEs, but when Piyush Gupta joined and saw what we were doing, he got right behind the team and we grew the team to around 40 people (DBS was around 25,000 employees at the time).  We chose people from a variety of backgrounds avoiding traditional bankers.  We looked for people who had the courage to stand in the front of a room and get people excited by change.  People who could create psychologically safe environments and unlock passion.  As we became more successful we started to attract amazing talent from around the world as well as some of the best talent from within the company.  Over the 12 years I ran the team, we designed and executed roughly 10 bank-wide transformation programs that collectively delivered DBS’s renowned transformation.  If there had been no team there would not have been the success.

Internally there were inevitable pressures from businesses.  Although we did not charge out the team’s time there were the inevitable comments from businesses about the value of a central team. However when we adopted an approach of supporting the willing volunteers the most, those businesses that were most enthusiastic about the change got the most “free” help and the laggards got the least. This created a very healthy tension.  Piyush never swayed from his support. Once we agreed the approach he actively challenged business and support functions to embrace the change.

Leadership Lessons

  1. To be successful in your transformation you need to provide bandwidth within the company
  2. A central team creates capability, context and capacity
  3. Ongoing executive support for the transformation team is essential

It’s not you it’s me

Transformation differs from traditional strategy implementation in that transformation typically includes an element of cultural change, introduction of new concepts and ways of working.  The role of a transformation leader is to be able to put an executable program of work in place that will enable a company to embrace the new ideas, methods and mindsets. 

It is inevitable in my experience that at some point the transformation leader (usually me on a stage or one of my team in a dept meeting setting) is going to be standing in front of a bunch of seasoned business executives and suggesting that they need to do things differently. Even with great communication, executive sponsorship and sound reasoning, what happens next is entirely predictable. 

There will be objections.  

If there are no objections either people have not understood or you are not being ambitious enough.  Such objections are usually statements defending inertia (or SDIs).  Some examples are :-

  • We have already tried that and it did not work
  • That will never get past compliance (or the regulator)
  • My department is different and the change does not apply to us
  • You are being too idealistic
  • You don’t understand my business

Early on in my career when I heard these SDIs from say, Bob a business leader, my reaction was that “Bob just does not get it” and that Bob is a laggard and not worth the effort. However after over the years it dawned on me that if everyone “got it” straight away then transformation would be easy and I would be out of a job.  The issue was not with Bob but with me – I had not done a good enough job for Bob.

I started to look for strategies on how to deal with SDIs.  Since SDIs were predictable I realised that I should at the very least consider how I should answer each ahead of time.  However, I was ultimately inspired by Chris Voss the ex FBI hostage negotiator who recounts in his book “Never Split the Difference” how there tends to be a list of predictable objections from kidnappers during a negotiation.  Chris describes how he raised them before they can be surfaced by the kidnapper thereby diffusing their impact.  He calls this the “accusation audit”.  By borrowing this idea we developed an SDI audit approach that helped enormously when executed well.  During the communication of a new concept we would say something along the lines of “You may think that this does not apply to you but let me explain why it does” or “Let me explain why this is different from anything else we have tried before”. 

At DBS we never fired a single person for not “getting it”.  We realised that resistance came from the failings of those of us driving the transformation and that we need to continuously improve our approaches. You certainly need a backbone when you are drink transformation. There will be plenty of naysayers along the way. It helps to know that if they did not exist something is wrong.

The One Big Insight

Learning from experiences comes from reflection and many of the insights I gained from leading the transformation team at DBS was as a result of talking to the many business leaders that came to visit. One of the most common questions we got was unsurprisingly about technology. Over the course of 3 years, we fundamentally redesigned over 600 legacy applications thereby dramatically cutting support costs and development times. Specifically we were asked about our IT architecture, our tools and automation techniques. We were always happy to talk through our IT designs and processes but frankly these were the wrong questions. The better question would have been “How did you motivate and equip your team to carry out the transformation?”  Or “How did you give your teams the belief that they could develop world leading technology?”  

Technology does not change itself. Nor do processes or strategies.  This line of thought led me to the realisation that…

“Companies do not change unless the behaviour of their people changes”.

This one and seemingly obvious insight (which took me an embarrassingly long time to unearth) summed up what you need to know to put in place a successful transformation program.

The insight seems so simple yet it is often overlooked.  Yet failing to put in place the right conditions to drive behaviour change is the reason that so many transformations fail.

It is often said that people do not like change. Not true. Following 2 years of travel restrictions most people I speak to our eager to get on a plane and experience new things again. Yet it is true in the work place. Why? Most people tell me that it is due to fear.  Change brings personal risk.  Companies are designed for inertia and no single corporate superhero can over the structural forces in place. It is therefore the role of leadership to create the environment that encourages a drive for improvement. However so very few companies set out on their transformation journeys without considering how they are going to bring their people along.

Many leaders tell me how they need to make the tough decisions on how they need to let the people go who do not get on board. For me this is a failure in leadership as most people want to part of the success yet there is something else in the way. This can be lack of understanding of the company’s direction (more common than you might think), fear of looking stupid in the future world or a feeling that staying with the current state is going to be better for them financially or in terms of status.  All these problems can be overcome by transformation planning. Moreover with the right preparation leaders can unlock the passion of their people, create an army of change agents and accelerate towards their vision.