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Surviving the Transformation Death Zone



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April 8th, 2020

By David William Lee, Change Management Expert and Contributing Writer

I have always been fascinated by the sport of mountain climbing. Recently, I was watching a movie on climbing Mt. Everest in which they described the Death Zone – the region above 26,000 feet where a climber’s body starts to die. They had my attention.

At 8,000 meters (26k ft.) and above, the atmospheric pressure is about a third of what it is at sea level. As a result, the body gets significantly less oxygen and the cells in the body literally begin to die leading to extreme lethargy and poor decisions. The effect of this process is that it takes most climbers up to 12 hours to walk 1.7 kilometers (1.07mi) to the summit. Many of the climbers who meet their end in the Death Zone simply sit down to take a rest.

If you’re thinking that perhaps one can summit more quickly, understand that a person taken directly from sea level to the top of Mt. Everest would die within 2-3 minutes; hence the establishment and requirement of base camps. The mind and body require periodic respites to both recover and reassess the readiness to move on to the next stage of the climb.

Add to this the other dangers of climbing at this altitude such as high winds, sudden changes in weather, altitude sickness, extreme cold, avalanches and falling ice towers the size of skyscrapers, and we can see the danger of taking on this challenge.

Over 50% of climber deaths occur in the Death Zone.

While it is not clear how many bodies are on Mt. Everest, it is estimated to be over 200. They are there forever so those who set out always have in their peripheral vision the reminder of those who did not make it.

According to many professional climbers, I talked to, the primary reasons someone does not survive the Death Zone include:

  • Improper physical preparation;
  • Poor psychological preparation;
  • A lack of proper climbing skills or knowledge of the mountain; or
  • Improper acclimatization

In other words, many of the deaths that occur on the mountain are preventable with the right preparation. But, inevitability, there are those climbers who fail to assess their readiness and manage their climb.

As part of an organization that focuses on Business Transformation, I draw many lessons from this example.

Business Transformation is one of the hardest things that a leader can do in their career. Whether it is a strategic change, a major operational upgrade, a company reorganization, or all three simultaneously; many leaders will have to take on such a business transformation at least once in their careers. What they may not realize is that there is a Death Zone in this type of effort as well.

Surviving the Death Zone in Business Transformation occurs during a period after the transformation has begun. Issues start to arise, fatigue starts to set in and people are frustrated. It’s when even you, as a CEO or CIO or COO, believe it has become “too hard”, and you question why you set out on this journey in the first place. Your employees are complaining, there are too many people to retrain, or you fear the business transformation can affect client relationships and open the door for competitors. Perhaps, it will take too long and cause too much attrition, it requires a large investment that raises the risk. It’s just too complicated to get through.

Surviving the business transformational Death Zone means getting through this period, showing perseverance and ensuring that people remember that this effort will reap rewards in the longer term.

How can you successfully survive the Death Zone during your Business Transformation? Some key steps include:

  • Prepare for the Journey
    • Have you planned for every stage of the organizational transformation?
    • Is your organization aligned with the new operational model?
    • Have you identified the new business processes and the job-specific changes that your staff will need to embrace?
    • Have you identified the capabilities that your staff will need to perform in the future state?
    • Do you have the subject matter experts selected and prepared for the transition?
  • Build Your Knowledge to Survive Transformation
    • Are the business drivers and the need for change clearly understood by all those who will be impacted?
    • Are your people trained and ready?
    • Are you meeting your transformation stage goals?
  • Get Fit
    • Does the organization have the stamina for the transition?
    • Do you have active and engaged team members driving the change?
    • Are the capabilities of your staff at the level needed to perform in the future state?
    • Is fatigue setting in? If so, what can be done to re-energize the team?
  • Assess Your Progress
    • Is the pace of the business transformation doable?
    • Have you established and stopped at the necessary checkpoints?
    • Are corrective actions needed to bring you back on track?
  • Find the Right Guide (“Sherpa”) to Survive Transformation
    • Do you have the necessary support to help guide you through your organizational transformation?
    • Are there skills needed that you don’t have the time or resources to supply?
    • Does your guide know the way? Has he been there and back?
    • Are company cultural sensitivities being taken into consideration?

Business transformation failures are preventable. As an executive who is responsible for the success of your company and its transformation objectives, don’t ignore the Death Zone. It exists and the risks are high. No matter how clear the vision, how impressive the business case, the path to success will be long and full of challenges. Preparation, knowledge, fitness, progress assessment and guidance will each play an important part to reach your own transformational summit, survive transformation, and embrace a new normalcy thereafter.