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Tag Archives: Change Management

Surviving the Transformation Death Zone

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.


Is Your Change Management Building a Building or Planning a City?

sustainable city

In a previous article, we discussed the level of change management required for a company to achieve true transformation. Just as a reminder, the mutually inclusive elements include:

  • Employing an Enterprise Change Strategy
  • Developing Your Change Management Framework
  • Enhancing Your Change Leadership Capabilities
  • Growing Organizational Competency for Change

Thinking in terms of these key elements, we can see how organizations mature their change management competency from immature or nonexistent through institutionalizing change management, to making it a strategic advantage of the company.

This progression is not necessarily linear. In fact, many companies start off quite capable of responsive change, able to adapt and adjust to their environments; then as they begin to scale and add process and procedures, they become siloed and less agile. Ironically, as the companies mature, their change management competency becomes less mature. Then at some point, hopefully without the aid of a disruptive crisis, they may realize their position and begin the long road back to responsiveness.

When it comes to Change Management, most companies we encounter in our digital transformation practice are somewhere between “Isolated Application” and instituting “Project Level.” Few have the self-awareness to understand the need for change management at all much less a greater level of maturity. The reasons for this lack of foresight has been discussed in other places, so let’s chalk it up to inexperience and/or ignorance of the rate of failure and consequences.

The difference between Project Level and Enterprise Level change management is the difference between building a building and developing an entire city complete with transportation systems, electrical grids, emergency response systems, etc. It is the scale and interconnectedness of the functions that require greater planning and sophisticated execution.

So, if we say Enterprise Level is required for successful digital transformation and most companies are well below that, the question becomes, how can an organization get there and how fast? Well, before we can answer that question, there are a few other questions to answer first:

  1. What is the scale of the organization? Before making any decisions, we must set out to understand the scale of company that is changing. Are we talking about hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of employees that are going to be impacted? How many divisions, process, functions are involved? The greater the complexities, the more difficult it is to advance. At the same time, the more necessary it becomes.
  2. What is the level of expected disruption? Connected to #1, what is the level of the disruption that digital transformation will bring? As we have established, the disruptive impact is not very predictable, but some will be greater than others. If it starts out as a major change, then it is likely to have more unintended consequences. The greater the complexity, the harder it is to be successful.
  3. What is the leadership’s attitude toward change management? It’s common knowledge that leadership involvement is key to successful change, but does leadership really see the importance of it on an organizational level? Enterprise Level change management requires C-Level attention on a daily basis. Companies at Project Level are often stuck because leaders only believe change management is needed on large, key initiatives. At the same time, companies that have not gone through the Project Level phase often cannot see the need in a broader context. Without full backing of top leadership, companies can rarely achieve higher-level phases of change management.
  4. What investment are they prepared to make? We have seen large enterprise companies driving 20 to 40 changes in their organization feel that they are making an investment by hiring a single change manager who reports to a mid-level executive. Let’s be clear, at this level, there can be no impact from that change manager. Likely this person is simply administering a process without actually impacting the outcome. To achieve Enterprise Level success, the investment needs to scale to the impact. Often this means executive level attention with some serious investment in infrastructure.
  5. How independent are your advisors? On the other hand, we have also seen companies throw money, resource, and time into training dozens and even hundreds to be change management “practitioners” often at the advice of the certification providers. If your advisors (internal or external) facilitate this expenditure, it is time to consider their competency. This kind of investment can be a massive waste that we have rarely seen actually improve the organizational change performance. Yes, training people in a base method is important to success but handing out certificates like hamburgers at McDonald’s is not the answer. Rather, start with a strategy for scaling to your need beginning first with leadership and then selecting a few key resources to develop expertise, become coaches, build centers of excellence. You will save a lot of money and have a bigger impact.
  6. What tools and measures are in place? Managing a change portfolio can be an intensive effort. As with any major function in a company there are tools and measures that help monitor the effectiveness of the program. Any company that is still at Project Level or below is unlikely to have developed these tools or measures. Still, if the company has had a PMO or other similar programs, they may have the underlying capabilities.

Reaching the Enterprise Level of maturity depends on a number of variables. Organizations that embrace it and strive for it realize that they are building a business model for a much more successful future, one that enables them to learn and adapt faster to changing environments, and one that can even enable more engaged employees. By achieving Enterprise Level companies will see benefits such as:

  • A consistent and unified change management approach across the entire company
  • Faster time to execute on projects
  • Common tools, templates, and resources for driving organizational change
  • Building organizational fitness by reducing change saturation and fatigue
  • A serious step toward creating a real, sustainable competitive advantage

Taking change management maturity seriously is the first step. Having a focus will pay dividends in protecting your investment in the technology. Not focusing on it, statistically, almost guarantees you will pay the price in the long run.

The post Is Your Change Management Building a Building or Planning a City? first appeared on MSSBTI.

9 Tenets for Achieving Change through ERP Implementation

Post ERP implementation blues are problematic for a number of reasons not the least of which is the decline of the collaborative and empowered culture that the implementation tends to create. A common cause for ERP sub-optimization is that most companies do not plan sufficiently to sustain the culture required to achieve the full benefits if the system. While leaders often consider the need for ongoing technology development and maintenance, it is just as important that they plan for cultural sustainability.

Generally, leaders will make a false assumption that an ERP implementation will be plug-and- play, that performance will come naturally, and that the culture will adapt as a result of the technology. But the research is clear. Having a great company culture is no longer optional for companies who want to compete.


“If you ask a group of CIOs what their biggest barrier to change is in their organization or indeed the wider enterprise, the most common response is almost always culture or some variant thereof. In the 2018 CIO Survey, 46% of respondents named culture as the biggest barrier to scaling digital transformation. This answer isn’t surprising. But it’s also not very useful, since culture is amorphous — hard to pin down and hard to change.”

– Gartner, The Art of Culture Hacking

ERP is the backbone of an organization’s operational structure, and exists to improve information flow, reduce costs, optimize processes, link with suppliers, and reduce response times. But, to accomplish all of this, it is must also help breakdown silos, enable transparency, and ensure better cooperation. In other words, the ultimate result of a successful ERP is empowered employees and a collaborative culture. ERP implementation is just part of the complex journey. Organizations often underestimate just how much cultural heavy lifting is required to make sure the business benefits are realized post-implementation.

The good news is that an ERP refresh presents a perfect opportunity to enact real cultural transformation as well. To renew and sustain the value and achieve the benefits of your ERP, we adhere to 9 tenants of ERP cultural transformation:

  1. Develop a shared vision of the desired outcomes across all units.
  2. Hinge all decisions, roadmaps, and plans on achieving the business outcomes and realizing the business strategy.
  3. Make breaking down functional silos a primary goal for the program.
  4. Make development and sustainability of the culture part of the ERP strategy from the beginning.
  5. Take a top-down, holistic approach to designing and improving business processes through the system.
  6. Appoint a business lead as the executive sponsor and treat the implementation as a long-term business transformation initiative.
  7. Create a cross functional program sponsorship structure with the task of driving organizational change.
  8. Implement a robust, structured change management process that focuses on individual change at all levels.
  9. Facilitate candid, open discussions and clarity regarding cross organizational dependencies.

Download a PDF of 9 Tenets for Achieving Change through ERP Implementation


At MSS, we work with our customers to develop a transformation plan for their ERP implementation. The plan will include a shared vision, a leadership roadmap and a sponsorship coalition, a cultural implementation plan, a cross functional change strategy, and a robust sustainability plan. All of these tenets ensure a result that is more than the sum of its parts delivering high value for your transformation.


The post 9 Tenets for Achieving Change through ERP Implementation first appeared on MSSBTI.

The Energizing Myth: The Greatest Tool of Transformational Leaders

energizing-myth-a-transformational leaders-greatest-tool

Have you ever had a thought turning in your head but were unable to describe it? And then someone turns a single phrase and you jump, “That’s it!” This happened to me on a recent trip to Europe.

For a while now, I have been looking for something to describe an intangible capability that great, transformational leaders have that the rest of us seem to lack. Until now, it has been hiding behind concepts like vision, charisma, and purpose laying just out of reach. Then, while listening to an online course on the Italian Renaissance the lecturer referred to the concept of the “energizing myth,” and I was inspired.

The term, originally coined by Frederico Chabod, describes how the Italian Renaissance was a self-defining, self-fulfilling event. Chabod’s theory was that the Italians came to believe so completely in their special destiny that they essentially willed the Renaissance into existence. While the concept of the Renaissance represents a rebirth of ancient ideas, the application of those ideas and values was unique and their awareness of this gave the people the drive and confidence to experiment with new forms of government, art, science, and social structure. Of course, the Renaissance was not one effort. The Italy of the time consisted of multiple, separate states each of which pursued their own version of the myth, a fact that only strengthened the movement.

Listening to this, it occurred to me that this concept has been applied by great leaders throughout history. When John F. Kennedy set America’s sites on the moon, or when Winston Churchill bolstered the people of London after the Battle of Britain, or when Nelson Mandela painted a picture of a united South Africa, they were utilizing the concept of the “energizing myth” to achieve results that may not otherwise have seemed possible. Of course, history also has its share of leaders who utilized the same techniques to produce more nefarious results.

But how can leaders apply the energizing myth when it comes to business transformation? Is it simply creating a clear vision establishing a motivating purpose, or setting ambitious goals? Yes, I believe this is all of these things, but I also think it can be much more. By developing an energizing myth, a business leader is building a sense that their organization is out to do something so different, so important, and so special that it takes a special group of people to accomplish it and that their team is the only group with the capabilities, resources, and opportunity to do it. As a result, the leader is motivating her people to commit their heart and soul to the outcome, giving them the holistic responsibility for achieving the outcome, and setting them free to pursue it.

If you are of a certain age, you no doubt remember Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial recalling Orwell’s 1984 where the hammer thrower, representing Apple, knocks out the screen of Big Brother representing IBM. It is an iconic advertisement, but what is more interesting is the speech that Steve Jobs gave when the ad was first introduced to Apple employees. In his speech, Jobs lays out what amounts to a mythical battlefront with IBM. His goal is to drive Apple employees to be David to IBM’s Goliath. He builds the case that if they give all of their disposable effort they can bring down the giant, and they will be winning a great battle for the everyday person. It is his version of the St. Crispen’s Day speech:

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words

—William Shakespeare, Henry V

One might think such ambitious storytelling is fine when one is leading an upstart company on the edge of history. Since then, this technique has proven successful over and over with companies ranging from Southwest Airlines, Facebook, Amazon, and Google, to more recent successes such as Uber or AirBNB. These leaders used their energizing myth to spark organizations that seemed ready to take over the world. But how can leaders in more common situations utilize an energizing myth to achieve exceptional results?

Thinking about this, I remembered a classic case from my business school days. I recalled the Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Soul of the New Machine (1981), in which author Tracy Kidder tells the story of Tom West and his young team of engineers at Data General who were responsible for launching “The Eagle” minicomputer. In this effort, West created a mythos around his team’s efforts. He set a context with his team that they were creating something that had never been done before; they would build a billion dollar product that would save the company, but they were in a race to complete it. They had challengers both externally from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and internally from divisions competing for resources. He convinced his team that their project was so special it was not to be discussed, not even with family. He did not define team members’ roles so much as to constrain them but instead encouraged them with the idea that they were owners of the product, they should see their part in it holistically, and they should apply themselves in whatever way necessary to get it to market on time.

The result of West’s energizing myth was that people gave of themselves way beyond what their salaries warranted. They volunteered to work 24/7 to meet their goals in a culture that didn’t require such effort, but self-organized and self-regulated through social pressure. The members they attracted wanted to achieve something special and were willingly indoctrinated in a process called “signing up” where they committed heart and soul to the project and were held to it by their colleagues who had also signed up. In the end, the project was a huge success and achieved goals that, in the beginning, had very little basis in fact.

Of course, the challenge of using classic examples is that they are often proven unsustainable. By the end of 1990’s, Digital General became an acquisition target and was purchased by EMC for just over a billion dollars. This story not only brings out the strengths of a powerful energizing myth, but also the flaw. It is hard to sustain. While it can create a dynamic environment that over produces and transforms organizations, but it can also be short-lived if not nurtured properly.

Taking from these and other cases, we can provide some principles that should be considered when using intrinsic motivation to drive change.

  1. Go Beyond Goals: What sets the concept of the energizing myth apart from, for example, “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” is the result is not only about achieving the KPI’s. The motivation comes from being part of something greater that may change the organization, industry, or more.
  2. Make Employees Responsible for the Holistic Result: Studies show that people are not as motivated by doing part of something as they are being part of the outcome. By giving employees responsibility for the whole result, leaders give them ownership of the outcome as well.
  3. Build the Platform, Then Burn It: Similar to John Kotter’s “Burning Platform” concept, leaders building an energizing myth create a situation where time and/or competition matters. Like Steve Jobs creating a Goliath out of IBM, leaders get employees to fight for essentially building the platform so they can light a fire to it.
  4. Allow for Self-Organization: Create a team with a comprehensive range of skills and capabilities and allow them to determine how to apply them. By providing employees broad goals and autonomy, they will be more likely to own the outcome and go above and beyond to accomplish it. At the same time, they will establish a system of social pressure that is stronger than any controls the organization will put on them.
  5. Develop a Sense of Humble Exclusivity: By developing the environment where people are doing something special, leaders give them the opportunity to be special and should promote this feeling. Leaders have to be ethically careful here not to build this feeling by demeaning others, but rather by lifting their team up. They are special because of they joined up, because they are in the right time and place, and because they have the will to go above and beyond, NOT because others are inferior.
  6. Apply a System of Constant and Clear Feedback: Setting milestones and achieving them enables the team to grow in confidence and become even more motivated. I think of the differences between the US Space Program that staged and tested their efforts to the moon and the Soviet program that shot straight for the end result. In the end, the US reached the moon successfully while the Soviets ultimately gave up (though some rumors exist that the Soviet result was even more tragic).
  7. Be Truthful: By definition, a myth is an exaggerated or idealized concept. That said, if is not based in fact, or at least the possibility of fact, it will ultimately fail to motivate. Steve Jobs truly believed that Apple was out to change the world and IBM and other massive bureaucratic organizations were holding back progress. By having faith in the outcome, leaders can create the energy necessary to get there.

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

-Michelangelo Buonarrotti

The Italian Renaissance was a special period in human history that launched the general European Renaissance and changed our view of art, engineering, society, and the workings of the universe. It started with a new belief in what people are capable of and gained momentum by achieving it. Similarly, organizational transformation can occur if the leaders create the energizing myth that drives it. Consider your company and your transformation. What is the story that people will tell? What will make them proud to have been a part of it? What will energize them to go to great lengths to make it happen? If you can determine that, you are already half way to achieving it.

The post The Energizing Myth: The Greatest Tool of Transformational Leaders first appeared on MSSBTI.