​Hacking transformation: Understanding what you are getting yourself into

​Hacking transformation: Understanding what you are getting yourself into

How to get out of your transformation projects alive

Technology transformations – I’ve done 15 of them; on the business side and on the people side, in divisions and company-wide; as an employee and as an implementer.

I love them, they have a certain kind of madness that I am drawn to. If you have a technology transformation underway or you are about to embark on one, it’s time to get really clear about what you are getting yourself into.

Building transformational capacity is a business imperative. One study suggests that 75 per cent of the S&P 500 will turn over in the next 15 years. Another says that one in three companies will delist in the next five years. A third shows that the ‘topple rate’ of industry leaders falling from their perch has double in a generation.

Here are a few tips that may help you get out of your transformation programs alive.

Know the difference between operational and transformational thinking

Operational programs are designed to institute new processes or practices. They are a very useful way of refining or ‘tweaking’ an existing system. Operational practices are the very foundation of our businesses.

Transformational thinking on the other hand is all about innovation. It is bringing in and embedding new thinking into our businesses. If this new thinking is powerful, effective and our businesses (the people in the company) can change to embrace it, then it can create a leap forward in our competitive capability.

Operational foundation

Transformational thinking

The foundation of the businesses

The innovation of the businesses

A program or set of initiatives

The application of new way of framing & thinking about an issue

Designed to institute new practices

Designed to institute new thinking

The price of entry into the field

Potentially a competitive advantage

Slow, methodical progress, one step at a time

Fast leaps forward

Small lever for change

Big lever for change

Very low risk

Higher risk

A series of actions that must be managed and repeated. Requires ongoing leadership and management.

Training and immersion in a new way of thinking that generates new autonomous action



Incremental Improvement – requires constant attention may not be sustainable

Transformational – step change in growth, if systemically embedded in the organisation can be generative

Implemented as additional new processes

Integrated into the existing process, (process redesign), with new processes added to support integrity of the whole system

So what is the operational foundation for transformation? It’s what I think of as the ‘price of entry’, the collection of programs that many companies run today in an effort make their transformation programs successful.

This operational foundation can cover a few or many efforts from the following list:

  • Project management
  • Technology evaluation
  • Project reporting
  • Metrics gathering and reporting
  • Scope definition and management
  • Requirements gathering
  • Vendor management

This operational foundation is usually run by IT and reported on quarterly as an operations review or program status update to the CEO and perhaps also the executive team, depending on the size and cost of the transformation. The reports are usually both quantitative and qualitative in nature and are designed to move the company towards the stated goal of the transformation.

If the above list made you nod, you’ve probably already paid the price of entry, you are playing the game, you may have benefitted from some early returns but you are struggling to expand the game and stabilise or grow those returns.

And you are also concerned that this substantial investment is a little like owning a boat, as they say: “A boat owner’s best days are the day you buy and then day you sell.”

So now what? It’s time to get really smart about how to leverage what you have built to date to support your transformational initiatives. If the above list did not make you nod – I’ll be writing about all of the above, and their role in transformation in subsequent articles.

Learning how to build transformational capacity is of most value to organisations that have:

  • made a quantifiable commitment to transformation programs and innovation
  • used initial operational programs to reach revenue, productivity or operational objectives but are struggling to maintain or exceed their goals
  • gained the full commitment of the leadership team
  • created a solid PMO program
  • acknowledged that this is not just an IT issue.

Building a successful transformation program

In a 2016 article in Harvard Business Review, Scott Anthony does a nice job of pointing to what he terms ‘operational transformation’ (tweaking/improving the existing), ‘core transformation’ (doing what you are doing but in a fundamentally different way) and ‘strategic transformation’ (changing your identity and offering in the market, e.g. Google search to driverless cars). He looks at them as one or the other or together.

I have seen that the operational foundation and transformational thinking build on each other and that most successful transformation programs, have both an operational technology foundation and a transformational agenda.

These are the ones that I focus on. These types of transformation can be purposed to deliver both core transformation and strategic transformation. But make sure that, as early as possible, you are clear on what you are seeking to accomplish.

That sounds obvious, but people get romantic notions about what is possible and pin them on you and then become very disappointed if you don’t deliver.

Regardless of the scope and ambition of your planned transformation, you need to make sure your teams understand the technology that supports or drives the transformation, as well as the principals of transformation.

Give yourself time to sell this requirement internally since the investment in the technology for a major change is substantial and so invariably people expect that to also cover the cost of the transformation work.

Even if the work is being done primarily by an internal team, make sure you set money aside for training the team since it is likely that very few of them have prior transformation experience.

Jennifer Kenny has 25+ years of transformation experience and has been a CIO in Silicon Valley. She is the author of upcoming book: Hacking Transformation and works with organisations around the world to help them build transformational capacity. You can find out more about her and her work at

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