Mar 31, 2014

Why Transformation Efforts Fail: Lesson 3.

As introduced last week, John Kotter, Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, Harvard Business School, in “Leading Change, Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” (HBR, January 2007) discusses why companies seeking to change the way they operate in a new “more challenging market environment” often encounter internal institutional resistance from “those in the trenches of the business,” and why “leading change is both absolutely essential and difficult.” Today I will continue to follow Kotter’s outline by focusing on his third “common error”  as  relating to my own experiences, and to bring the reader through Kotter’s thinking  so that  others may “avoid the common pitfalls.” For those who are interested in learning more, including the details of eight unique steps to transformation, here is a link to the work.
Lesson 3: “Lacking a Vision.”

First, the simple question, of which there have been many answers in academic and corporate discussions-: “what is vision?” Kotter defines it as “a picture of the future that is relatively easy to communicate and appeals to customers, stockholders, and employees” with the additional, and critical caveat that vision “helps to clarify the direction in which an organization needs to move.” So, what happens when vision is not clear or well articulated in the process of transformation? As Kotter explains, the process “can easily dissolve into a list of confusing and incompatible projects that can take the organization in the wrong direction, or no direction at all.”

In the context of a company looking at corporate transformation when it comes to FCPA compliance and ethics, this “vision thing” is more than just lip service to a “sound bite.” To the sales person sitting and traveling in an overseas territory, far away from the home office, if that vision is not amplified at the start, it can become diluted, distorted, and at worst, ignored,  through each level of the org chart, as it gets communicated “downward.”  All it takes is one person in the communication process, maybe a sales manager, a business development executive, or perhaps even a divisional leader, to say to that person in the field, “don’t worry about that stuff, just focus on selling,” and all that transformational  effort at the corporate level melts away and never  touches the person(s) most likely to come into contact with foreign bribery: the overseas sales and marketing team.  I once heard a Global (yes, Global) VP of Sales at a large multi-national company refer to his compliance department, after a major FCPA training conference, as the “business prevention department.” So, for the sales team working in that organization, looking for direction, operating in remote territories, what did the corporate vision mean to them?  Back to my “kidney stone” management analogy. Its going to hurt during the process, but “hang tough” through the pain, and it will be back to normal soon enough.

So, in my experience, while I agree with Kotter that vision needs to be clear and well articulated, it also needs the “lesson 2” mandate of a powerful and broad guiding coalition to insure that it is heard as loud in remote foreign capitals where the sales team operates, as it is in board rooms of the home office. Thoughts?


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