Accelerating Change And Transformation In Legacy Organizations

“Without evidence that the present is deficient in some way, motivation to innovate is lacking.”  -Amy Edmondson via Teaming to Innovate

We live in a world that is facing a plethora of digital transformations that are continuously shifting society, industries and our organizations. Shifts that span from incremental too disruptive and even volatile, from exhuming small industry changes to extinguishing entire institutions. Transformations, that unless willing to change, adapt, adopt, and transform, are taking their toll on legacy, or well-established organizations.

Legacy organizations can often lose their pioneering spirit in favor of a settler mindset, as we have seen with companies such as Kodak, Nokia, Motorola, and Yahoo, often losing their ability and willingness to remain adaptive to today’s changing world, inhibiting the level of current and future impact that can be created and sustained through ongoing innovation. As well as legacy organizations that met, when faced with an urgent need to innovate, adapt, and transform, companies such as Blockbuster, Radioshack, Borders, and Circuit City to name a few, were unable to make that transition or transformation in a manner that allowed for their future relevance or survival.

As Joanna Bakas shares in the article Why legacy organizations need to clearly separate their Performance Engine and Innovation Engine, “What is holding us back is our inability to unlearn accepted paradigms, ways of doing and thinking.”

Which is not only important for our legacy organizations in moving forward in a more relevant manner, but for the leadership that is guiding our legacy organizations towards those next steps into the future.

Leading in today’s more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environments necessitates creating organizational and team cultures that are embedded within and upon a foundation of trust and safety. It requires engaging the mindsets that allow for the curiosity, inquiry, critical thinking, and problem-solving to face these new challenges in new and novel ways, with the ongoing willingness and ability to reframe the lens to which we apply to those challenges in order provide a diversity of solutions that effectively expand our individual and organizational boundaries. It will also necessitate a willingness to become deeply reflective towards our current mental models in ways that allow us to break down and dislodge the thinking, perceptions, processes, frameworks, and systems that have become both entrenched and often irrelevant, in order that unlearning and new learning can exist. Today’s leaders will also need to engage the “around the corner” forward and futuristic thinking that allows for an ongoing flow of new ideas, new thinking, and new knowledge to be consistently infused into the individual and organizational networks in ways that allow for creative and innovative disruption to spread and scale in ways necessary to meet the growing adaptive challenges that the leaders of today’s legacy organizations are and will face.

Today’s leaders need to create an “organizational brain” that is better positioned and equipped for the accelerated pace and volatility of change and digital disruption that we are currently facing from our modern world. Effectively finding processes to break down those organizational inhibitors that keep us mired in stasis and “what we have always done” frame of mind, towards a focus upon and a better understanding of the “why” behind the deep need for ongoing learning, growth, and innovation. It is realizing that learning, growth and innovation are not just a “good” to have, but a real necessity for ongoing relevance, stamina and resilience necessary to stay effective in a world where today’s new quickly becomes tomorrow’s antiquated.

In reflecting on the growing importance of leaders in legacy organizations, especially those leaders who can effectively “think around the corner,” here are 4A’s that could and should stay in continuous consideration through any change or transformation process:

  • Agility – too often, the complexity of the challenges and problems we are facing pushes leaders to entrench and insulate, in a belief that a greater certainty, predictability and safety can be created for the organization. However, agile leaders and organizations see and use the current velocity of change as an opportunity, rather than a deficit. They acknowledge the tension that exists between stability and adaptability, which necessitates ongoing updates to their processes and systems. It is in recognizing that there is a definite need to engage risk, while remaining strategic towards that need and, in effect, enabling the organization to remain agile in the face of these tensions, and it requires today’s leaders to view agility from a cognitive, strategic, and operational lens.
  • Adaptability – necessitates the need for experimentation, for discovery learning, in determining how shift our attitudes and beliefs that allow individuals and the organization to not only internalize, but to move more relevantly into these new environments, dilemmas, and challenges they are being thrown into, which can feel a bit disruptive, both individually and organizationally. But, as Heifetz and Linsky share from Leadership on the Line, “adaptive work creates risk, conflict, and instability because addressing the issues underlying adaptive problems may involve upending deep and entrenched norms.” Which is the deep work of today’s leaders, for which Heifetz and Linsky add, “thus, leadership requires disturbing people – but at a rate they can absorb.”
  • Action – needs to serve as an individual and organizational orientation, otherwise, without action, very often our institutional norms lead us more often than not towards innovation theater. We talk about it, we think about it, we discuss it, we learn about it, we plan for it, but we actually do very little of it. Inability to move towards action, to engage an action orientation as individuals and organizations, will do little effectively move us towards any form of transformation, except as serving as a vision without a vehicle.
  • Adoption – as Denning and Dunham share in The Innovator’s Way, “Innovation is the art of getting people to adopt change.” In many ways, it is not enough to allow individuals and organizations to adapt to the changes they are facing, if it does not change how they think and do. It is not enough to just allow individuals and organizations to “absorb” this change, if we constantly and consistently find our individuals and the organizations recoiling back to the safe and familiar. Today’s leaders, if we are to become more successful with innovation, must create the processes and systems that engage the attitudes and beliefs that allow for adoption of the change to occur, and sustain.

It does not end here, as there are many other A’s to consider…

Such as “ability” and whether the skills and tools are in place for change or transformation to effectively engage and sustain. Or “attitude” and whether our beliefs will allow for individuals and the organization to truly adapt and adopt towards the change or transformation initiative. As well as “avoidance” and whether our bias’ and fears will keep us entrenched in the known of what we have always done and been. It is also in being able to “acknowledge” and even accept our current and often brutal reality, if we are able to move forward in a more positive manner. It is also realizing that past “accomplishments” and “attainment” can serve as success indicators that keep us from seeing the need for any change or transformation.

In closing, any change or transformational effort is a heavy lift, and for legacy organizations, it can be even heavier. Being “aware” allows leaders to recognize the resilience and stamina that will be required not only of leadership, but of all individuals and the organization, if the initiative is to have any real and lasting impact.

“Society has a grand immune system designed to suppress new ideas. To keep the water running and sustain life’s other necessities, society’s natural resistance to ingenuity surfaces in the form of doubt, cynicism, and pressure to conform. It takes tremendous endurance to survive such resistance.” -Scott Belsky via The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through The Hardest And Most Crucial Part Of Any Bold Venture

“Even if you do possess the single-minded focus necessary to pursue a particular idea, your journey forward will be full of battles. Whether you work alone or with a team, you will become mired in the challenge of staying productive, accountable, and in control. These journeys are physically and psychologically exhausting, and the road is littered with the carcasses of half-baked ideas that were abandoned or surrendered along the way. It is a tragic truth that most new ideas, despite their quality and importance, will never see the light of day.” -Scott Belsky via Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming The Obstacles Between Vision And Reality


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