Reetta Rajala: Learn to change or die

A Finnish business newspaper Talouselämä recently published an article by Michael Wade, who wrote about the role of a Chief Transformation Officer, which he is hoping to bring some clarity to the constant change in today’s corporations. His key message was that the turbulent changes related to digitalisation drive businesses to acquire experienced change leaders, Chief Transformation Officers.

It’s great that this topic is finally raised to the business headlines. Capability to lead changes will be, probably already during the next downturn, a prerequisite for companies’ survival. Thus, raising understanding, skills and perspectives related to change leadership into top and mid-management agenda is going to be central to Finland’s competitiveness.

In his debate, Wade is focusing on the technical side of change leadership, leaving a key change aspect in the background: Steering and engaging people in the change is in the core of every transformation. The vision of the change needs to be clear. It must be crystal clear how the change affects the everyday life of people. They also need to understand what the change is all about and they need to be actively engaged in the change through sufficient amount of activities.

In all things related to change one needs to remember that organizations or business architecture do not change, operational models won’t digitalize themselves and businesses do not integrate to one another. It’s the individuals that change. Organizations, business architecture and operational models change only after the people have changed their ways of working – permanently.

Change in human being is not a mechanical act. It is continuous interaction between people. People are unpredictable. Therefore, a set of change management steps or even the greatest methodology can’t turn the change into a success like a magic wand. People’s reactions need to be continuously heard and answered. Every single day. Repeating relentlessly. This takes excruciatingly long. Humans are not machines that can be screwed to act in a new way during one quarter.

The role of a Chief Transformation Officer that Wade is promoting, is not necessarily the right solution. Leading and implementing changes should be a key competence of each leadership team member and line manager. Change leadership should of course be a topic at the corner office but preferably it is the ability of each leadership team member, not a task delegated to a separate CTO.

The most essential in change leadership is, however, making the decisions which ensure that the load and capacity of the people is in constant balance – that not too many change impacts are targeted to one group or an individual at the same time. Excessive load of changes paralyzes the business and stalls changes. People are freezing, money goes out of the window, and you are left behind competitors. This means that you need to be able to make decisions to postpone or even cancel some of the change initiatives. These decisions are the toughest for any leader, and they very much belong to the whole leadership team.

Hiring a change leader is not the answer to the turmoil. Ensuring every business unit manager, line manager or change leader has strong change capability is crucial. Change capability is becoming a central part of companies’ equity, which really needs to sit in the corner office but also in the factory floor, project space or in the open office.

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