The Tipping Point of Business Transformation

Change doesn’t often happen in gradual, visible, or even consistent steps. In fact, an unexpected point of explosive change creates undeniable momentum. How do we intentionally create such an inflection point in a business? Leadership has a lot to do with it.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, “sticky” ideas reach a tipping point, at which they start to spread. In the context of business transformation, organizations can leverage a critical mass of influential leaders to reach the entire organization and achieve impact at scale.

Engaging the pivotal group is described in the second of four principles for developing leaders at scale outlined in the 2018 book Leadership at Scale. The four core principles identified in the book are:

1. Focus on the leadership behaviors most effective for driving organizational performance.

2. Engage a critical mass of influencers across the organization to reach a tipping point for the change to become self-sustaining.

3. Design programs for lasting behavioral change using the latest adult learning principles based on neuroscience.

4. Integrate the program into the broader organizational systems and measure the program’s impact.

We’re honing in on the second principle, which suggests that companies must get three things right to create lasting behavioral change across their entire organization—breadth (who must be reached), depth (how intensely must they be reached), and pace (how quickly should interventions be rolled out). In other words, capturing the heads, hearts, and hands of employees builds the momentum needed to drive change—but as every leader who has attempted a major transformation has learned, the tipping point can be elusive.

Why do so many organizations fail to reach the tipping point?

Reaching the tipping point requires movement, which is what we want. But lots of organizations have been going about it the wrong way by: 

  • Spending endless resources training people’s “hands” to carry out a transformation initiative without creating motivation in their minds and hearts. 
  • Providing static job descriptions that fail to convey why the transformation makes sense in context and what’s in it for them. 
  • Failing to help leaders and employees shift their centers of gravity.

What should we be doing instead? Motivating the minimum number of the right people. Let’s break that down.

The minimum number: The minimum number of people is, thankfully, smaller than you might think. McKinsey’s research shows that the critical mass of people required to build momentum might be as little as 10% of the total population, provided that organizations engage critical influencers and build in an approach to communicate the change effectively to their leaders so that it can be implemented at all levels. If you can motivate 10-30% of your total employee population to adapt to the transformation and apply changes back on the job, the remaining employees are likely to be energized and follow them. If you have not had many previous successes or your transformation is a high-stakes, must-win situation, aim for the 30% mark. 

There is a caveat, which we’ll get into next. 

Engaging the right people: These employees are mission-critical to your transformation process. How do you identify them?

One key criterion is that your first group of early adopters should be those who have succeeded with a prior transformation. Select a group with a track record of navigating ambiguity or managing changes well to reduce wear and tear on the organization. They cut across all levels, from executives to employees, but demand a heavy emphasis on first-line supervisors; as we all know, that is where the rubber meets the road in business and where work gets done (or not).

In addition, the right people come from a section of your business that is relatable—where the transformation process and the results achieved can be applied to other parts of the organization quickly and seamlessly. 

7 strategies to ensure transformation success

Once you’ve identified your tipping point population, you need to figure out how to motivate them to take the necessary steps to support your transformation. We recommend seven tried-and-true ways to quickly capture their heads, hearts, and hands, using the following engagement strategies. Remember, these strategies must have enough power behind them to overcome resistance to motion. 

  1. Start early in the planning process and identify who and how many early adopters you are likely to have. These are your go-to innovators; they love trying new things, are willing to take risks, and know how to think outside of the box. Get these people ready to be forward thinkers about the context and the process for change. 
  2. Involve as many people as possible at different levels in problem-solving for the transformation. Create ownership by building the solution together—don’t just tell them about it. Drive large-scale involvement via intra-company platforms. Create a feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out).
  3. Simulate post-transformation challenges in the new environment so that employees and leaders can test-drive their new world. What will employees be doing differently? What will the implications be for the ways they do their jobs in the coming weeks? What will they have to do more of? Less of? Use simulations to help users see the value of applying the transformation back to their jobs right away.
  4. Encourage executives to problem solve with employees and leaders, rather than taking a top-down approach. Employees need to build trust in times of change, and working face-to-face gives access to leaders that one-way communication simply can’t deliver.
  5. Make training engaging! Training should have a problem-solving element, much like transformation itself. Ask questions. Make it interactive and interesting. Create opportunities to play in the gray and watch the magic happen.
  6. Create Transformation Measurement Boards that break down what employee groups are doing and how they are doing it. These offer a visual way to track progress and engage in healthy competition that compels engagement and collaboration.
  7. Tie success to career progression and rewards—those who transform should own tomorrow. Reward leaders who can adapt to change, understanding that there will be more adaptability in the future. Others in the 70% will notice that more than just about anything else.

Does all this sound like a big ask? We know moving the needle on major transformation initiatives can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. At Blueline, we have spent years cracking the code on culture change for big transformations. We use cloud-based, immersive scenario simulations that accomplish items one through five above at scale. These can be configured to your business challenges and delivered synchronously or asynchronously. Our unique scenario simulation designs maximize learner engagement and application, and our easy-to-use facilitation tools and flexible deployment options enable delivery at scale—all of which help organizations reach their tipping point and achieve sustainable transformation faster. Reach out to our team to learn more about the role of immersive simulations in strategic change initiatives.

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