transformation is never linear

context – the executive team

This joint-venture organisation had won some major infrastructure planning projects; and there was potential for more such assignments in the near future.

As a branch of the government, their clients needed to ensure ‘value for money’ and wished to see evidence of ‘collaboration’; this was made a pre-condition for the award of future contracts.

Collaboration was – and is – seen as a way of leveraging best practice, minimising cost and maximising learning between key stakeholders.

Thus far the complexity of the work had meant that each project leader and their team had become pre-occupied with meeting immediate demands; there had been little incentive or interest in the additional effort needed to promote a collaborative way of working. Yet this clearly lay at the heart of future business success.

So the challenge was to successfully deliver the projects while at the same time building and embedding – and demonstrating – a collaborative style of working.

the first phase

During the initial briefings it quickly became clear that few of the leadership team knew or felt any urgency to take up a more collaborative mission, though some could describe the commercial issues when pressed.

The Zeta ProcessA Zeta analysis carried out with the Leadership Team compared ‘behaviours now’ with behaviours that were ‘needed in future’:

> task and unit focussed
> waiting for permission before acting
> compliance
> conflict avoidance
> firefighting
> ‘spinning plates and not looking for help’
Needed in future
> focus on bigger picture as well as unit
> clearer priorities and keeping to them in practice
> ability to have robust conversations
> engaging others

In terms of the beliefs and mind-sets driving behaviour and what was needed to underpin future actions, the Leadership Team identified:

> lack of confidence in others
> feeling of self-worth but lack of confidence
> important to retain independence and autonomy
> better to let others take the risk
Needed to underpin future behaviours
> the welfare and development of others is important
> greater self-belief
> belief that ‘we can’t do it alone’
> the wider goals are important

There were some clear areas for action. What followed, however, missed out in some important areas.

The team defined their mission though not in sufficiently practical terms. The need for leaders to role-model new ways of thinking in their interactions with others was fragmented, with people tending to return to tried and tested specialisms when under pressure. As a result the culture broadly stayed where it was.

what happened?

Some months into this ‘first phase’, two influential members of the Leadership Team elected, independently, to leave the organisation. Coincidentally, both had been finding the new requirements of their roles a difficult transition. The subsequent distraction tipped the Leadership Team into a period of uncertainty as people were promoted and others joined the team from outside.

In effect, it set back the transformation back by 3-4 months.

A positive outcome, however, was that the Leadership Team became more open and ready for change.

the second phase

Several things conspired to give renewed urgency to the transformation.

The client came under fresh internal pressure, which meant they became more assertive and started to put even greater pressure on the joint venture team. Metrics from the new management information system started to show that the projects were under-performing in critical areas. Thus, the JV was having to compete for new business where before they had been ‘preferred bidders’. And the ambitious new programme director – leader of the JV Leadership Team – started to assert himself.

All told, there was a greater sense of urgency. Compared to the ‘first phase’, there was more alignment with the priority areas of the transformation ‘process’, and a greater understanding that something had to be done.

The priority areas.

  • Clear mission. This was redefined in simpler terms – ‘to improve scores on the management information system’. As many of these scores ‘measured’ collaboration, improvements inevitably meant people and departments would need to work together more effectively. For engineers, hard-wired to measure performance, this was much more tangible than a more broadly worded mission. It resulted in universal buy-in.
  • Leadership. Led by the programme director, members of the leadership team started to challenge each other, and hold each other to account. This was echoed in the ways leaders started to work with their own teams.
  • Stronger organisational culture and identity. The Leadership Team started to adopt guidelines, boundaries and rules to describe ‘the way we (want to) do things around here’. At first this involved simple things like punctuality for meetings. One element from the Zeta analysis was the need to have stronger self-belief, which found expression in a greater readiness to challenge the client where appropriate. Although these challenges were at first too aggressive, with training in skills and capabilities (see below), more effective scripts were soon developed.

For support, this demanded actions in the secondary areas of transformation.

It did not necessitate big changes to structure, though more cross-departmental activities were held to emphasise the belief that ‘we can’t do this alone’.

As leaders took the new mind-set into their teams, so fresh management practices were developed and passed on through the wider organisation. Underpinning it all, the management information system quickly became the essential benchmark, spurring more strategic discussion in the monthly Leadership Team meetings.

If these fresh approaches appear ‘top down’, it also needed a ‘bottom-up’ approach to underpin the transformation.

So a programme was developed to instil skills and capabilities. These reinforced the behaviours needed to hold collaborative conversations, to act and think like consultants rather than engineers, to handle conflict and negotiate effective outcomes.

A process of contracting for commitments reinforced people’s motivation, allowing the right degrees of freedom and control.

Greater transparency over the scores from the management information system combined to reinforce a sense of personal achievement. It was echoed in the ways in which the working climate in individual teams started to change, from idiosyncratic fiefdoms to a more open and collaborative approach to work.


The transformation did not happen overnight. It only got going in the face of strong external pressures that created an urgent need to react and adapt. The process integrated many factors at the same time.

  • It needed leadership that was prepared to hold each other accountable.
  • It was helped by an integrated, multi-faceted approach that at its heart addressed the drivers and mind-set that had not been strong features in ‘phase one’.
  • It needed the right measures, echoing the familiar phrase – ‘what you measure is what you get’.
  • Importantly, it addressed underlying beliefs. The importance of welfare and development. The belief that ‘we can’t do it alone’. Self-belief; by finding ways to stand up to an increasingly challenging, tough and demanding client, it also reinforced the conviction that ‘we have something to offer’, a belief that was in danger of being undermined.

Progress is ongoing…and looking very promising.