It seems whoever I speak to lately it’s never long before we find ourselves discussing the reluctance of business leaders to get stuck in to transformation. I refer to this as “transforminertia”. It was a significant issue prior to the Covid crisis, but in the past few months it has become incendiary. I’ve written before about the why’s, but so have many others. I think it’s time the talking stopped and we focussed on the “how”. This is how you overcome transforminertia.

One of the most significant impacts of the Covid-crisis has been it’s acceleration of the transformation process. If there was ever a doubt of the need to transform it should surely have been dispelled by now by the obvious success of businesses that were already on their transformation journey (and the failure of those that weren’t)? So, why is transform inertia still a factor?

How businesses have grown during lock-down

Because businesses that understood disruption before everything changed were already some way into their transformation process, they had, to some degree, already become more agile — agility being one of the fundamental outcomes of real transformation. When the crisis hit, these businesses took courage from their familiarity with the territory and let go of the safety rail. This meant they were able to responded to our new challenges by changing direction (or “pivoting” as it’s fashionable to say). Because of this, some businesses I know have not only been able to survive the crisis, but have grown as a result.

A niche restaurant that was due to open the first week of lock-down switched to mass-production and an on-line distribution model that has far exceeded the expectations they had for their restaurant.

A training company I am in touch with switched to an on-line model even though they didn’t have the infrastructure in place. The strength of their brand community enabled them firstly to switch to live lessons. Meanwhile their colleagues taught themselves new software and adopted new platforms to create an archive of courses. These have not only kept the business going, but introduced them to a whole new world of international clients.

On a smaller scale, a mechanic trainer I know has started developing a video channel providing step-by-step solutions to common automotive mechanical problems and already has sponsors lining up to share in his success.

Yes there are risks attached to all of these stories, but when the alternative is certain failure the risks become irrelevant. 

Fear of the certain is a good antidote to transforminertia

It is often said that it’s fear of the unknown that causes transforminertia. So many people running businesses that have survived for years — maybe not always spectacularly, but they’ve paid their bills — have become routine biased, risk averse and in denial or have lacked the imagination to recognise they were living on borrowed time. They failed to understand their business model couldn’t possibly compete with a digital disrupter when one turns up in their sector and just didn’t appreciate the imminence of that. 

They say there’s nothing like a crisis to bring people to their senses and this has proven so for many organisations who were stuck in transforminertia. When a business is faced with certain ruin the pieces usually click into place. However, this time, “fear of the certain” has come far too late for many. The pace of the digital world having been increased by Covid has meant that, despite their epiphany, too many of these businesses have found themselves struggling like geriatrics in a race of elite athletes.

Turning aspiration into action

Reluctant leaders are, by definition, unfamiliar with the territory and are struggling to know where to start.  I see organisations every day that are stuck in a kind of limbo between their old business and what they could be, simply because their leaders are not sure how to turn their aspirations into action. This is transforminertia. Meanwhile hungry competitors in sectors shrunk by the effects of the crisis are more determined than ever to gain ground and new disrupters with digital models delivering “more for less” are in their element. Time is running out fast! 

Understanding the need for transformation is just the first hurdle. It’s the second challenge that is increasingly bringing such plans to a halt. This is where enlightened business leaders have to call on their employees to perform and find a lack of know-how and/or commitment.

If this describes your current position, this is what you have to do right now to overcome transforminertia.

One of the many demonstrations of human frailty this crisis has given us is in the performance of governments. While places like New Zealand have shown decisiveness and managed the situation successfully, the UK leadership has wallowed around making fuzzy proclamations and taking nonsensical actions. Consequently we are now the laughing stock of the world, in no small part due to our government’s continuing insistence, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that they were right all along. By contrast, a reporter only this week described the New Zealand premier, Jacinda Ardern, as “the perfect balance of empathy and toughness”. I think that’s a fair enough description of what every leader should aim for.

Getting people on-board

However, the difference here doesn’t end with the person or the things they say. It’s more a case of how these elements enable them to build a brand community. New Zealand has one, but in the UK successive governments have failed to unify the numerous sections of society behind a single, simple vision of Brand Britain. You might argue that the size of the populations of the two nations is the reason for this, but while this is undoubtedly a contributory factor, large communities just take longer to unify than small ones. This doesn’t preclude the creation of a strong brand, provided you have a good leader.

The thing is, unless community members are unified behind shared values and beliefs and a common objective, no organisation, business or nation is going to get very far. They certainly won’t bring about change. If you want to understand the similarity between nations and other kinds of organisation you should read Greg Satell’s book Cascades which perfectly explains how communities affect change.

In the digital economy, no organisation can afford to have internal special interest groups working against their objectives. It wastes money, effort and above all time — and that’s really the issue here. I can’t stress enough the importance of being fast and lean in the new economy. Technology has caused an acceleration of life itself and it should be the objective of any organisation to be as fast and lean as possible.

This means unifying disparate special interest groups behind a shared set of values and beliefs and a single, clearly-defined objective. Nobody said this was easy, but it is nonetheless essential to overcoming transforminertia, so the sooner every organisation gets on board and starts building their brand community the better chance they have of surviving. Have no doubt about it, businesses that lack a strong brand community will fail very quickly.

Brand development is a two-part process

Brand development essentially has two parts. The first is defining your brand. The second is building your community. Neither are easy. The first is difficult because it involves a lot of soul-searching, abandonment of long-standing beliefs and creativity. The second is difficult because it requires sensitivity, hard work and a good deal of time. Brand development, far from happening over night is a never-ending process.

I’ve written many times about the process I call “brand discovery” that enables organisations to define their brand. Many businesses that embark on re-branding (as they call it) seem to think it’s a matter of invention. In fact inventing a brand is a big mistake. A brand is organic, natural. You shouldn’t be creating your brand but “discovering” it. That’s why I call my programme Brand Discovery and not Brand creation.

When you have stripped away all the things that prevent an organisation from seeing themselves in others’ eyes and appreciate what you really are you need to make a record of this. I call this a “Brand Model”. I have a template for this that adopts twelve “coordinates” each of which we pin-point in workshops, via interviews or through analysis of data.

Making your promise

Central to a brand model is your brand promise. This is the promise you make to your stakeholders. Another mistake organisations make is believing that the term “stakeholders’ is synonymous with “customers”. In fact there are six stakeholder groups common to every kind of organisation and the same promise has to resonate with each of them. You should never have different promises for different groups. Not even different versions of the same promise. This is inconsistent and inconsistency is the death of brands. My process incorporates a testing mechanism that ensures you get it right.

Internal marketing first

Yet another common error made by organisations when brand building is to prioritise customers. While customers are important, the reason you are in business, and must participate in the development of the brand, they are only there because of the experience you offer and that is created by your internal stakeholders, which includes employees. If they aren’t on-board your brand community you won’t have customers, so your process of brand development must start with internal marketing.

This is especially important when the organisation is launching into transformation, because it is employees that transform a business not it’s senior executives. The latter should be facilitating the change, but employees are responsible for making it happen and they can’t do this if they firstly don’t know what they are trying to achieve or what rules apply and secondly buy into this.

That’s where your brand plays it’s part. A strong brand will provide the focus every organisation needs to bring about change. Stakeholders, both internal and external should have a sense of belonging to the brand and believe that, in its words and actions, it represents their own values and beliefs and provides them with a purpose or objective. 

The point where things start to happen.

Employees and other internal stakeholders in an organisation with a strong brand will commit to playing their part in achieving the objective. They will bring their plans and ideas to the table, suggest initiatives based on their unique experience and skills and will deliver programmes and projects that align to the objective without question, quickly and avoiding wasted time and money.

The pace of life today makes it essential to eliminate all the inefficiencies from your business and a traditional model is innately inefficient. Only a digitally driven business model can deliver the efficiency every business has to achieve. Those that aren’t already operating a digital model are already pretty much out of time to make the change. It takes on average around three years for a traditional organisation to get to the point where they can really start competing in the digital economy, so you can’t afford to hang about and you certainly can’t afford transforminertia.

The one certain outcome of the Covid crisis is that the pace of transformation has increased, so if you thought things were a bit hairy before the crisis hit us, your head will be positively spinning as you kick-start your post-Covid strategy. In fact, the approach to transformation that most businesses have taken to date has failed upward of 70% of the time and we are still searching for the perfect solution, but one thing is for certain, it will depend on the strength of the organisation’s brand community.

Don’t try to go it alone

A business that is only now embarking on real transformation also has far too much ground to make up. No-one in a traditional organisation, least of all senior executives, will have all the skills or experience necessary to make it all happen at the required pace, so business leaders will have to bite the bullet and bring in new blood, and the quickest way to do this is to hire consultants.

Yes, it’s a minefield and you must expect to make a few mistakes with the experts you hire, but you are going to have to get used to taking risks like this in the digital economy. If you want to overcome your transforminertia you can minimise the risk by doing your homework and bringing in people who have a clearly defined process. Consultants who are organised, as far as you can be with the ever-changing nature of the digital economy, but who can tailor solutions to your business and it’s needs are what you are looking for.

If you want to be certain of your place in the new marketplace, it’s essential you overcome your transforminertia and start today … now!

Phil Darby
June 26, 2020

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