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Organizational change almost always requires a burning platform and there are two kinds: reactive and proactive. The reactive kind is when managers wait until the situation has gone critical then respond reactively by reorganizing, changing leadership, downsizing, consolidating functions and systems, or implementing aggressive cost cutting programs without understanding the “end-effects” of these decisions. Most managers don’t directly experience the long-term consequences of their decisions because they have a system-wide effect that spans multiple departments and may impact an organization’s day-to-day operations (positively or negatively) for years to come. The inability of most people to directly experience the long-term systemic consequences of their decisions is the primary reason why most people don’t learn from experience, especially when the consequences of a decision are removed from the cause by more than 1-2 years. Reactive change does not lead to organizational transformation.

The proactive kind of burning platform is when managers realize that while the forces and demands of the business environment may not be critical right now, they will become critical if a sense of urgency is not developed about transforming how the organization does business. Proactive managers define a new direction, set the platform on fire, and reconfigure the organization through: a) change that realigns the structures, systems, and resources around a new mission and strategy that increases the value delivered to customers, and by managing b) the transition associated with the protracted cultural and psychological process that people go through to learn new ways-of-working, let go of the old organizational reality and identity that they had before the change took place, and to gain ownership in (and come to terms with) their new role in the reconfigured organization.

Bottom Line: Leaders and managers must develop a compelling, credible, and easy-to-understand business case that describes what transformation would actually accomplish, what would be gained, and what transformation would actually achieve in terms of the return on investment of time and resources needed to see the process through. The business case and vision for transformation must inspire managers and key personnel to enlist and actively support the transformation initiative with their hearts and minds. The business case and vision should also answer questions like, “Why are we doing this rather than maintaining the status quo or other alternatives? What will be gained for me and the organization long-term and will it be worth the time, energy, disruption, and organizational ‘pain’ that we’ll have to endure to get there? What new challenges are we meeting, and why is it important to meet them now?” In the absence of a compelling, credible, and easy-to-understand response to these kinds of questions, an organization should not undertake a transformation process.

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