by Subrata Mukherjee

Can transformation ruin relationships?

Mar 09, 2017
Business IT AlignmentIT LeadershipRelationship Building

Transformation is typically a thankless job but to stay relevant in the market place, companies have to go though it and someone like you and I have to do the "dirty" work. These initiatives are not for the faint-hearted, and as a result of going through it, I have seen relationships formed, strengthened or even destroyed during the course of these programs.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” – Plato

My past bosses and mentors have always reminded me that work relationships are always very important, particularly those with your stakeholders. It puts you inside an ecosystem that builds partnerships and that each member of that pool has everyone else’s back. Recently I have been reflecting a little bit and then certain events flashed in my mind, which started to question my belief on this topic. Who has the bigger purpose — business mission or relationships?

What am I talking about?

I am neither a social relationship guru nor my name is Dr. Phil. I am not going to talk about your personal relationship goals and how you can do better in life. 

Over the last five years or so, I have carefully started to follow the trajectories of senior IT executives and particularly those who are a bit out of the ordinary and those who stand out from the crowd. Some of them were ex-bosses, some current bosses and some inspiring people that I have met over my professional career in Calcutta, Chicago, New York and London. A lot of these executives have an unique ability to push the boundaries and transform the industry they work in. They urge their C-suite/boards to take risks and sometimes knowingly put the cart before the horse. The majority of those people that I find inspiring go above and beyond their call of duty to leave a mark in the industry and in most cases they reap benefits later on in their professional lives. 

Why later? 

You may note that I have bolded the word “later” in my previous sentence and there is a reason behind it. I have seen that transformation is often a thankless job. There are traps and landmines set all along the way for you to fall into. I have not been lucky yet to find out a company where there is no one that takes advantages from your failures, especially if you are an executive trying to swim against the tides. 

These “perceived” failures may come in different flavors:

1. Scope clarity. There is a little bit of intentional “winging it” when it comes to scope of a transformation initiative. It is intentional because in a connected business ecosystem; it’s very difficult not to unearth a complication that you had not seen before or you are seeing a slight bigger improvement in the horizon and your “forward thinking” philosophy gets the better of you.

2. Program governance metrics. When it comes to digital or business transformation the holy triad of cost, time and scope is often messed up and companies who are very narrowly focused often would use those metrics to publicize the poor health of a transformation initiative. Now don’t get me wrong; I am not advocating “wild west” delivery management; but a compassionate product council and an adaptive who can shepherd “change requests” and “re-baseline” plans based on the new reality.

3. Stakeholder management. Transformation typically doesn’t happen on a “yellow brick road” or a “dewy sun kissed meadow” and therefore stakeholder expectations and reporting often take a huge toll. It’s like a race car track in which sometimes driving etiquette like signaling before changing lanes is often an unrealistic expectation.

4. Culture. Fail fast has now become a cliché, and most executives (if not all) are possibly lying when they show off this cultural trait in their team/company. In this area, talk and action are not often in sync.

Now coming back to my word “later.” I have seen many digital executives reap the benefit of a transformation initiative in their next job. Transformation initiatives often lead to a power vacuum and sly minded executives (most often not the change agent) often get a real good opportunity to grab power and take credit. Some boards/C-suite see through it, but most don’t and the transformation champion often becomes the victim.

Heartbreaks in the era of disruption

Disruption is typically a thankless job but to stay relevant in the market place we have to go though it and someone like you and I have to do the dirty work. I have managed or led some very high profile transformation initiatives in my professional life and I can categorically tell you it is not for the faint-hearted. I have seen relationships formed, strengthened or even destroyed during the course of these programs.

From my vantage point here are some of my observations on these relationship strains. 

1. Relationship of IT with business. Depending on who is the change agent, this point can be very important. I have been in places where the business is calling the shots and IT is struggling to keep pace. I have seen the other way round where IT is driving the change and the business is trying to hold on to the past. In either case, “I told you so” syndrome is predominant. Whoever is not the driver will often use this phrase to constantly undermine the person or team in the drivers seat. Interestingly I have seen relationships mature or strengthen during this healthy friction but it takes maturity on both sides and a good referee for that to happen consistently.

2. Relationship between business peers. Mostly, people will see this point and think about friction between department heads. Although that does often happen a lot; the most interesting dynamic happens when people in the same department often have conflicting views they wait for one “misstep” from the other. Sometimes these executives have completely opposing world views and they don’t communicate those differences freely with each other. What ends up happening is that diverging world view trickles down to the team when it comes to detailed requirements, design decisions or priorities. 

3. Relationship upwards. Managing upwards (with senior management/board) is a key skill that we constantly learn and adapt in our professional lives, especially when we are going up the ladder. There is no one size fits all scenario and that makes it even more challenging. Some will react well to little information and some execs crave for lot of details. You will have to learn that healthy balance “on the job” and continue to experiment. But while you are at it there will be some judgments made either in your favor or against you. In most cases you may never know those feelings, which makes it tricky to manage and/or overcome.

4. Relationship downwards. Anxiety is often the result of a disruption initiative. People fear for their jobs, roles, reporting relationships, salary, etc. In a good economy it often leads to staff moving to greener pastures. During recession this causes poor employee morale and often has productivity implications.

5. Personal relationships. I could not resist a Dr. Phil moment as it’s an important point. Disruption and transformation initiatives take up lot of time and it often means getting wired up 24/7. So it’s not rocket science to fathom that your significant other would not like it and your family may get to see a bit of your “mood swings.”

Relationship survival tips in this competitive landscape

Personally for me, I love transformation/disruption initiatives as it gives me a purpose and keeps the adrenaline pumping. Many senior executives shy away from transformation because it puts a strain on their relationships and in popularity contests you often would finish last.

Here are my tips for survival post any transformation initiative:

1. Don’t forget your purpose in life. Don’t let stress of a transformation initiative get to you. Don’t cry over spilled milk. Put your marketing hat on. Sharpen that resume. Create a digital portfolio with information that can help market your accomplishments. Attend industry conferences. Network with industry peers and share your insights. Your next transformation challenge is just around the corner.

2. Learn from your mistakes. Reflect on what you could have done better in some of the key initiatives/jobs. Put in an action plan on paper on what are some of the things you want to change and then revisit that list (for progress notes) every six months or so.

3. Create generic artifacts. Take some of the artifacts that you have evolved into generic templates that you can take with you. Make changes in those templates based on your learning/mistakes. Things like a communication plan, status report template, Performance / KPI metrics dashboards, kickoff plans, development methodology are some good examples that you start executing on. However you need to be really careful that you are not taking any intellectual assets/confidential information with you. Your generic artifact should capture the essence of the deliverable and not just lift the deliverable.

4. Nurture lifelong relationships. There would be strained relationship that you would not care about, but there would be some that you would. Those would be the lifelong ones that you want to keep. Nurture those ones, be proactive in reaching out, maybe over lunch or a drink. Analyze where things went wrong. Do not litigate the past, look at the future and plan out a few joint initiatives to take baby steps in that relationship.

Let me know what you feel about this topic. I really think that the cultural part of transformation is often less spoken about and hence I like to talk about these experiences. I understand this maybe difficult to discuss your personal experiences, but am I the only one who has seen this in real life? Don’t be shy… tell me what you think.