Transforming organisations: Assess capacity for change

There is a delicate balance between the organisation’s capacity for change and the leader’s vision for it. The two must match for a transformation initiative to be successful

Published: 26th March 2021 07:16 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th March 2021 07:16 AM   |  A+A-

Every organisation has a finite capacity for change. Every leader has a vision for change. There must be a match between the capacity for change and the vision for change if a transformation initiative is to be successful. In recent columns on transforming organisations, I had reviewed two transformation risks—avoiding the demyelination risk and missing the subsonic sounds. In this column, I emphasise that a leader needs both discipline and process to execute a change program. There is a delicate balance between the organisation’s capacity for change and the leader’s vision for it.

Capacity for change: A company transforms depending on its unique experiences and culture. In the rush to implement change, leaders often unleash multiple change initiatives. What had worked in Unilever or GE may well fail in, for example, a public sector undertaking, and vice versa. To mention 
one example, Unilever’s Path to Growth multiple change initiative in 1999 did not work well as admitted by the company’s top leadership in 2004.

The first task for a new leader—internally or externally hired—is to assess the organisation’s capacity for change. This requires keeping a connection with people and listening rather than speaking, while also reflecting on the nuances of various conversations to ferret out the hidden messages.When I became Chairman of Unilever Arabia in 1991, I wrongly assumed that Unilever had a global style of working and that HLL represented that. I soon learned that, while there were indeed standard Unilever processes, working behaviours varied subtly among Arabia, India, Sweden, France and the Netherlands. The multinational team too spotted several differences as compared to their home countries. The team was excited by the novel opportunity to discover fresh approaches quite different from past experiences.

Vision for change: Initially, I had the mindset that I would create an Arabian version of Hindustan Lever, but it turned out to be a silly way to frame the vision. I needed to be patient and not impose my ideas on the new team. I undertook painstaking efforts to consult the teams and chisel a collective plan shaped by their ideas. This threw up a high-octane plan for the organisation to double dollar sales within four years and dollar profits within three. Luckily, the goal was achieved. It rocked the company boat without sinking it. For me, there were two overarching lessons.

First, the acceptance that there inevitably were multiple visions and that mine was just one of them. Each employee’s vision is based on the six lenses through which he or she views his or her own life and career, as I had written in my book, Six Lenses (Penguin, 2016)—purpose, authenticity, courage, trust, luck and fulfilment. Unless people’s lenses are focused, the organisation fails to work on a harmonised vision.Second, learning the art of persuading others and to be persuaded by them. Noted organisational psychologist at Wharton, Adam Grant, has suggested three approaches in HBR in March/April 2021.

1. When you must persuade a know-all character, he suggests asking him or her to explain how things work. Think about how Hanuman persuaded Sita in Ashoka Vana that he was authentic and not a demon-imposter.

2. Let the stubborn person seize the initiative and play out his or her need for internal control. Ask questions instead of giving answers. It can overcome people’s defensiveness.

3. Find the right way to praise the narcissist. Recall how Vibhishana praised Ravana before starting to dissuade him from killing Hanuman. A dash of acclaim is a powerful antidote to a narcissist’s insecurity, provided the praise is in an area that is different from the one in which you are trying to persuade the person. Vibhishana praised Ravana’s erudition before persuading him to review his proposed punishment to Hanuman.

Additionally, in Julia Dhar’s TED talk titled “How to have constructive conversations”, she outlines three ideas: First, let the instinct of curiosity exceed the instinct of clash. You can say something like, “Oh, I never thought of the subject that way. Tell me more.” Second, enter the conversation with the attitude of adaptation rather than victory, a bit like how a rock climber’s approach is different from a marathoner. Third and last, check that you are anchored with the other person on purpose. Are you both trying to solve the same problem? Just apply these three principles to the recent public debates on the new farm laws—you will immediately see that every one of the principles has been breached by one or both parties!

(The author had served as Director, Tata Sons and, before that, as Vice Chairman, Hindustan Unilever. Collaborating with an entrepreneur-cum-angel investor, he has recently co-authored a book titled “Wisdom for start-ups from grownups”)

R Gopalakrishnan

Author and corporate advisor



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