Organizational response to transformation - white blood cells swarming to stop an infection

Transformation is hard and people only tend to do it when a situation is untenable or the evidence undeniable.  You have to be willing to break things when you transform and it is often hard to stand up to the scrutiny of doing it prior to some major problem.

A retired executive and I were talking the other day. I told them about two places that rolled back their transformation efforts after a regime change where the transformation champions left or were reorganized out of that role. The exec said that we were in the phase where seeing:

The white blood cells were swarming the transformation infection to eradicate it.

This article exists so that I wouldn't lose the quote for this Larry-ism. 👀 and this one from JK
 The strong biological reaction to change feels like a corporate autoimmune disorder.
I love that phrasing.  It provides a good analogy for the corporate corpus reaction to forced change after the initial transformation surge. This is especially true if the transformation caused work, responsibility, or ownership to partition incorrectly from the organizational structure.  This is where ignoring Conway's law hurt execution.

Teams and power bases passively resisted the transformation in the initial phases.  They delayed implementation or adjusted the processes to fit their local patterns. They argued about the processes that were added. Then the transformation loses its champions or priorities.  The same teams then tend to do more actively roll back, adjust or go in another direction when transformation loses priority or becomes part of the mainstream processes.



Corporate transformations exist to address perceived shortcomings or to deal with new competitors or markets.  

  1. Senior leadership decides that a change must be made. 
  2. They then pick an approach that spawns new policies, organizations, and behaviors.  
  3. Existing power centers are adjusted to align with the new direction.  
  4. New transformation groups are created.  
  5. Training is offered. 
  6. The daily and mid-level workflows are adjusted to the new policies and ownership/authority models. Some oversight is created to monitor the progress. 
  7. Teams get measured on their transformation maturity.
  8. Plan Do Measure Adjust takes over the continuous improvement process.

That is the positive side of the process. The reality is:

Teams  "customize" the transformation to align more with how they previously operated.  Teams attempt "adjust" transformation processes and techniques because "they were already doing most of it".  They follow the form of the transformation without touching the spirit except where they see the easy value.  They may comply with the changes without actually transforming.  This can be a version of "working to the pay plan" or it can be that they have too much work to do and are forced to support the previous and new transformation workloads, reports, and metrics.

The transformation moves along for some period of time.   Everyone knows that there will eventually be a re-org sometime down the line.  Eventually, the transformation will fall to a lower priority or there will be teams or groups for whom the transformation didn't work.   At the point in time when the transformation visibility and priority start to sink, different teams and management will target the transformation policies and workloads for elimination.  This is where the embedded power centers act like
White blood cell attack the change agents and change processes.

7 Deadly Sins of Strategy 

Transformations are big strategy plays that can fail for similar reasons as other strategy failures, see Seven Deadly Sins of Strategy by Jeroen Kraaijenbrink

  • Misreading Resistance,  
  • Behavior Compliance,
  • Reinterpretation. 
This image hosted on LinkedIn as part of the article mentioned above.

Revision History

Created 2023 03


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