How to stay sane doing transformation work

Most of us are leading some form of “transformation” work. It’s ubiquitous. And we know that change is inevitable, whether we resist it or embrace it. It’s happening in real time, and we’re acutely aware of that. Admittedly, this awareness may be caused by getting pummeled daily.

Work these days is just freaking hard.

As a result, I meet a lot of unhappy people. Super talented, successful, earnest, educated, thoughtful, smart, and unhappy people.

What’s going on?

Work is evolving faster than our systems can keep up.

And it’s breaking down and bleeding across silos, usually without permission from the silo owners. I meet people in Corporate Development whose work resembles Strategic Marketers whose work looks a lot like Product Innovation.

And I meet people in former “support” functions, like IT, Marketing, Finance, even HR – who are suddenly leading transformation strategies, building new capabilities, and collaborating on innovation. (See Why your work is changing again)

We’re trying to advance new technology into old systems, innovate technology for new markets, build capabilities to support new businesses.

Still, if we’re all doing transformation work, why is it so darn hard?

Follow the money…

We’re adapting to all this newness with systems that were designed for none of it. And while the change issues feel massive, I’ve learned to simplify the challenges to one key issue: changes to the existing business model.

For simplicity, think of the business model as how a company makes money, and more importantly, how money moves through the organization. It’s how money flows – whether through customers, investors, advertisers, investments, partnerships, vendor incentives, or other things I can’t think of here. (It’s true in both for-profit and non-profit orgs, by the way.)

Why does this matter?

At the root of the need to transform is enabling new ways for the organization to make money. It’s not really about collaboration, communication, innovation, or even strategy. Those are wonderful enablers. But plenty of companies with lousy cultures create cool products and make a lot of money.

And for anything transformative, when we ignore changes to the business model, we can spend a lot of time doing culture and other ‘change work’ while changing almost nothing.

What’s underneath?

This all might sound logical, but most change management tools don’t specifically address business models. They assume that smart, thoughtful people can adapt generic frameworks appropriately.

But ask your partners and teams how your organization makes money, and you’ll get a variety of answers. Some will be right. Most will be incomplete. You might be surprised how many people don’t actually know.

That’s a little spooky.

How can you transform the existing business model if the systems unconsciously, even blindly, evolved around it? How can you adapt and create new systems to support the transformation?

Money shapes systems (and culture).

How an organization makes money dictates where it focuses collective attention and resources. That’s not a bad or good thing. It just is.

The underlying systems evolved to support the existing business model. They’re embedded in the hidden networks, relationships, informal processes, and unspoken rules.

And these systems, unfortunately, are not in any org charts.

It’s the informal, unconscious, invisible systems that derail smart leaders, consultants, and change experts alike. (It’s also why I now coach instead of consult. ; )

As individuals and organizations, we default to systems and networks we know, usually unconsciously and automatically. Any change to how money flows through an org challenges those systems. EVEN IF THE RESULTS ARE GUARANTEED.

Don’t give up.

If you’re leading transformation work, this might feel like less than terrific news. But take heart. You now know what you’re dealing with. And you have options.

OPTION 1: Keep pushing.

Our work environments need a few people brave enough (or weird enough) to keep introducing new thinking and leading new work. It’s a necessary tension that keeps organizations going. And it’s really hard work. You may or may not have big wins. And even the big wins are likely to be absorbed into the existing business, helping it to evolve slowly – but maybe not shifting your career trajectory.

So why would you choose this option?

Because it’s thrilling to create new stuff. It’s fun to challenge assumptions and break through with a new idea. It’s exciting to collaborate, where delivering something new becomes exponentially more than the sum of the parts.

One of the techniques that helps navigate steep change curves is to link the transformation back to the existing business model – ideally, an existing P&L. This is less about buy-in or alignment. It’s an entirely new question: how can this transformation impact how the org makes money today?

That question alone builds support among business leaders far faster than trying to enlist champions and influencers from the sidelines. You also end up with some interesting short-term work-streams that would not otherwise surface. In effect, it bridges the current business model, linking it to the future.

OPTION 2: Change your metric from big wins to big learnings.

The work you’re doing today may be a great success. It also might collapse from inertia. The latter is more likely if you work for an established organization with entrenched systems. But either are OK if you put your work into a more interesting story, where either the successes or failures work for you. In this regard, there’s no wasted work.

It’s a Zen approach that makes taking risks and handling failure easier. You’re building a narrative about what you learned from all the transformation work you’ve done, are doing, and will do. And in this era of uncertainty, that will arm you in powerful and unexpected ways.

OPTION 3: Put your work into a much broader context.

I recently talked with a great guy, who’s passionate about addressing climate change. The strategic work he’s leading today fits well with his personal mission. But he worries that if support or funding stops for his work, he’ll be moved to less interesting work.

We chatted about what he could do to design his work (and career) to be always moving in the direction of climate change in general. And with that broader context, it became clear that there are unlimited opportunities and future projects for him to explore. It also gave him something tangible for him to plan around.

Whether or not his current work survives politics and myopia, he can consciously and proactively sync his work with his passion. It’s a long game. And this bigger arc makes any work more personal and inspiring.


There’s probably an OPTION 4, which would combine Options 1, 2 & 3. And in full transparency, this work will always be hard and often boring. But it can – and should – also be interesting, exhilarating, and yes, even fun. Transformation is a game of two steps forward and one step back. It’s bursts of collaboration and moments of brilliance. It’s timing and patience, combined with a little luck and a lot of leadership.

carolyn solares
I help people stay sane in the midst of constant change. My brother calls me a workshrink.
Work with me at murphymerton.
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