The Transformation Myth: A book review by Bob Morris

The Transformation Myth: Leading Your Organization Through Uncertain Times
Gerald C.Kane, Rich Nanda, Ann Nguyen Phillips, and Jonathan R. Copulsky
The MIT Press (September 2021)

How companies strengthened by disruption use it to achieve high-impact innovations

To what does the title refer? Gerald Kane, Rich Nanda, Ann Nguyen Phillips, and Jonathan Copulsky explain: “The ‘myth’ is that transformation is an event with a start and end whereby organizations migrate from one steady state to another as opposed to a continuous process of adapting to a highly volatile, ambiguous, and uncertain environment shaped by multiple, overlapping disruptions.” In fact, “digital transformation is not a ‘one-and-done’ effort to weather the storm until the organization can go back to normal or even the next normal.”

Why did they write this book? Their primary objective “is to identify and describe the traits that characterize organizations that not only survive disruption but also manage to thrive within it and the characteristics of the leaders who helm these organizations. We use the term ‘digital resilience’ to describe organizations and leaders whose digital transformations can withstand or recover quickly from the difficult conditions created by disruptive events such as the COVID pandemic.”

Kane, Nanda, Phillips, and Copulsky succeed brilliantly.

In or near the central business district in most major cities, there is a farmer’s market at which — at least prior to COVID 19 — merchants would offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I now examine some of the material that the authors provide in Chapter 4, “Digital Resilience Readiness: Making Strategic Decisions in the Face of Uncertainty.”

First, duly acknowledging the difficulty of making sound decisions amidst substantial and extensive uncertainty, the authors pose two critically important questions:

1. “How should leaders and organizations imagine  choices and choose which paths among those options to pursue?”

2. “And what criteria should guide leaders in making these decisions?”

Next, they focus on four levels of uncertainty:

1. A clear-enough future (Note: “business as usual”).
2. Alternative futures (Note: a limited number of possible outcomes requiring a limited degree of strategic response).
3. A range of possible futures (Note: multiple possible outcomes with degree of probability unknown).
4. True ambiguity (Note: “The focus for leaders in true ambiguity is on reducing  uncertainty wherever possible”).

The authors add: “Part of reducing that uncertainty is a ruthless focus on what your organization needs to do immediately to survive, particularly in the Respond phase of an acute disruption.” Whatever happens or doesn’t, be prepared to…..

Next, the authors share their thoughts about a very important initiative, scenario planning, “a process that involves asking a series of questions related to your business and possible future outcomes in relation to it.”

o What is our new competitive environment?
o What are the trends and implications?
o How might we regroup, if and when necessary?
o How can — and should — we activate our plan?

Kane, Nanda, Phillips, and Copulsky: “An outcome of the scenario planning process is that it focuses leaders to intentionally and critically consider the changes posed by the disruption. Even when the scenario planning understandably misses the biggest trend that will influence the coming year, the actions that the scenario planning process encourages remain viable.”

They suggest for three strategic moves to consider when deciding how to respond to a disruption:

1. Engage in [begin italics] no regrets moves [end italics].
2. Engage in moves that create [begin italics] options [end italics].
3. Identify and engage in [begin italics] big moves [end italics].

The authors conclude Chapter 4 by examining several biases (status quo, confirmation, availability, and bandwagon) identified by Tom Davenport as major troublemakers during efforts to achieve digital resilience readiness. They then explain (using an especially clever illustration) “How to Apply the Concepts from This Chapter: Scenario Planning Simulation.”

Each of the eleven chapters — all by itself — is worth more, far more than the cost of this book. For many C-level executives who read it, The Transformation Myth may well prove to be the most valuable business book they ever read.

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out another, The Technology Fallacy: How People Are the Real Key to Digital Transformation, also co-authored by Kane, Nanda, Phillips, and Copulsky, and published by the MIT Press (2019).


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