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Adding a horse’s head to the early automobile; and other terrible transition strategies

Organization transition strategies must start with an adult business deal

No, I’m not making this up. There was an actual design for a car in 1899 with a horse’s head attached to the front! Of course the idea was pure, organic horse doo-doo, but there was an element of street logic to it.

Pastor Uriah Smith from Battlecreek, Michigan was trying to solve a real problem. In the era of carriages, horses had no issues co-existing with other forms of living horse-power on the road. Until that is, the introduction of loud mechanical engines mounted on carriages. Now that wasn’t in their contract and scared the living daylights off them. Unfortunately, a panicked horse, especially one pulling a heavy load, can do a lot of damage. There were reportedly 200 fatalities on the roads of New York city alone in 1900.

Enter Pastor Smith. He wrote up a patent for the Horsey Horseless carriage. His logic was that the horses would be fooled by the looks of the automobile for the few seconds that it took the two carriages to pass each other. In thinking so, he grossly underestimated the horse’s intelligence. For one, horses use smell more than visual cues to recognize other horses.  And secondly, this was a transient issue. They quickly got used to the new mechanical monster given time.
In designing the Horsey Horseless, Pastor Smith gave the horse less credit than it deserved for its intelligence. Just as we occasionally do with our organizations when they are faced with big changes during digital transformations.
Don’t Underestimate Your Organization’s Horse Sense
One of the most frequently asked question I face when talking about Digital Transformation is on how to deal with job losses. Asking this question is a great start, assuming this isn’t an excuse to procrastinate on driving change. Most digital transformation plans devote 95% to “digital” and the rest to “people transformation”. That ratio needs to change dramatically, since most of the challenge in these efforts is organization related.

In response to the question, there’s no better advice that I can think of than to create a tailored plan for and with the organization. In particular, I’d recommend the following three principles –

1. Involve; don’t shield employees
2. Change; don’t just eliminate jobs and people
3. Build new people habits; not just new priorities and systems
1. Involve/don’t shield employees (Be transparent with employees about change):

Most attempts to manage organization impact tend to arise from a genuine if paternalistic approach towards employees. That's a mistake. We need to be transparent about why the change is essential and how it will affect employees’ roles and lives. Read more on this in the article below...
2. Change; don’t just eliminate jobs and people
The bigger gain from digital transformation is in organization agility and growth, not cost reductions from eliminating jobs. Given this, it makes sense to focus more on changing what people do and driving innovation deeper into the business.
3. Build new people habits; not just new priorities and systems

The following article makes a very compelling case on why focusing on just changing priorities (new goals) and systems is a mistake. It's more important for leaders to help their organizations change habits. Habits are what drive behavior and culture. The article suggests "giving people-managers small bites of compelling content to share with their teams a few minutes a week". This works much better than behavior change from long workshop training. "Build one habit at a time, over time, allowing people to build habits without any sense of overwhelm, which could wreck the whole effort".

The "transformation" part of digital transformation is much more important for sustained success than the "digital" part. The best transformation outcomes arise from treating our organizations as adults. Work with them to create change strategies. They deserve more respect and ownership for the change. Don't just assume we can think on their behalf, as Pastor Smith did in the case of those horses. 

Go forth and transform.


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