Changing How We Change: A practical guide to leading virtual transformation beyond the crisis

Changing how we change

As the world moves beyond this phase of Covid-19 organisations are reimagining their futures, and virtual teams are leading transformation. So, we must adapt how we lead change. Here are some practical lessons to help leaders of change succeed in a virtual world.

Transformation in normal times was difficult enough. For the last three decades, research has shown that only a third of major transformations are successful, even less in the public sector.  Successful transformation during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic still depends on effective leadership to change mindsets and engage people coupled with a structured approach to drive change, such as KBA’s 3D approach to transformation which integrates Kotter’s model with the discipline of project management (PMI) and the psychology of change.

Approaches to transformation typically involve physically bringing together leaders and change teams to engage in planning, decision making and project management mainly focussed on changing behaviour and culture.  Covid-19 has changed all that. Even though we now have a vaccine, many employees are likely to continue working from home part-time and corporate travel budgets are unlikely to return to pre-Covid levels to save time, cost and carbon footprint. As the world moves beyond this phase of Covid-19 organisations are reimagining their futures, and virtual teams are leading transformation. So, we must adapt how we lead change. Here are some practical lessons to help leaders of change succeed in a virtual world.


Find your meaningful purpose.

Covid-19 gave many teams, especially those directly involved in responding to the crisis, the most potent raison d’être which triggered high performance. As organisations rebuild operations and rethink the organisation, change teams may fulfil a different purpose, perhaps one less compelling. Nevertheless, clarity of purpose is essential to give the team credibility when engaging with stakeholders virtually, and it binds the change team in a joint mission. In practice, a team can clarify its purpose in three steps.

  1. Analysing the strategic landscape helps them understand the future challenges they face.
  2. Assessing their core capability identifies the strengths they have to meet these challenges.
  3. Analysing their stakeholders’ needs clarifies the purpose the team must serve – why they exist.


Use a structured approach and tools.

Using a structured approach to planning allows change teams to focus on content rather than having to design a change process. It gives change teams confidence because they can identify the challenges they need to tackle. It reduces uncertainty, creates visibility in decision making and provides a clear road map for stakeholders. Online tools such as stakeholder analysis and status assessments to monitor progress through the stages of change together with team progress reviews help the team move forward quickly in building the change strategy whilst simultaneously developing as a virtual team.


Prepare for online working, not just meeting.

Virtual transformation teams must decide how best to replicate using flipcharts and post-it notes to facilitate virtual working in real-time. This requires much more preparation and planning than regular online meetings. In our transformation work with APM Terminals, we kept things simple using pre-prepared templates on shared slides.  We find Google Slides and Sheets to be highly effective for collaborative working because it is easy to access, create, share and save content.


Build the virtual team.

To help teams succeed virtually, the transformation sponsor should set the mandate of the team and clarify expectations.  Keep the team size as small as possible, so everyone has a meaningful role. Create time at the start of an initiative for the team to get to know each other and agree on ways of working online, including frequency of meeting, decision making, methods of communication and performance monitoring. Focus on achieving quick wins and encourage the team to conduct regular online team progress reviews.  Two simple things help virtual working: cameras on and laughter, which lightens intensity.


Over-communicate, build trust.

It is essential to ramp up communication efforts to build relationships and trust. Early in the pandemic, the CEO of Ansell, a global manufacturer of PPE, gave a weekly message to the whole organisation and has continued on request of his appreciative employees. A senior executive of a global FMCG wrote personal notes of gratitude to individuals and communicated directly with manufacturing teams, demonstrating genuine appreciation.  Transformation teams can show they understand their stakeholders by testing they know what is important to them. Using stakeholder segmentation and analysis, they can tailor communications to show they care and build trust.


Use technology.

Technology has played a primary role in enabling capability across organisations during Covid-19, and this will accelerate beyond the crisis. Smiths Medical used augmented reality technology with wearable tech to upskill colleagues at other factories with no experience of making ventilators by creating and sharing a virtual assembly guide.  APM Terminals created the “Leader-Led” app to help change safety culture by facilitating a conversation at the frontline during Gemba walks, capturing learning and making the data available through a global dashboard.  Whatever the application, change leaders should be digital champions who role model use of technology, provide resources for their teams and encourage a culture of tech curiosity.


Build capability virtually.

In pre-pandemic times, global companies would send change teams to sites around the world to engage employees, communicate the vision, provide wellbeing support and build capability. Local teams are now having to take on this role which means building leadership and transformation capability at multiple levels. Apart from determining the appropriate  technology to maximise virtual learning, change teams should focus on addressing learner mindsets in three ways:

  • help learners see the reasons, benefits and implications of acquiring new skills and ways of working
  • help them believe they have some control over the learning process for example, through involvement in training design or a self-managed learning community
  • help learners see their peers succeeding.


Listen and Lead

Leading transformation is demanding. It requires relentless attention to detail, management of relationships and repetition of key messages. A priority for leaders is to look after themselves by listening to their body and being fit to lead their teams through and beyond the crisis. Three essential habits help maintain physical and mental health:

  • get good sleep, aiming for seven hours a night
  • get some exercise, recognising a brisk walk uphill is as good as a run
  • get offline to give the brain a total break (an hour before bed).

Leaders should truly listen to others. Those who genuinely care, are inclusive, compassionate and welcome challenges from everyone, especially from those with less power, will promote diversity of thinking and psychological safety necessary for innovation.


Ask what’s our story?

“Crises make reputations” according to the Financial Times’ campaign. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was described as “the most effective leader on the planet” during the crisis for her empathetic open communication style. By contrast, Dominic Cummings, senior adviser to the UK Prime Minister was heavily criticised for failing to act as a role model during the crisis by flouting the Government lockdown rules he had helped design.

Thinking about reputation is a great way to galvanise a change team. Asking “What do we want people to say of us when this pandemic is over?” is a powerful way of clarifying the principles which the team can use to underpin decisions and actions. Remind the team how they act now and treat their stakeholders will define them in the future. Acts of compassion, tolerance and kindness will be remembered long after this pandemic crisis is over.


Susie Kennedy is senior partner of KBA Solutions Limited which she founded in 1993. KBA specialises in change leadership consulting and executive development. She has contributed to the Thinkers50 books, Transforming Beyond the Crisis and The Transformation Playbook. Susie is Programme Director for KBA’s Institute of Leadership and Management Strategic Leadership programme for senior managers, with programmes in the University of Cambridge, Premier Foods and nationally for UK Local Government at King’s College London.


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Transforming Beyond the Crisis is a new book by Brightline Initiative and Thinkers50 and brings a unique compilation of the best thinking from the world’s leading business thinkers and practitioners.

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