Key insights from The Conference Board’s Change & Transformation Conference

Key insights from The Conference Board’s Change & Transformation Conference

Gagen MacDonald had the privilege of sponsoring The Conference Board’s 16th annual conference on Change & Transformation in New York City on June 14–15. The following key takeaways are from our founder and CEO, Maril MacDonald. Her original post can be found here.

For those of us who spend our days trying to drive transformation in large, complex businesses, it was amazing to get to connect with 200 kindred spirits: individuals who walk in our shoes, share in our struggles, and possess our same passion to confront the human struggle of change. With some of the world’s best and brightest companies in attendance, we had the opportunity not only to share our view on the The Three Things that Change Everything™, but to learn from so many brilliant, inspired minds.

For the many change-makers out there who weren’t able to attend, I wanted to share three insights that have stuck with me since the conference:

  1. Change fatigue is the first order of business. Prior to the conference, we had the opportunity to briefly survey attendees. Below are two of the questions we asked. The answers are revealing.

Study after study shows that nearly every large company is either undergoing—or in the process of planning—some kind of significant business transformation. In fact, according to a recent C-suite study conducted by IBM, the companies best positioned to lead the future are ones who are not only transforming now, but can transform on a perpetual basis.

The trouble is—as our survey results showed—people are already exhausted! More than 50 percent of the change leaders we surveyed chose change fatigue as one of their two most common current frustrations, and nearly half anticipate it will be one of their two biggest challenges over the next five years. If we must continue to transform—but we’re already tired of change—something’s got to give.

Several years ago, I spoke with the author Dan Pink for Let Go & Leadour online community dedicated to studying leadership in the twenty-first century. Thinking about this challenge, I go back to what Dan says employees seek in their work: purpose, mastery, and autonomy. To combat change fatigue and create conditions for successful, ongoing transformation, we must develop compelling stories that capture the imagination and invite employees to participate in, and thereby co-own, their company’s future.

2. Doing more is not delivering more. Throughout the conversations that occurred at the conference, I was struck by a common theme: nearly everyone I spoke with told me that their company has too many big projects and competing priorities underway. Not only can these initiatives compete for resources and attention—imperiling their odds of success—but often they lead to contradictory objectives. We’re pumping huge sums of money and energy into projects that are cancelling each other out, meaning we’re running in place. No wonder we’re so tired!

Businesses are facing big, complex challenges and lots of uncertainty. Our impulse is to DO SOMETHING. However, doing more doesn’t always deliver more. Leading transformation is not about inventing projects or searching for silver bullets: it’s about working across functions to identify a few critical things that tens of thousands of people can rally to support. One movement is more powerful than one thousand initiatives, so we should continue to host dialogues that force strategic trade-offs, and then develop intentional road maps to help these “big ideas” gain life.

3. There is no substitute for human-to-human conversation. Technology is such a force in driving our push toward perpetual transformation. As change leaders, we spend limitless time investigating how we can adapt new technologies to better integrate into the lives of our customers and employees. In fact, the subtitle of the conference was “Empowering Change Leaders to Enable Data-Driven Insights, Transformational Tools, and New Digital Cultures.”

However, for a conference with such expressly digital aims, presenter after presenter reiterated the belief that human conversation is the most important factor in leading change. This is a topic my colleague Sherry Scott recently explored for the Institute for Public Relations.

While technology can be an important differentiator and enabler, people fundamentally come to work each day hoping to positively impact their communities and the world, and to achieve a meaningful human connection with others. A thousand iPhones from now, these will still be desires that are best served by person-to-person conversations and delivered through committed leaders. A big feature of our work must be creating avenues for these conversations to exist.

To conclude my keynote at the conference, we did some back-of-the-envelope math and determined that among the companies represented in that room, there are at least 16 billion hours worked each year. By harnessing the power of our collective teams and engaging, motivating, and moving in a shared direction, it’s amazing to consider what 16 billion hours might accomplish.

I left New York inspired by the quality of individuals who believe—like we at Gagen MacDonald do—that if we can transform companies, we can transform the world. Let’s get to work!