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How to successfully master the complexity of transformations

Ten success criteria for organisational transformation

Peter Pröll


An article by Peter Pröll
Reading time approx. 8 minutes


Reading time: approx. 8 minutes

There is no question that we have to transform our today's companies. Our tayloristic and thus hierarchically controlled companies are not up to the demands of complex markets and complex organizational challenges.

The organisational development industry is responding to the constantly increasing demand for transformation know-how with a growing number of consultants and various transformation approaches. Once you have recognized the necessity of transformation, you are faced with the question of how best to proceed.

I myself work with OpenSpace Beta, an approach that Silke Hermann and Niels Pfläging did not publish until 2018. In the meantime, I was mainly responsible for a transformation in this way and was allowed to support a second OpenSpace Beta Transformation. My very high expectations of OpenSpace Beta were far exceeded.

On the basis of this experience, the work of Silke and Niels and my previous experience with transformations, the following ten criteria have emerged for me that constitute a successful transformation.

1. Authorization

A transformation is always based on the existing authorization framework. In today's tayloristic, centralized organizations, only the top management has the authority to initiate a transformation. If there is no formal authorization for transformation, the risk grows incalculably high.

Hint: What seems obvious is too often ignored. Do not engage any agile coaches with the task of making individual teams or a department "agile". That doesn't go far enough! For sustainable, agile work, a consistent rethinking at company level is necessary! If this is disregarded, "transformed" parts of the company will try to change the organizational design from the bottom up, even without authorization. Of course, this can only go wrong.

2. Timeboxing

Set yourself a reasonable timebox. A ritual of transition to a new, unknown state triggers uncertainty among those involved. A fixed timebox in which changes happen provides security. A fixed timebox enables a final retrospective and reassessment. The timebox should be just long enough to achieve a reasonable result. A reasonable time for this is months, not years. If you have worked in an agile environment, you know how helpful timeboxing can be.

Hint: Transformation specialists rarely work with clear timeboxes. The statements about the duration of the transformation remain nebulous. Accordingly, the fee settlement is time-based. Although a rapid transformation is in the interest of the client, it is not in the financial interest of the external service provider. I find this constellation questionable and it is not conducive to the necessary relationship of trust between you and your service provider. Insist on value-based invoicing! A timeboxing this is possible if mastery and clarity is present.

3. Self-organisation

If you want to become fit for a complex market, you will consequently strive for a desired organizational design which is characterized by small, self-organized company cells or teams. The path to this goal can only be a self-organized one, self-organized by all people involved. One cannot and does not have to order self-organization. Self-organization arises spontaneously when the conditions and settings fit.

Hint: As essential as self-organization is for transformation, for value-adding structures and, for example, in the area of agile work, this topic is as complex. When it comes to self-organization, most mistakes are made right here. It is the small things that have the greatest effect, both positive and negative. A high degree of awareness and understanding is essential for self-organized teams. I will therefore discuss the topic of self-organization in more detail in a later article. At the bottom of the page you can subscribe to my mailing list if you want me to inform you about new posts in the blog.

4. Voluntariness

Self-organisation can always only be achieved through voluntary action. Participation in the transformation must be on a voluntary basis. If there is an obligation on the part of formally authorized managers, the dynamics and motivation for self-organization are considerably limited, if not stopped. This also stops the self-organized transformation.

Hint: Get involved with invitation-based leadership.

5. Adoption

If techniques, processes or designs are introduced by consultants and coaches, there is a high risk that one will fall back into old patterns after the departure of the consultants. Without active self-design, the purpose of change is not understood. The nature of man is also not respected: External determination always goes hand in hand with resistance, demotivation and diminishing commitment. Adoption of the new can only be achieved sustainably and self-organized on one's own initiative. Change management or finished plans, blueprints, all this must be avoided. Otherwise, all you get is "cargo cult".

Hint: When the transformation timebox comes to an end, the company should be thrown back onto itself by the consultants and coaches consistently leaving the company. After 1-2 months you can see how robust the transformation really is. This will give you clarity for the next steps.

6. Scalability

The larger your business, the more important it is for transformation to scale. If this is not taken into account, the personnel and organizational expenses as well as the duration of the transformation will increase. This is a game for time - usually over years. Nowadays, companies can no longer afford this, especially since the necessity for transformation is usually only recognized when "the shop is on fire" and in most cases there is an urgent need for action! With higher costs, expenses and a higher duration, the risk of transformation also increases considerably.

Hint: Scalability in complexity can only be achieved through self-organization. An insight that has led us to the necessity of transformation itself. You can recognize transformation paths that scale cleanly by the fact that the number of employees in the company has a rather small influence on the duration of the transformation and the number of transformation companions required.

7. The right set of principles

The aspects scalability and depth effect show the necessity that a transformation must take place self-organized from within the enterprise. In order for the transformation to run in the desired direction, a set of principles is required within which decisions can be made decentrally, fully authorized, and self-organized.

Hint: When choosing the set of principles, you should always keep an eye on what you want to achieve. The Agile Software Development Manifesto (Agile Manifesto), for example, is well suited to address software development in teams, but it is insufficient for organisational transformation. Principle sets like BetaCodex are better suited for this. Other kinds of frameworks (like Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, "Spotify") or process blueprints such as Holacracy are not suitable as frameworks for self-organized transformation.

8. Applicability during operation

The company's operations must be disturbed only minimally during the transformation and must continue to run. No company can afford to interrupt or stop operations for a transformation in order to reorganize itself.

Hint: Adapting the system is an effort. The operative handling towards the customer must remain guaranteed. The secret at the beginning of a transformation lies in omitting and dismantling rituals and processes that do not add value. Less is more. Your company is already adding value in parts! Free everything that adds value first, lumber out! In this way you create capacities for all further transformation work. Usually even more capacity than you need for the transformation itself!

9. No pilot projects

Experience shows that transformations with pilot projects fail. This is in the nature of pilot projects. You would only start pilot projects if you were not sure how to proceed. A pilot project is therefore a touchstone. In the context of a transformation, however, pilot projects are not suitable for review. The pilot is still related to old structures and to the previous management. Under such limited conditions, even the best transformation path can only fail.

Hint: The top management must act with full conviction and self-confidence! Therefore, in the first step, you must fully acquire the corresponding decision-making authority. And that brings me to the most important criterion:

10. Transformation is absolutely a matter for the boss

The success of a transformation depends on you, the boss, more than anyone else in the company. This includes the initial authorization, your appearance, and participation during the transformation. The transformation is self-organized, which does not mean that you will have little to do after initiation and authorization. It is crucial that you, as the previously authorized decision maker(s), show how serious you are about transformation. Your attitude and your presence are in demand. Transformations cannot be delegated!

Hint: During the hot phase of transformation, you should definitely avoid longer business trips and holidays. Stay reachable and responsive. Show your presence and underpin your seriousness through the way you communicate.

In most companies, change efforts are not taken seriously by people at first. Too often the projects had no depth effect and after a short time the business continued as usual. Too often, the best strategic reaction for the employees was what is known as "BAW" (Bend and Wait).

Through presence, attitude and appropriate, regular communication, you must give clear signals to prove your seriousness. In the hot phase of transformation, each of your words matter.


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