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Can a transformation run like a lemonade stand?


November 1, 2022

What if I were to tell you that a CEO wanting to transform even the most complex Fortune 500 company might learn something from their eight-year-old self trying to build a lemonade stand? It may sound far-fetched but think about it. Most of us can recall being eight years old with a vision to create value to “earn some extra money” and the determination to make it happen. I know I remember those days.

I was truly inspired when I received this note… “Atlanta Fire United players: Logan Unger, Knox Lewis and Ethan Irish will be making a stand against childhood cancer by hosting a fundraiser for @AlexsLemonade on Saturday, October 29, 2022. Every dollar donated to their lemonade stand will help Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation fund much-needed research for better treatments and more cures for childhood cancer.” What a perfect time for this worthy cause to come across my desk and address my question.

I’ve worked with some of the world’s most impressive leaders on their most challenging transformations. What I’ve learned is there are several parallels between transforming the most complex companies and something as seemingly simple as setting up a lemonade stand. I think there are several lessons we can apply to reach better outcomes and drive value.

I like to use this analogy because it demonstrates how the answer to improve outcomes may be in our ability to simplify “our approach” to transformations. Leaders are struggling to keep up in a world demanding deeper and faster transformations, and in the process are forgetting to focus on the foundational elements required for success.

As we discovered in a recent report Accenture conducted with Project Management Institute, only one in three chief transformation officers said their transformations reached the desired outcomes. A survey of over 350 transformation leaders across 25 countries revealed five risk factors. And each one surprisingly resonates with what I learned from my little lemonade stand. Let me explain.

The five risk factors of an enterprise transformation

1. Lack of vision

Our lemonade stand began with a clear vision of a goal in mind and then a plan for how to realize that vision. Similarly, an organization’s transformation must be guided by a shared North Star. A clear vision helps ensure that every activity that is part of the transformation creates value. Articulating and communicating the vision, value drivers and roadmap of the transformation helps orient your stakeholders so they understand how they can contribute to its success.

2. Lack of focus on value

Don’t let short-term financial results—what I like to call “the tyranny of now”—divert attention from the drivers of long-term value. When longer-term value remains an aspirational goal, it leads to a mismatch between actions taken and transformation outcomes sought—and can block the chances of success.

Instead, have a clearly defined business case with a view to value that is easily referenceable and a guide when to start, stop or advance your business or project. Remember, a lemonade stand needs a budget for supplies, a plan to deploy it effectively and collaboration with leadership (mom or dad) to get funding approval. So, even back then I had to make a pretty convincing case to get the desired results.

3. Lack of focus on talent

One aspect to not overlook is putting together the right talent for transformation. We found that faster-transforming organizations are more likely than slower-transforming peers (34 percent vs 19 percent) to focus on the development of internal talent.

Have a formal strategy to recruit, develop and retain required talent that believes in the transformation and can make it happen. Your eight-year-old self had to understand who to bring on the team for various tasks, like making the lemonade, counting money or creating the stand signs.

4. Siloed approaches

Silos are a big reason for establishing a permanent transformation office and hiring a chief transformation officer. With that childhood lemonade stand, you had to enable those who backed your vision and set up a process to get your product to customers in the most efficient way. Similarly, a successful transformation relies on proper leadership and design authority across the architecture of your IT, people and business. More than 90 percent of transformation leaders agree that the integration of technology, operating model and process through a transformation office improves the alignment between strategy and execution.

5. No clear governance

Clear and consistent leadership is critical to any successful transformation. I have seen how a lack of proper governance comes in the way of fast decision-making. And good governance depends on good data. It’s also how we hold leaders accountable. The lemonade stand’s owners had to figure out the most strategic street corner to capture customers and the best time of day to sell the product. The ability to have all the stakeholders agree and come to a decision happens each and every day in complex companies. Bringing forth the right level of transparency of data can help accelerate those decisions and improve speed to value. And that’s no different for today’s C-suite.

Three keys to a successful transformation

As our report, What chief transformation officers need to succeed, made clear, an enterprise transformation must be many things: far-reaching in vision and pragmatic in execution; deliberative and adaptive; competitive and collaborative; continuous and schedule-driven; and value-focused and explorative.

Organizations that transform successfully share three traits:

  1. A well-formulated transformation vision
  2. A permanent transformation office
  3. A chief transformation officer who reports to the CEO

However, simply putting the vision and those roles in place is not enough. We need to prepare to mitigate certain risks for the transformation to be successful.

Keep it simple

The ability of organizations to manage rapid and sometimes unpredictable change is a key differentiator in any industry, making successful transformation projects more critical than ever.

Transformations are complex, challenging and even frustrating at times. Can having a childhood lemonade stand even compare? I believe it can, because it teaches us not to overthink—to not make things more complicated than they need to be. In that first experience of having a lemonade stand, that child entrepreneur had to develop their ability to articulate a clear vision and communicate their goals, requirements and sought-after outcomes to the parents. They also had to practice the ability to build something new, get the right people on board and bring all the parts together to achieve success.

In the end, our ability to make decisions ties back to the vision. Will we reach our goal to make enough money to support the charity focused on supporting childhood cancer that prompted the start of the lemonade stand in the first place? With a clear vision and plan, the simple answer would be “Yes.”

Businesses can feel confident about their ability to successfully execute a transformation if they have a clear vision, an integrated approach supported by world-class talent and tools, and a focus on value. My challenge to any leader is to consider simplifying your transformation to achieve success.

And cheers to a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade.

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Jason Sain

Managing Director – Technology Strategy & Advisory