Why does it take a crisis to drive transformation?

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Disclaimer: The following article does not represent the views of my employer.

On a fine Saturday morning, I was browsing through my LinkedIn posts and came across the below snippet.

Why does it take a crisis to drive transformation?
Meme rotating on the internet during corona lockdown in April 2020.

After an initial giggle, the gloomy reality question dawned on me, why does it have to take a crisis such as COVID-19 to drive digital transformation in organisations? What is it that the pandemic brought in, that we missed before? Why is there a sense of urgency now, more than before? What are organisations and people waking up to?

Let’s go a bit deeper into change management, to address something beyond processes, tools and communication; let’s look at HABITS. When we look at how organizations function on a day to day basis, what is it that they seem to be habituated towards? It is to think about threats to short term survival and sustenance, and how to respond to them. The threat of business going bankrupt, of losing employment or losing status, of becoming outdated, receiving a low(er) performance score and so on. We have thus designed our process, tools and work-life to ‘be driven by a change (or an outcome) rather than driving change’. Certainly, most companies have very clearly defined vision, mission, objectives etc., which aim to drive by purpose, tackle the threats as well as capitalise on opportunities and get ahead of the game, but when it comes to implementing them into business practices, the lens somehow seems to turn in a reverse view, from driving to being driven. 

Who wants a change?
Image by Alan O’Rourke on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Now we have set foot into the fourth industrial revolution, which we all know is THE future of both the ‘what’ and ‘how’ we do businesses. Most digital strategies and roadmaps in companies are extremely ambitious (in an exciting way) and inspirational. Many of them tackle critical elements around tools, people, process etc., visualised in the most spectacular formats. One would walk away after reading them, feeling energised and enthused about the journey we are embarking on. But thereafter, reality engulfs, when people are plugged back into the current; their plate is full of tasks that are linked to responding to short term threats and ongoing issues. It is indeed the “knowing-doing gap”, a term given by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton. Accordingly to a survey by Deloitte, “Although, nearly everyone (87% of survey respondents) “knows” that their industry is going to be disrupted to a moderate or great extent by digital technologies, few respondents (only 44%) feel that their company is doing enough to respond to this disruption”. And therefore, the HABIT keeps going, to be driven rather than to drive. 

What did COVID-19 do to fast-track digital transformation? It shook the very core of survival, for both individuals and organisations. Things moved from ‘nice to have’ to ‘the only way we can run business’. Indeed, COVID-19 exemplified profoundly the habit of individuals and organisations to be driven, then to drive. In many cases, this seems to have worked favourably in enabling transition. But given that continuous change is here to stay, does this mean that we will be waiting for the next crisis to hit before we do something about transforming?

Let us assume for a moment we now have an option to hit the reset button, both as professionals and organisations. What could we do with it? Unlearn the habit of being driven; cultivate, strengthen and reinforce the habit of driving change. 

Why does it take a crisis to drive transformation?
Photo by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez on Unsplash

How can we do this? Below I suggest three perspectives to work this from:

  • Inspiration for the profession, goals and values: Ascertaining an organisation’s vision, purpose, values and journey is the start. All of it comes to life when we percolate this further in the organisation, allow people to reflect what this means for their profession and act upon how they can develop and contribute to it (within a set of an organisational framework). Therefore, drive by inspiration towards the purpose, then by motivation kindled through fear and firefighting. Here is a short podcast from an inspirational speaker on inner transformation, explaining the difference in further detail.
Why does it take a crisis to drive transformation?
Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Let me also take a simple example, working as an HR Professional, I believe there is immense potential in optimising people decisions and processes using data and multiple data points. Thus, having read about my organisation’s digital ambition to be a data-driven company, and with support from my leaders who continuously ignite my curiosity, I am inspired to invest time and effort in digital learning, suggesting alternative ways of running our processes and driving data-driven approach in our discussions. And this brings me to the next aspect.

  • Leadership from an inspiration perspective: How many of us have had a time when our leader had a discussion with us about how company goals are personally relevant to us? How many times have we, as leaders, recognised an individual for demanding some capacity to raise their head above water, learn something new and then come back to improve existing processes? Leadership by process is long gone, leadership by purpose is the recipe now, to ensure people pull in the same direction.  Successful leadership is about continuously setting a clear direction, communicating and engaging with your people on both ‘what’ and ‘why’, acknowledgement of success and failures, creating the space for people to work with passion, learn and develop themselves. Thereby, leaders are key in sowing the seeds for a habit change among their people. Here is a very interesting article from Forbes describing mission-based leadership, that explains how leaders set direction and open the playground for transformation through empowerment, which ties into the third aspect.
  • Engagement and empowerment: The most fundamental part of digital transformation is HUMAN. It is about empowering people to think broader than existing practices, to learn by passion than learn by chance, to challenge constructively, bring about improvements and finally, to drive engagement rather than mitigating resistance. It is very important for us to recognize that change is a choice that people make/don’t make, and what organisations and leaders need to do is to cultivate the right circumstances for people to make that choice. Therefore, we need to reflect how we empower people through collaboration, diversity, psychological safety and openness, to help people make the change ‘personal’, enable the switch in habit from being driven to driving and therefore, co-create the change journey. A recent study by PwC talks about “Transcenders”, the winning 5% companies with regards to digital transformation and new ways of working, and they observed that “92% of Transcenders capture and act on ideas from all staff levels”.

What we see as habits at an individual level, aggregates into the culture at a macro level. And thus, more than institutionalisation, we need personalisation of change, to ensure we tackle the root. So, am I aiming this article to employees or management? Well, both!! One needs to work with passion and the other needs to foster it. Therefore, to truly inspire change, we need to drive, not be driven, for change is the new constant.


Join the Nordic People Analytics Summit on 16 and 17 September to learn from the most forward-thinking practitioners in the area of HR and People analytics across Europe to present ways how to harness the power of data, advanced analytics and AI to maximize the HR impact to the organizational bottom line, today in time of hardship and tomorrow in time of transformation.

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Uma is a highly skilled international HR business leader with passion and experience building high performing teams, developing transformational leaders and driving organizational change. She has extensive professional and educational experience from India, Singapore, UK, Norway and the USA, across a spectrum of HR roles; from being People development responsible, to heading up Talent Acquisition and mobility for North America business in Equinor, and most recently, leading leadership development activities to accelerate digitalisation. Currently, Uma is the HR Leader for Digital and IT functions globally in Equinor. Outside work, she is a Semi-Professional Classical Vocalist, an avid cook and an active Social Worker.

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