Why business transformation works best when all staff are involved

A top-down approach to business transformation makes planning fast and keeps disagreement to a minimum. But does it work? Here we look at why a more staff-led programme may be the key to success.

There is a lot to consider when devising a business transformation programme. Purpose, logistics, timescales and who needs to be involved. It is tempting to think that these considerations should be made solely by senior management. But in reality, business transformation affects the entire business, and staff co-operation is crucial for success.

What’s wrong with a top-down approach?

Top-down means that decisions and changes are made by senior management with no input from the wider workforce. Opportunities to ask for staff for feedback, ideas and suggestions are not given. There are two problems with this: employees feel undervalued and unheard, and potentially good ideas are left unsaid.

While business needs are first priority, managers are likely to be met with resistance if employees are not on board with proposed changes. This leads to decreased morale, motivation and performance – all counteractive to effective transformation. In order for a programme to be successful, staff must understand the reasons behind it and how the change it brings will be beneficial.

Transformation and communication

Senior leaders typically address three main areas in a business transformation:

1. What they want people to stop doing
2. What they want people to start doing
3. What they want people to keep doing

Then they expect everyone to jump to it. Employees are told exactly what they should stop, start and keep doing, but often get no explanation why. Again, change will not be taken to well if employees don’t know the rationale behind it. Taking time to communicate the wider strategy will help employees see senior management’s perspective, and make them more likely to embrace changes.

Bottom-up transformation strategies

If managers are transparent about their intentions, and communicate them to the rest of the team, will a top-down approach work? Not necessarily.

For most businesses, good communication isn’t enough to enable a successful transformation. Even if employees receive a detailed explanation of the reasons for the programme, it won’t automatically mean they will agree.

Every staff member of an organisation has a different day-to-day experience. Senior management can’t possibly understand the inner workings of every department, function and process, so the insight of staff at all levels is valuable.

The benefit of listening to employee feedback go two ways. On one hand, it encourages staff to be actively involved in the transformation process, which in turn makes them more invested in its success. Employee feedback is also an ideal research tool for planning the programme itself. Staff have the best knowledge of what works well in their fields, and what needs improvement.

The downside of a bottom-up approach is that it is time consuming. Gathering information, feedback and ideas takes longer than a one-day meeting in a boardroom. However once the initial groundwork is done, the programme is likely to roll out faster. Less resistance and more collaboration leads to long-term success.

Finding a balance

Sometimes, transformation has to happen quickly and businesses find that a top-down programme is the only realistic option.

But when time is more flexible, getting the whole organisation involved in the process is highly beneficial. It allows the transformation programme to take shape around the experiences of the workforce, and fosters a sense of team spirit.

Of course senior management is there for a reason, and final decisions, risks and investments are in its hands. Therefore it is useful to balance the ideas, needs and requests of the wider workforce with practical leadership. It is not always possible to please each individual, but it is possible to have staff at all levels enabling successful transformation.