Recipe for Successful Transformation Includes
Relief, Direction, and Belief

By: Dr. Adam Stoehr, November 2nd, 2016

Special acknowledgment to Laura Nashman, President and CEO of BC Pension Corporation, for lending her expertise to facilitate and summarize the themes of the Thought Leaders Round Table discussion.  

Every organization changes and sometimes those changes are in the category of transformation. When we transform our organizations, we are implementing new methods to radically improve our performance by changing behaviour and capabilities throughout the organization. A period of transformation relies heavily on employees.  If it lasts too long, we are at risk of wearing everyone out. In many cases, transformation is necessary for survival.  How do we successfully navigate this tough road? The Excellence Canada Thought Leaders Round Table (TLRT) met on November 2nd to discuss the ingredients for successful transformation. This paper presents the findings of the TLRT discussion. The recipe for successful transformation includes the promise of relief, the clarity of the overall direction, and the importance of shared belief.

Continual improvement vs. Transformation

Change might be common and constant for most organizations but transformation should be temporary.  When leading change it is important to make the distinction between continual improvement and transformation.  Continual improvement is the ongoing process of identifying strengths and opportunities and adjusting approaches to close gaps over time.  It is a foundational underpinning of world class excellence standards like the Excellence, Innovation, and Wellness® Standard (Excellence Canada, 2012). The spirit of continual improvement should be business as usual and can happen behind the scenes.  Transformation is typically more radical in nature.  Transformations have a wider focus and result in organization-wide involvement and awareness. Continual improvement is healthy and manageable. Continual transformation can be toxic and is not sustainable. 

Promise Relief

Since constant transformation is not sustainable, successful transformation requires the promise of relief.  Successful organizations should be clear about the time horizon.  The message should be: “We are transforming right now around these specific topics and then we will stop.  We will get a break.” Think about this in the context of an exercise spin class.  We are doing the sprint right now but in 8 seconds you get a break.  As a result, you can push a little harder in the next 8 seconds because you know the relief is coming after that.  It’s just 8 seconds! Our brains release a little extra energy when we know that the finish line is close.  Specific milestones and clear breaks in the action along the way are essential.  Transformation time is now and then we can go back to continual improvement time.  The reality of the context and environment will dictate the overall pace but this promise of a break can help energize your team, let them reset, and decide what to do next.

Clarity of Direction

Transparent communication of direction is an essential ingredient of successful transformation.  Direction is key but specificity of the destination is not necessary.  On the first day of a systems transformation we don’t need to have clarity of every single detail of the system.  We only need to know that we are moving in a different direction and the reasons why we are moving in that direction.  The message of direction can be lost if your staff are looking for every detail about what 2021 will look like. Be honest that right now we don’t know exactly what it will look like. Think about this in terms of a family vacation that you are planning for next year.  You know you want to go on a southern holiday to a beach destination.  You might know the country you want to visit but you don’t know exactly what city, what resort, what beach, what room.  But we know we are headed south and that’s all we need to know right now.  The specifics of the unknown parts of your trip will be dealt with and communicated as the relevant deadlines get closer.

Overall direction can be a guiding beacon on our journey. Open and honest real-time communication about the signposts will come into clearer focus as we get closer. Imagine that the vacation that we are planning is a road trip. Parts of the journey could be on an unknown, winding dark road.  You don’t know exactly what the next turn will look like.  But you know to be cautious and that your lights will illuminate what’s there and that we’ll be fine. Not driving forward because you can’t see around the next corner doesn’t make sense.  Knowing your direction and trusting in your driving skills, you know you can make it. Sometimes you might need to slow down and drive according the specific weather conditions but we can still reach our destination.

Shared Belief

Transformation requires a shared sense of belief and confidence (Morton, 2014). Often this is described in change management frameworks as a sense of urgency or a burning platform (Kotter, 2007).  Urgency and burning platforms are sometimes taken the wrong way and can instill panic.  Instead, leading from a position of belief we can build confidence across the organization.  We must believe that together we can do this.  We must have a collective belief that what we have today is not sustainable, healthy, or good enough; the belief that future benefits that we are talking about are better and worth pursuing together. We have to do a good job of selling the general picture of the future. 

When something is shared, we must all hold a stake in the discussion and discovery.  The best way to form a shared belief is to engage in a discussion around the fact that the status quo is not an option anymore.  Ask staff about pain points today and how we can change things about how we work together.  Spend most of the early days listening and opening the two-way conversations.  Leaders in the organizations don’t need to discover the problems.  It takes leaders who listen, as dramatized in the climax scene in the movie Sully starring Tom Hanks, based on the cockpit recording about the emergency landing in the Hudson river.  About one minute before they land in the Hudson, while they are 100 feet above the river, Sully genuinely turns to his co-pilot and asks if he has any ideas. This is the ultimate in collaborative leadership and shared belief.  No one individually can come up with all the ideas.  No one has all the answers.  The secret is to stay calm and ask for ideas at any point in your transformation journey.


This paper presented the findings of the TLRT discussion that took place on November 2, 2016.  It provided some clarity to the recipe for successful transformation, which require the promise of relief, a clear sense of direction, and a shared belief.   All three of these ingredients need to be present in order meet the intended transformation outcome. 

Here are the action ingredients in revisiting our vacation analogy. “We know the island now. We are getting close to choosing the resort.  We will then consult with the team about the preferences of beach activities.  It all depends on what we accomplish in this phase.  With your help, what we are doing now will help determine what the end state looks like.  Once we get there, we’ll take a break and relax.  Then in good time, we’ll start planning our next trip.”



Kotter, J (2007, January) Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail, Harvard Business Review.

Morton, R (2014) The Art of Leading with Belief: Achieve Faster, More Effective and Longer-Lasting Impact by Mastering the Art of Leading with Belief, Canada, Webcon.

Excellence Canada (2012) Canada Awards for Excellence, Excellence Innovation and Wellness® Standard. Available from:

Author Information

Adam  Stoehr, PhD

Adam Stoehr, PhD