How You Can—and Must!—Make the Case for Transformational Change

Why do some people successfully transform while others fail?

I’ve always been partial to this question. (Heck, I even wrote a book about it!)

But it’s all the more relevant today, as we’re standing on the cusp of AI’s disruption. 

Transformation of any kind is challenging. It requires fundamentally rethinking how we approach challenges—or opportunities, depending on how you look at it. 

Right now, most leaders traditionally approach transformation—as if it’s a regular change that they need to implement. They leverage their tried-and-true techniques: they research, they assess use cases and determine benefits, they appeal to logic and data, and they assume that if they plan their response well and execute it brilliantly, they’ll be fine. 

This is a big mistake.

Transformation, especially the ones facing us now with generative AI, requires a different response. But how do you get others on board to start in on this critical work? Where do you begin? 

Growing Pains: Why Disruptive Transformation Is Difficult

Transformations of this magnitude require a seismic shift in thinking, structuring, and leading. Traditional change operates incrementally: It’s designed to fit within the existing structures and cultures. It’s not intended to disrupt. 

Digital transformation, on the other hand, requires a very different approach. It pushes organizations to:

  • Challenge conventional thinking. Significant revenue may still come from your existing customers, but growth will also come from other non-intuitive sources. 

  • Change structures and processes. A profound change like this requires an equally profound organizational shift. 

  • Manage employee expectations and resistance. Disruption challenges existing processes and culture, prompting fear and uncertainty among employees. 

  • Shift leadership focus. Gone are the days of maintaining the status quo. Leaders need firm conviction, clear vision, optimism, and great agility. 

Making The Case for Change

It’s one thing to recognize that disruptive change needs to take place. But how do you tackle it, especially if your leadership team isn’t on board? 

1. Understand your executives’ top three goals. 

By and large, executives focus on what’s most important strategically. That vision and clarity of objectives got them where they are.

When making the case to your executives, know their top three goals. Disruptive transformation is going to affect at least one of them. You might be clear that disruption is coming, but you need to be even more precise on how that disruption impacts one (or all) of these objectives. 

Try to understand how they think and explain this change in the context they’re most apt to consider. Have logic take a backseat and instead explain the transformation impact in the context of their definition of success.

2. Focus on external forces. 

Shift your focus externally. This helps frame transformation as a groundswell that will happen with or without you, freeing you to consider your response most objectively. Try to understand your future customers and their needs and relate them to your executives' top three business objectives. 

Transforming your organization will likely be a significant risk, but focusing on external changes helps de-risk it. You can command and deploy the resources you control by understanding the forces you do not control. The hard edges of those external forces are difficult to argue against! When framed not as a choice but as a necessity, transformation can encourage organizations to refocus their attention: They can see where and how things are moving, determine where to shift, and execute their goals. 

3. Prepare with structure and discipline. 

There’s no escaping the truth here: This journey is difficult. 

The biggest reason so many leaders fail at transformation is that they don’t consider this truth. They don’t adequately prepare for the disruption journey ahead. 

To navigate disruptive transformation, you need structures and processes that intentionally create change rather than prevent it. You need realistic expectations. Most of all, you need to have a healthy relationship with failure. It will inevitably happen as you transform, so how will you deal with that as an organization?  

4. Develop transparency, accountability, and psychological safety

A culture of openness is critical for any workplace, especially one undergoing such metamorphosis. What’s working, what isn’t, and who is responsible when things don’t go right? Get clear on accountability and communicate clearly. 

Creating a culture of safety is also essential. Your teams will need support in processing such significant changes. Organizations must encourage employees to express vulnerability safely. A psychologically safe, open culture gives you a fighting chance of successfully making the case for disruption. 

Above all, keep people–your leaders and your teams–focused on the long-term vision of where you want to be. Then, continuously make the case for why you're on the journey.

Your Turn

How have you made the case for disruptive transformation? If you’re currently doing this with Generative AI, what’s worked for you? What hasn’t worked well? 

— Charlene

What I Can’t Stop Talking About: 

  • The importance of a disruption Jedi. The next time you think about navigating a major, messy transformation, think about Star Wars: Are you the Obi-Wan Kenobi to your team of Luke Skywalkers

  • The concrete ceiling. Women are forced to contend with the glass ceiling. Asians are made to encounter the “bamboo ceiling.” But, for Asian women? Let’s call it out for what it is: A concrete ceiling. Don’t believe me? Read this.

  • The right ChatGPT for you. Are you fine to keep using the free version, or should you upgrade to Plus or Team options? In this short video, I break down the features and costs of each one.

My Latest: 

  • Catch up on my latest webinars! You can still review the slides and recordings of my two new webinars. In “Unlocking The Power of Generative AI,” I explain how to set up a generative AI “playground,” three ways to elevate your leadership with step-by-step instructions, and the broad outlines of creating a strategy. And in “Developing a Winning Generative AI Strategy for Competitive Advantage,” I walk through the steps needed to create a cohesive AI strategy. 

  • My upcoming book. If you’re reading this, you are the target audience for my new book, Winning with Generative AI. Sign up to get updates and early access.

  • Thinking big—but starting small—with value creation. Value creation can't be a one-way street. So how do you produce value for your customers and yourself? In Leading Disruption, I explain how creating value through strategic AI use cases goes beyond mere profitability in the age of AI.

  • AI’s impact on culture. Leaders are so focused on revising their strategies and preparing their teams for technological shifts that they aren’t remembering to consider generative AI’s seismic impact on company culture. For a thoughtful discussion on this often-ignored topic, tune in to my livestream on Tuesday, June 4, at 9 a.m. PT / 12 p.m. ET on LinkedIn and Facebook Live for clarity

My Upcoming Appearances:

If you want me to speak at an upcoming event or conduct a workshop with your executive team, please drop me a note at [email protected]

Thank you for subscribing to The Big Gulp Newsletter, which goes out to thousands of disruptors every other week to help you on your disruption journey—plus a curated recommendation list of the things I can’t stop talking about. 

Want more? Check out my weekly publication, Leading Disruption, on LinkedIn.

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Charlene Li

If you found this note helpful, please forward and share it with someone who needs the inspiration today. If you were forwarded this, please consider subscribing.