Emmanuelle Abensur
March 4, 2024
min read
Spotlight on Practitioners

Jon Barnes’ strategies for a successful organizational transformation

A group of leaders walking and thinking about strategies for organizational transformation

Imagine your organization as a puzzle, each piece crucial to the bigger picture but needing a refresh to fit the ever-changing business landscape. That's organizational transformation in a nutshell—a strategic reboot to stay ahead in the game. 

To demystify the strategies for a successful organizational transformation, we've tapped into the wisdom of Jon Barnes, a consultant who has helped more than 1000 leaders adopt new ways of working. With a knack for sparking significant change, Jon reveals how a blend of culture, process, and structure adjustments can redefine success and unleash your organization’s full potential.

Can you quickly introduce yourself and what you do? 

Hiya 👋. My name’s Jon Barnes and I help organizations move towards ways of working which are predicated on autonomy. I’ve been doing this for over 10 years and I’m passionate about creating environments which are conducive to adult development. I believe many of the ways in which we’re accustomed to work hold organizations back, commercially speaking by, for example slowing down decision making, wasting time in poor meetings, creating silos with poor information flow. But perhaps most of all I believe these ways of working stifle individual human development, which is key to the success of any organization.

What is organizational transformation, and why is it so important today?

The term organizational transformation has become somewhat of a buzzword. As I can tell, the difference between the more gentle word ‘change’ and the stronger word ‘transformation’ are to do with three factors: 

  1. the speed of change;
  2. the scale of change;
  3. the sophistication of change.

Personally, I’m cautious of the first two. Going big and fast can have many unintended, unknown and undesirable implications. Therefore I tend to favor some combination of two methods. The first is about small but constant iterations which stack to create a compound effect over time. The second is the occasional bigger jolt of change that is done in a really participative way. This doesn’t mean it’s all ‘nicey nice’, but it does mean taking people on a journey to really sign-up to the change. To really commit to what we’re trying to create together.

As for why this is important, that comes down to my third point which I’ve called ‘sophistication’. In the same way a butterfly is more sophisticated than a chrysalis and a teenager is more sophisticated than a newborn baby, there are ways of organizing intelligence which are more sophisticated and more adaptive in the modern world, which is so complex and enmeshed. I believe organizational transformation to be important because without working to higher degrees of complexity, we can’t navigate the modern world successfully.

Let’s say a traditional organization wants to make a complete culture change. How should it go about it?

That’s a tough question in that each organization is unique. Having said that, I notice some clear patterns that have seemed to be very helpful. 

The first is that a traditional organization operates from its existing paradigm and that is just how it is. I believe it is valuable to respect that and start there. One particular way in which I tend to go about this is that I require the most senior leadership to be wanting this and to be willing to change themselves as individuals. To really work on themselves. This is when I’ve seen the most success.

Then, I have tended to put a huge emphasis on what I call ‘activating’ the individuals in the organization. This is inspired by that famous Gallup study that says 13% are actively engaged; 60% are disengaged and 27% are actively disengaged. My approach is to find the 13% and see if we can spread change. The so-called 25% rule tells us that if we get from 13% to 25%, we could reach a tipping point where soon enough the whole group's social norms will change. 

Also read: Change Management: Our Three-Step Method

In the past I’ve referred to this as a kind of “Organizational Activism”. There are various processes we use for this, but the simple principle is one of ‘volunteering’. To do this, we typically invite people to an event where they can transform their organization. There we facilitate in-depth conversations about what they want to leave behind and what they want to create. The 13% naturally turn up. Then we find a few extras who are reticent but open minded enough to turn up. Because they are creating the future for themselves, quite quickly we find that more people join the party and soon enough we have a movement of sorts. 

The numbers are further helped by the fact that often we find that some of the ‘Actively Disengaged’ group will naturally quit because they now can’t hide the fact they simply don’t want to be a part of the future. This can feel sad but really it’s a benefit for everybody particularly those individuals.

What are your strategies for leading a successful organizational transformation?

I’d say there’s three broad strategies for leading organizational transformation:

  1. Participative Co-Design
  2. New ways of working
  3. Leadership development

Participative Co-Design is this method I mentioned of inviting people to really show up and co-create the organization or aspects of it. I see this as turning everybody’s lights to ‘green’. I have seen this approach pretty much immediately increase engagement often to 90%.

The Leadership development parts can take different shapes but the principle at the core is the move from parent <> child hierarchical relationships towards adult <> adult ones. This is vital. Particularly to stop giving answers and to start coaching people to find their own. It means more freedom, but importantly, it also means more responsibility and accountability. No more hiding behind a manager.

When I talk about ‘New ways of working’, I’m talking about the adoption of a gradual set of tools from meeting facilitation, to constant feedback processes, to self-reflection, participative decision making, role-based working, etc. These are the set plays that add structure and are valuable foundations for a successful organizational transformation.

How have you implemented those strategies for organizational transformation with one of your clients?

I’m thinking of one marketing agency SEO Travel who has implemented these strategies for organizational transformation. As a result, their meetings are facilitated rather than led and they have a super comprehensive company wiki. This means they are governed by a set of laws which are continuously evolving to suit the business’s and people’s needs. They give each other regular feedback, have regular self-reflection sessions, and they’re trialing peer coaching rather than have a top-down management structure. They have a kind of council made up of people who have volunteered to steward that aspect of the business for a period of time. 

This has come from the leadership development their founder Tom McLoughlin has shown from the off. He’s taken huge personal responsibility and vulnerability in developing as a leader. They have also crowdsourced and co-created much of their new direction, which has led to new ways of working and even new business ventures. It’s not all been plain sailing but that’s not what this is about. So that’s one client, but there’s many others. 

International exhibitions company IMEX has also implemented strategies for organizational transformation. They’ve now moved from having top-down management reviews to a constant peer review process to accelerate a culture of learning. They’ve trained all managers to become coaches which is slowly embedding into the culture. And they’ve radically increased transparency which has meant that information flows so much faster around the business, making syncing so much faster and less wasteful with less silos. So organizations take different bits so that they are creating the organization that suits them rather than adopting yet another dogma.

What main challenges have you encountered along the way? 

The main challenge that I think makes the difference is at the very top. Is the individual at the very top up for working on themselves as a person? This often means learning to let go of control a bit, learning to role model the standards they’re looking for. They should also be willing to learn to lead by coaching, to create forums for people to grow and learn, and to challenge the command and control paradigm they no doubt grew up with, in order to adopt ways of working predicated on autonomy. Typically I’ve found this shift really happens when the individual at the top realizes that this is so much better for the business, but also for them! It’s in many ways less stressful.

Quote of Jon Barnes on the challenges of adopting strategies for organizational transformation

How do you make sure that the transformation continues running smoothly and effectively? 

Because of the co-design element, this doesn’t always seem that much of an issue. I remember once returning to an organization a year after a co-design process and the projects were still running. These were all voluntary projects to transform the organization that people had created themselves and taken responsibility outside of their job! It’s amazing what happens when you give people the space to step up

Having said this, I do find working with a leader's deeper mindsets to be very valuable also. This kind of ‘Executive Therapy’ so to speak has really far reaching implications and can take some support because it’s easy to slip into old habits.

What advice would you give to an organization that wants to adopt agile ways of working?

Start immediately, but start very small. I tend to find that after 3 months only people report a really different feeling despite the changes feeling almost imperceptible.

To conclude

In our enlightening conversation with Jon Barnes, we uncovered several strategies for a successful organizational transformation. Barnes emphasizes the importance of embracing change at every level, from leadership down, advocating for a culture that supports continuous learning and adaptation. His approach underscores participative co-design, leveraging the collective intelligence within the organization, and fostering a mindset geared towards innovation and resilience. 

Holaspirit stands at the forefront of enabling such transformative journeys. Our platform, designed with the principles of agility and transparency in mind, is perfectly aligned with Barnes' best practices. It offers the tools and framework needed for organizations to clarify their roles and processes, achieve goal alignment, and empower their teams. Moreover, we have experienced coaches that can guide you through the intricacies of implementing strategies for organizational transformation.

Schedule a call with our sales team to explore how Holaspirit can play a pivotal role in your organization's transformation.

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