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How can you transform when you’re already 100% busy just keeping the lights on?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: You start your transformation by the book, build a coalition for change, set up a transformation team, define a vision and a roadmap, get it started with big workshops, discuss best practices, and so on. Then … people stop showing up. They cite having other priorities and emergencies. And you feel left twisting in the wind.

This scenario will probably sound familiar to any change agent who has been practicing for anything more than a few years.

Many organizations don’t even reach the point where they start their transformation journey. They’ve got the vision, the skills, and all the enablers. Except one: resources. They try doing it on top of the rest while “the rest” is already keeping everyone 100% busy. Or worse, they “kind of” start it and then it stalls and falters.

As illustrated in this diagram adapted from “The Managing Complex Change Model” (M. Lippitt, 1987), sufficient resources is one of the five key enablers for complex change, and the one we’d like to focus on.

So the first question to ask yourself when you want to start any kind of transformation is: How can you get it going assuming that you have zero spare capacity at day one?

We looked back at our experience and reflected on what worked in this painfully common situation.

The good news is that there are ways to create an air bubble to give life to your transformation. Agility will be our ally to overcome this challenge.

To understand the process to create this little air bubble we have to work backward from the objective: generate 15% of slack capacity that will be just enough to get your transformation going.

Setting aside this 15% for transformation activities requires reprioritizing. We encourage reprioritizing starting at the highest level because this is where we have maximum leverage, and then work downward. For example, in a 50-people department this could be at the operational level consisting of a few dozen initiatives and some broad general activities, and we would then work downward in units and teams to prioritize tactical items. In a larger context, prioritization might start at a strategic or portfolio level.

Our assumption here is that a small number of activities are generating the largest part of the value, and several time-consuming activities can be dropped, scaled-down or postponed with little or no consequence. This assumption has been proven true again and again: some of what you thought was “must do” is actually “nice to have.” In agility, we often stress the need to “stop starting things and start finishing things” to optimize flow.

Effective prioritization requires some criteria against which to rank activities and initiatives. Hence the necessity to revisit your vision and infer short-term objectives. Say 3-month objectives, because transformation must gain decent velocity at its inception. Time is playing against you and no, next year will not be “a better time.”

In parallel, all work must be made visible. Don’t rely solely on official project portfolios and lists of initiatives. A lot of work is happening under the radar! So the only way to go about this task is to ask people what they spend their time on. All work must be visible! This “uncovering” of invisible work must be explained and the benefits to all made clear. People will be far more willing to be forthcoming about how they spend their time if they trust that the information is being gathered for the good of the common mission, NOT for purposes of control.

The combination of laying out everything that we’re actually working on and short term objectives will enable reprioritizing and help refocus.

And that’s just one of the three types of activities to perform the trick of creating 15% of slack capacity, as illustrated below.

Inevitably, some leadership and working habits will have to be challenged, as does the organization of teams. And finally, classic but still very effective tools: plain old time management (did I hear you say you have too many meetings?) as well as a brief and cooperative lean improvement of fatty processes.

Yes, it can seem daunting, and at first might look like we have to do a transformation before starting the real transformation. However, the activities necessary to create 15% of slack are minimal and intentionally rough at the edges. “Just enough” should be your motto. Because, remember, capacity is precisely what we’re short of.

More elaborate visioning, prioritization and so on can occur later, after slack has been created precisely for this purpose. Moreover, the skills and posture developed during this exercise will be very valuable for the transformation itself.

In essence, freeing capacity is often the first step of a successful transformation, because you’ll need to invest some time to satisfy other enablers and get your transformation rolling.

Bruno Collet advises and coaches leaders to develop the individual and organizational capability to anticipate and react to changes better and faster. In one word: Agility. His approach relies on action-learning with concrete practices, skills and behaviors. Bruno Collet executed top-level missions with several organizations internationally. He is also a recognized speaker, author and is accredited ICAgile instructor. Bruno Collet holds an MBA, MSc., as well as several certifications such as PMP, PMI-ACP, ICP-LEA (Leading with Agility), ICP-ORG (Adaptive Organization), ICP-ENT (Enterprise Coaching) and ICP-AHR (Agile Human Resources).


Jan 11, 2022

Don’t setup a transformation team and committees.

Set your roadmap with your close entourage, as a leader assume yourself and set your vision. Then break it down into small steps / projects that can be done without a requiring a large commitment.

Do this for a couple of years and those small changes will add up to the transformation.

You eat an elephant one bite at a time.


Jan 11, 2022

Before undertaking any sort of change take the time to get in the trenches and improve the efficiency of what is already being done. Focus on helping the individuals that will be required to change. One you want to show you care about them and want to help, and two you free up their time so they can contribute and reflect on the change.

Once you have undertaken so efficiency improvements before implementing the change you want undertake some effectiveness improvements with a focus on eliminating some of the work that is undertaken - whether that is stop doing it or automate the task. This shows that the main focus is on helping the individuals, now you have built some…

Bruno Collet
Bruno Collet
Jan 11, 2022
Replying to

As you write, the goal of first activities is also to create trust with people "in the trenches". I agree nothing can happen without some amount of trust, which comes from a genuine desire to help.

However I would be very cautious about investing time in efficiency improvenents as a first step. Indeed the risk is to improve the efficiency of something broken which should be scrapped or changed in depth.

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