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How do you harness the power of people to double transformation success?

EY teams and the University of Oxford explore the emotional cost of failed transformations and what it takes to get them right.

In brief

  • Transformation is now a constant for all organizations, but success is far from guaranteed.
  • New research indicates that giving specific focus to a series of complex human factors can increase the probability of success to more than 70%.
  • Instilling leading practices around six key drivers can give your organization the best chance of success.

We always knew how important transformation was to an organization’s enduring success. For decades, this process of organizations making major changes to their operations to improve performance and drive sustainable growth was episodic. Every few years, shifts in market sentiment or stakeholder demands would push leaders to make incremental changes to adapt, or to entirely reimagine their organization from the ground up.

However, over the last few years there’s been a shift in the nature and speed of transformation. According to 82% of board members and CEOs in the EY 2021 Global Board Risk Survey, market disruptions have become more frequent and impactful. To keep pace, companies have begun to transform more frequently.

The need to successfully transform — and to do so continuously in the face of disruption — is now critical for organizations to survive. 

In 2021, EY and the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School formed a research collaboration. Our considered view is that there must be a more contemporary and effective way to drive organizational change. This approach should pay more attention to the human factors so often identified as one of the root causes of transformation failure and consider both leaders and workers. Further, we share the observation that not only is the rate of transformation failure too high, but it also carries a human cost that organizations can no longer afford.

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Our research suggests that 85% of senior leaders have been involved in two or more major transformations in the last five years alone. Two-thirds (67%) of those we surveyed said they have experienced at least one underperforming transformation during this time.

It’s a staggering, if unsurprising, statistic. More staggering is that companies continue to accept this rate of failure as the price of change. In any other context, and by any other standard, this level of performance would be completely unacceptable.

The transformation imperative
of senior leaders have experienced at least one underperforming transformation in the last five years.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Using predictive analytics, we have identified six key drivers that, when done well, can increase the likelihood of a successful outcome 2.6 times to 73%.

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Chapter 1

A transformation’s success or failure is rooted in human emotions

Negative emotions among workers increase by 25% in successful transformations but by more than 130% during underperforming transformations.

The key to turning transformation failure into success relies on the ability of organizations to completely rethink and redesign transformations with humans at the center.

Our research highlights that complex factors influencing a transformation’s success or failure are rooted in human emotions. These findings are largely consistent regardless of industry or geography.

In a successful transformation: support leads to positive outcomes

In a successful transformation, leaders invest at the outset to build the conditions for success, both at a rational level and an emotional level. As the transformation progresses, we see that stress increases and confidence may dip. But as the pressure increases, so does the support. With the right support at the right time, workers will end the transformation feeling positive. In our study, 79% of workers reported positive emotions after a successful transformation, the majority of which were happy or content — 50% higher than before the transformation.

Workforce response to transformation
of workers reported positive emotions after a successful transformation.

In an underperforming transformation: a negative cycle emerges

Leaders and workers begin in an emotional state that is similar to those in a successful transformation. However, there is a point during the transformation where things spiral down. Slightly more than one-third (38%) of workers reported negative emotions such as stress during a successful transformation versus two-thirds (66%) of workers during an underperforming transformation. Without any supportive intervention, workers and leaders alike lose hope. At the end of an underperforming transformation, the negative emotional impact is massive. Three-quarters of the workforce reported negative emotions, including 31% who experienced sadness, upset or depression.


Overall, negative emotions in the workforce increased by 25% in a successful transformation but by more than 130% in a underperforming transformation. Entering a new transformation with this well of negative emotions from the previous underperforming transformation can provide a crippling starting point for the next transformation.


“The key to turning transformation failure into success relies on the ability of organizations to completely rethink and redesign transformations with humans at the center,” says EY Global Vice Chair of Consulting, Errol Gardner.

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Chapter 2

Six drivers that lead to transformation success

Leaders must implement leading practices in support of all six drivers to maximize performance.

The transformation journey is neither linear nor easy. There will be twists and turns along the way. The key is to embrace emotions rather than ignore them, build a deep belief in the transformation, create a culture of both discipline and experimentation, use technology to quickly realize the vision, and learn as you go. With the proper support in place, the heightened stress of transformation has the potential to raise performance rather than lower it and serve as an accelerator for the transformation. To maximize the level of success, organizations need to excel at the following six drivers.

1. Lead: adapting and nurturing the necessary leadership skills

In our survey, workers ranked leadership as the top driver regardless of the success or failure of the transformation. Leaders, meanwhile, identified leadership as the number one driver in successful transformations, but saw it as inconsequential when the transformation underperformed.

The process of personal emotional development is an important one. Leaders need to recognize their current limitations in terms of mindset and capabilities. As a leader of a transformation, you need to be completely honest about your fears, anxieties and self-doubt about the journey ahead. You must also acknowledge what you know, what you don’t know and what you need to learn.

You need to have the courage to acknowledge that you may not have all the answers and demonstrate the humility to look both inside and outside the organization to find them. For example, 47% of respondents in high-performing transformations said that leaders accepted ideas from more junior personnel versus 29% of respondents in low-performing transformations.

Working with the wider organization
of respondents in high-performing transformations said leaders accepted ideas from more junior personnel, versus 29% of respondents in low-performing transformations.

Leaders need to be accountable for the good and the bad, to show that the whole team is in the transformation together. They must emphasize a “we not me” approach by fostering collaboration, driving consensus and creating two-way communication to raise challenges and opportunities from workers driving the execution. Some leaders of successful transformations said they reached out to workers directly to understand their concerns. Others invested in technology platforms that brought together disparate voices and facilitated two-way dialogue.


Slightly more than half (52%) of respondents in high-performing transformations said that leaders made decisions that were best for the whole organization, not just their areas of responsibilities. The same percentage indicated that leaders understood the needs and views of the workforce. In comparison, only 31% of respondents in underperforming transformations reported feeling the same way.


Key takeaway

Make the investment in self-transformation and emphasize a we approach through collaboration and communication.


2. Inspire: creating a vision that everyone can believe in

Vision sets the tone and serves as the foundation for the transformation. Leaders need to look outside for a compelling vision — outside themselves, their organization and their industry. They should consider casting a wide net to gain inspiration and using future-back planning to identify bold new opportunities, and craft a vision that everyone can support and emotionally connect with. Nearly half (47%) of respondents in a high-performing transformation said the vision was clear and compelling versus 26% of those in a low-performing transformation.

For the vision to be real, leaders need to clearly communicate why change is needed, not just what they need to do — 71% of workers agree that this would make transformations more successful. Leaders need to foster true belief in the vision rather than simply an understanding of it.


Half (48%) of respondents in high-performing transformations said that leadership clearly articulated why the organization needed to change versus 25% of respondents in low-performing transformations.


Key takeaway 

Create a vision that everyone can believe in and that inspires workers to go the extra mile.

3. Care: building a culture that embraces and encourages everyone’s opinion

Emotions are the key to unlocking a successful transformation — or, if the organization is unprepared, having the transformation spiral down into failure.


In our study, 50% of workers who experienced an underperforming transformation agreed that transformation was just another word for layoffs. In the free-text analyses of our research, workers involved in underperforming transformations said they felt unheard, unsupported and stressed during and after the transformation. In follow-up conversations, leaders indicated that they were surprised by these findings and were unaware of the enormous toll that an underperforming transformation took on the workforce.


Leaders need to harness the right emotions to keep workers engaged and motivated, while providing enough emotional support to prevent anxiety and burnout. Our predictive model indicates that providing more emotional support improved the average likelihood of transformation success by 17%.


If you understand the emotional state of the workforce throughout the transformation journey, you will be able to identify the early warning signals when things are going wrong and make adjustments to get the transformation back on track.

Key takeaway

Listen intently to what your people have to say, understand the source of their concern and seek to address issues in an emotionally supportive and constructive way.


4. Empower: setting clear responsibilities and being prepared for change

Transformations are traditionally thought of and managed as linear journeys. Our research suggests this is not the case. There will be ups and downs, twists and turns, stops and starts. The key for leaders is to provide both the structure and discipline, as well as the creative freedom to explore and innovate.

It’s important to create autonomy for the organization to execute. More than half (52%) of respondents in high-performing transformations said that employees were assigned clear roles and responsibilities, and 49% said that decision-making authority was delegated in a clear and appropriate way across the organization (versus 29% in low-performing transformations). 

Creating autonomy to support execution
of respondents in high-performing transformations said that employees were assigned clear roles and responsibilities.

You should also encourage experimentation by shifting from a “don’t fail” to a “fail fast” mindset. Small failures can lead to big successes. Fear of failure, meanwhile, often leads to missed opportunities. Forty-six percent of respondents from high-performing transformations established a process that encourages innovative experimentation, while also ensuring that failed experimentation won’t negatively impact career or compensation.

Key takeaway

Foster a culture of experimentation and create a mindset of fail fast to capture and realize opportunities that a don’t fail mindset may miss.

5. Build: using technology and capabilities to drive visible action quickly

Technology isn’t the vision in and of itself, but it does bring the vision to life. The right technology is critical to fulfilling the vision and facilitating the process of transformation. Executives ranked effective use of technology as the number two driver of success and ineffective use of technology as the number two driver of underperformance.


Nearly half (48%) of respondents in successful transformations said that their organization had invested in the right technologies to meet their transformation vision versus 33% of respondents from underperforming transformations.


It’s also important to acknowledge the emotional component involved in introducing new technology. Some people fear the impact of technology. Workers in underperforming transformations are 25% more likely to agree that transformation leads to worry about job security (49% versus 39%). Others may see it as a means to avoid human interactions, which are essential for the emotional wellbeing of the workforce and the effective operation of the organization.


As a leader, you should prioritize progress over perfection. It’s important to prove the value of the new technology-enabled approaches early and to enlist early adopters and influencers to bring your customers and the workforce along in terms of realizing the vision and the value.


Through a combination of hiring, upskilling or reskilling, partnering and outsourcing, you can cultivate the right digital mindset and skillset to turn the potential value of technology into reality. Forty-nine percent of respondents in high-performing transformations said their organizations had the digital skills and mindset needed for transformation versus 35% of respondents from low-performing transformations.


Key takeaway

Recognize the emotional impact technology can have on the organization. Provide the right learning and emotional support to foster a digital mindset and skillset, and convince workers of the vision and the value.

6. Collaborate: finding the best ways to connect and co-create

Where legacy cultures embraced a command-and-control, top-down hierarchical approach, with leaders setting the vision and workers executing, today’s constant state of transformation requires interdependency and collaboration.

As a leader, you will need to develop a culture that fosters connectivity and creativity. Provide a safe space where new ways of working — both digital and agile — can emerge to nurture innovation, engagement and fulfilling work. Forty-four percent of respondents in high-performing transformations said that their organization’s culture encouraged new ways of working, compared with 28% in low-performing transformations.

For new ways of working to be successful, leaders and workers need to collaborate to redefine the balance of delegation, ownership and empowerment. Forty-two percent of respondents in high-performing transformations said that a new organizational culture was consciously defined and implemented as part of the transformation program.

For new ways of working to be successful, leaders and workers need to collaborate to redefine the balance of delegation, ownership and empowerment.
Key takeaway

Co-create new ways of working and empower workers to redesign and redefine their own work, both in terms of what work and behaviors need to shift and how work gets done. Consciously build interdependency across teams to manage both the emotional and rational elements of change.

Harness the power of your people to drive transformation success

Leaders know that their organizations need to transform, but change is hard, and many feel overwhelmed by the prospect. In an era of constant disruption, standing still isn’t an option. By harnessing the power of their people, and by implementing leading practices around each of the six drivers, leaders can put their organization on the path to transformation success.

However, it’s important to recognize that success doesn’t lie in doing well across only one of these drivers. Organizations need to adopt leading practices across all of them to maximize the likelihood of success. For organizations looking to elevate their transformations to the next level, it’s time to put humans at the center.

A special thank you to Michael Wheelock, Associate Director, EY Knowledge, Ernst & Young LLP for his contribution to this article.

How putting humans at the center of transformation can double success

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Despite all of the technological advances and organizational learning, little has changed over the last 25 years in the way we approach transformation. We need to change the way we change. Research findings from EY and Oxford University’s Saïd Business School suggest that the complex factors that can influence a transformation’s success or failure are rooted in human behavior – specifically, emotional behavior. Through our research, we’ve identified six key drivers for organizations that can make their transformation projects more than twice as likely to succeed.

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