Aligning the human resources strategy to the business strategy is not a new concept. It is an understood imperative table stakes for most HR departments.  So why do so many of the biggest transformational initiatives still fail because of the company’s human resources?

I believe it happens due to inaccurately forecasting and planning the cultural alignment that must occur in the organization to achieve the business strategy.  Across industries, regardless of the size and/or complexity of the company, the importance of cultural alignment to enable successful execution is universal.

Culture is the values, behaviors, underlying beliefs, and attitude of the company’s employees.  When you're winning, it is easy to celebrate all the positive things in the culture that led to the success, but when you're trying to transform or when your business is struggling, the dark side of the organizational culture shows up.

That's where HR Departments have to get savvy to help leadership teams navigate through these tumultuous times.  We have to be culture keepers for the elements that are sacred that create the organization’s competitive advantage while helping identify those underlying beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that have to be repositioned or adapted to maximize firm value for the next generation. This is where we as HR practitioners can earn the much loved “change agent” moniker.   

HR practitioners can help future proof a company by ensuring the organizational context is fully understood by those tasked with leading the transformation and by helping to establish “gates” that any effort must successfully pass through for it to be worthy to take the time and energy of the organization.  In this era of resource rationalization, organizations must ruthlessly prioritize the top business priorities to protect resources and capital so as not to dilute the impact for the most critical few. Over time, I’ve discovered these gates are an invaluable precursor before launching any initiative or even deploying a formal change management model.  

1. Why:  Why are we doing this?

• Is there a burning platform for business continuity or success? 

• Is it critical to the growth strategy? 

• Does it help scale the business in way that’s critical?

• It is a matter of compliance or required governance?

How a company answers this question informs the correct approach, including the “What’s In it For Me?”  messaging and stakeholder analysis.

2. Opportunity Cost: What’s the impact of not making the change on both short-term and long-term success of the company?

This gate helps prioritize and assign value to inform the timing of the effort.

3. Stakeholder Impact: What is the magnitude of impact?

Understanding who is being impacted and to what degree and by what factors is critical to know whether the effort can reasonably move forward.  If the same stakeholders are impacted by several efforts at once, that must be highlighted, planned for and monitored. Use extra caution when those most heavily impacted are working closest to your customers due to brand reputation concerns and potential disruption to the customer experience.

4. Maximum acceptable disruption:  Is the anticipated level of disruption to the business clearly understood and acceptable?  

When preparing to execute a business strategy, size up what could go wrong and its possible impact to the business to appropriately assess this gate.Most transformation comes with significant technical process and/or people risk, so it is important to understand worst case scenarios to ensure appropriate planning and resources are in place upfront to mitigate those risks.

5. Leadership Conviction: Do the senior leaders responsible for implementing the change have the appropriate level of conviction about its importance to proactively support it and deflect noise/pushback?  Sometimes commitment alone isn’t enough.  They must truly believe the effort is going to yield positive results if it requires meaningful behavioral change.

Different approaches are required for corporate center led organizations that make all big decisions centrally versus entrepreneurial cultures that push autonomy and decision making to the lowest level possible.Recognizing where your organization is on the spectrum between the two ends is critical so you understand where the effort will be met with resistance, where you may need to amplify middle management voices to identify the unforeseen perils of the effort and where to spend the most time and energy with your change model.

While every transformation effort is nuanced, HR practitioners can greatly improve the success rates of any business-critical effort by understanding the underlying organizational context and very intentionally helping to align the culture by assessing: the why, opportunity cost, impact, maximum acceptable disruption and leadership conviction.