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  • Writer's pictureHugo Hellard

Activation energy, or the art of initiating a sustainable transformation

Updated: Jun 2, 2023



Activation energy, in chemistry, is the minimum amount of energy required to start a chemical reaction. Without this additional energy, no reaction occurs. Think for example of the spark from the match to make gas burn: without the spark, no fire.


In the course of our various projects with our clients, it regularly appears that the initiation and implementation of transformations require additional energy from the management and employees involved.


This energy can be difficult to mobilize or to bring, thus slowing down the transformations that are so vital to the long-term development of organizations. The good news is that there are catalysts that can reduce the activation energy! We offer you an overview of these enablers and an insight into the role that strategic support can play in lowering the level of activation required.


Did you say activation energy?

Activation energy is crucial at every stage of a company's life cycle. Launching an entrepreneurial project requires a phenomenal amount of energy. Scaling up and structuring as a company again requires a considerable effort. Future transformations, fundamental to the company's long-term presence in its market (such as external growth, international development, or restructuring) can only be achieved through additional energy investment.


These local energy requirements do not prevent the company from developing "by itself" over time, on the contrary. Think again of the spark that makes the gas burn, the fire maintains itself and grows afterwards in an autonomous fashion.


Finding these sources of energy can be complex, and even when these sources are correctly identified, succeeding in drawing the necessary energy from them can be difficult. Two types of catalysts can be solicited to successfully climb the activation hill:

  • Catalyst internal to the company

  • Catalyst external to the company


Intrinsic catalysts

Several levers are at the disposal of the company to lower the activation level of a transformation.


Technology

Technology has led to the digitalization of our lifestyles, and therefore to the digitalization of companies. The covid crisis has accelerated this transition, leading to deep and lasting transformations within organizations. At a time when businesses have had to adapt to change in a short period of time, technology has been a real catalyst for transformation to maintain their competitiveness.


Governance

Initiating a transformation and implementing it requires appropriate governance and comitology. Effective and sensible decision making can only be achieved through clear roles and responsibilities. Governance is therefore key to a transformation. It stimulates strategy in a cross-functional manner, feeds differentiation, supports disruptive innovations, and enables adaptation to change.


Corporate culture

The proper implementation and success of a transformation is only possible through the alignment and commitment of collaborators. Alignment of the teams requires a shared understanding of the issues beforehand (see our article on the raison d'être of organizations), and commitment through a cross-functional corporate culture.


An organization with a culture focused on its historical know-how with little room for innovation will find it very difficult to diversify. A national company that only speaks the local language and has little cultural diversity within its teams will find it unnatural to expand internationally. Another classic example, which allows us to build on the first catalyst, is that the digitalization of a company lacking a tech culture will typically take longer and be more complex for its employees to grasp.


Extrinsic catalysts

Support from a strategy consulting boutique is the second major type of enabler available to reduce activation energy. It is relevant because it partially handles the associated resources, and by its presence over time from initial structuring to implementation.


Initial strategic structuring

Moving from a need to a roadmap can be an arduous path. An external viewpoint allows to assess the internal situation, analyze the state of the art on the market, in order to draw an actionable roadmap for initiating the transformation. The roadmap defines at least the objectives, the resources needed, as well as a relevant governance, and can be further detailed according to the need.


For the company, this co-constructed roadmap aligns the teams and draws the selected trajectory, while limiting the associated internal energy expenditure.


Transformation steering

The most energy-intensive and generally longest phase is the transformation implementation. Taking charge of the monitoring and weekly reporting of actions, bringing up locking points in order to find appropriate solutions, ensuring fluid and efficient communication between teams to optimize energy use, ensuring implementation within the allocated time: these tasks require resources, and therefore energy, over time.


External support allows the company to implement its transformation, while ensuring the involvement of teams, and leaving a maximum of time for employees to work on the company's value proposition.


Triggering the transformation of an organization

Initiating and steering a transformation, although vital for the sustainable development of the company (see our article on organizational entropy), can be complex. The good news is that a range of catalysts are available to the management and employees to facilitate the implementation. A range of intangible and intrinsic enablers can be mobilized, including technology, governance, and corporate culture. External support is the second major type of catalyst, which is more tangible: partial takeover of the resource required for the transformation and the provision of an impartial viewpoint.

The economist Peter Drucker identified two roles for management: setting clear and realistic objectives, and implementing an efficient and productive work organization [1]. This general framework defines the daily reference energy expenditure, where transformations require by definition an additional energy investment, but limited in time.


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