These days, clients often asked, “What is the greatest determinant of success (or failure) when conducting a major business transformation?”. Is it the need for senior leader sponsorship? Is it the importance of middle manager involvement from end-to-end? Is it the need to create cross-functional accountability for the change? Is it the need to have a compelling case for change, a dedicated change team, and a transparent change plan? Is it a relentless focus on excellent execution and measurement of results? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. All of these (and more) can be potential derailers of a major change. Yet, none of these are my answer to my clients’ original question.

First, let me state up front, that the evidence supporting my answer to this question, is purely based on my 35 plus years of leading major transformations. So, your views, and those of the so-called “change experts” may vary – but that is ok. I have certainly seen all of the major derailers listed above during my time leading large scale change programs in biopharmaceuticals. And some other time, we will talk about each of them. But when I answer my clients’ question regarding, “what is the greatest determinant of success when conducting a major business transformation?”, my answer is simply one word – resilience.

So, what makes “resilience” so important? First, let’s make sure we are on the same page with what we are talking about here. Early in my career, I thought resilience meant to persevere. However, while perseverance is also important in making a change, it means keeping going, keep moving forward, even when the going is tough. Resilience is similar, but with a twist. Resilience means the capacity to withstand, adapt, or recover quickly from difficulties or setbacks. Like perseverance, resilience does contain an element of “keep going and don’t give up”, but the key difference is the ability to adapt quickly to setbacks and course correct. Because the truth of the matter is that, while change in an organization is a constant, the humans impacted by constant change are generally not wired to absorb continuous change or instability. Thus, any attempted business transformation will inevitably hit patches of resistance. Not everyone will be on board, and whether warranted or not, boat rocking will occur. The difference then, between a successful, and failing or aborted attempt at organization transformation, is less about who has the better change plan or change team in place, and more often about which change program is setup to be resilient in the face of stormy seas.

While resilience might feel like it is too vague and general of a success determinant, it really is not. It plays a leading role, from beginning to end, in any transformation program. While you might have stellar senior leader sponsorship, great middle manager buy-in, a compelling case for change, a rock solid change plan, a cracker jack team of talented change agents, and a great approach to measurement and rewards for accountability and results, none of these pieces will prevent rocky, pivotal moments that will assuredly happen in any major organization change. And guess what, it matters much less what that rocky moment entails in terms of the reason for someone’s discontent with, or resistance to, the change program. In the end, it is all about how the organization responds to the setback. Does the setback “sink the ship” or cause you to end the journey prematurely and return to the safe waters of the business’s comfortable status quo? Or is the change program setup from the start as an agile effort, where we quickly co-create an initial design with expected flaws, execute for real world feedback, and resiliently take on the results – good or bad – and quickly adjust, adapt and progress?

In today’s environment, where innovation is the life blood of most biopharmaceutical companies, change is a constant. We must become more comfortable knowing transformational change programs will be messy and hard for everyone they touch. If there were one skill I would suggest as THE key ingredient to making large scale change successful, it is a corporate competency in resilience. I continue to see too many efforts that start strong, but then fade and fold (often quietly), not because they weren’t the right thing to do. Instead, with the first (or maybe second) signal of resistance, the response is not to adjust, adapt and keep going, but to slow down, back off, or throw in the towel, in order to “stabilize” the situation. Or, in the case of a more headstrong organization, in the face of similar pushback, it takes a top-down, “let’s just force it down their throats” approach. This generally results in reverting back to status quo ways of working, with significant unrealized corporate value gains, and a colossal waste of time.

How many times have you seen a change program surface that has you and your work colleagues saying to each other, “Didn’t we try this before during Project “X”, and it didn’t work?”. Very few transformations include concepts that are truly novel and differentiated. Most ideas come from other departments, competitors, or industries. Luckily, when it comes to strategy, people, process, and technology changes, you don’t have to be so different than your competitors, but rather, you need to execute as well or better than them, in order to label a transformation as successful and differentiated. Thus, more often than not, the difference between winners and losers comes down to who demonstrates resilience, when those inevitable storm clouds arrive. Who made the necessary agile adjustments and adaptations (where true micro-innovations are often discovered), to quickly regain momentum in the face of a seemingly significant setback? Winners in transformation, as it turns out, take an agile approach to change, which requires a core competence in resilience. Go figure.