“Life and work in a beta version are stressful.”

The best compass is useless at the North or South Pole. For many companies, it’s a similar experience with their digitization: they feel that their organization is changing everywhere. But in “how”, i.e. in managing this change, the compass needle points in all possible directions. We talked to Verena Wölkhammer, Professor of Communication and Leadership at Fresenius University and consultant and coach in communication and change processes for over 15 years.

WYZE: Mrs. Wölkhammer, many organizations are currently experiencing a phase of movement, of transition, which is reminiscent of Kurt Lewin’s “three-phase model”. To what extent can this actually be transferred to digital transformation?

Verena Wölkhammer: Lewin’s model is an approach that greatly reduces complexity. Change seems very static in this classic change management model. It takes place as an intermediate phase within two equilibrium phases. In addition, the focus is on the inner world of the company. Transferring such a model into the field of digital transformation bears the danger of producing false expectations. How pronounced can phases of stability be in a world characterized by the increasing complexity and speed of digitalization? And what is the quality of the term ‘stability’ under these circumstances?

Of course, at some point change has to lead to a new phase. But with lapidary wisdoms like the ‘everything is in flux’ metaphor you make it too easy for yourself. This do not offer any solutions. Especially since we are currently undergoing a profound transformation that will lead to a new world, which will be completely different. We talk about digital transformation and basically mean that we are on an open-ended journey.

WYZE: How should leaders act to make changes effective in this context?

Verena Wölkhammer: The target picture of the future, the vision to which everyone is committed, is an essential success factor in change projects. But exactly this is certainly a central problem in the current change situation: we cannot describe a clear target picture, because we simply do not know it. It is not a change in the classical sense! But it is also a great opportunity if we admit this uniqueness, this epochal extent of the situation. It is about a fundamental renewal of togetherness and business. No more established standards and practices or KPIs apply here. First and foremost, managers and employees must therefore find a confident way of dealing with uncertainty in order to be able to act in these complex, unsteady and even contradictory times.

What is happening right now has a deeply human component in addition to the technological one. Digital transformation is a social transformation on a scale not yet experienced. And we are still on day one. That is why the question of a compass is so urgent. Is it a question of more professional competence? Or is it also about more clarity and consistency? Everyone is connected to everyone, hierarchies dissolve, employees participate and shape – which is a great challenge, especially for middle management.

The compass is currently ‘Know Why’, as a few companies have already successfully demonstrated to us. In a vision that unites sense and humanity –it’s about solidarity, trust and identity. In times of great uncertainty, when there is no clear target picture because everything is turned upside down, we have to invoke deeply human values. Answering with concepts that somehow sounds good is not enough. For example, New Work – what does it really mean for people? This should be answered and filled with new awareness and action. And best of all, before the word is burned again as a buzzword.

WYZE: Why is it so difficult for many companies to get involved in this change?

Verena Wölkhammer: In the past decade, a tiredness for change has come up: So many change projects – optimization, efficiency increase, cost reduction, etc. – have come to a standstill quickly after they were initiated. Therefore, the willingness to change in order to stick with Kurt Lewin’s model, which was not very successfully used with the term “change”, is simply very low. Or even worse: the employees have learned that change is over. That it’s the best for them to release themselves mentally and wait. That’s why I’m currently also working with the term ‘development’ – i.e., despite the urgency of the situation, not to overdo it and to continuously follow the path of development. The ‘digital transformation’ will not be off the table in a hurry. The long breath is in demand.

This is about a reorientation; it is about the attitude of each individual. This cannot be prescribed, but only learned and trained. Through role models and one’s own actions. And this begins with each individual with a socially intelligent self-management. If I can lead myself, I lose the feeling of being a playing ball. Then I’m able to get involved in an agile setup and experience a fulfilling development of potential. Companies are challenged here to create a framework with which the new conditions emerging at every corner and end can not only be endured, but rather become meaningful and creatively usable.

WYZE: In this context, new management competencies certainly also play a central role. How should managers communicate these competencies? Is a special ‘storytelling’ into the team/organization necessary and how should it look like?

Verena Wölkhammer: Currently it is successful and forward-looking for companies to be fast, agile and innovative in order to introduce necessary changes. In my opinion, this current complexity cannot be managed in the sense of the term. Rather, it is about a new understanding of the role of leadership. The leadership pattern of the digital world is different. Instead of ‘command and control’, it is about enabling and moderating. Decisions must be made quickly, cause-effect relationships are more complex. The team, which can be formed again and again depending on the issue at hand, must be involved and should have a say in decisions.

That sounds simple, but it’s not. We have to always bear in mind that most employees in companies and corporations are currently socialized not in the values of start-ups, but in hierarchically organized systems. And as a rule, this socialization has not promoted what is regarded as essential in the entrepreneurial culture: interdepartmental work, less perfection, more courage to make mistakes, less unequivocal responsibilities, cooperation and communication as cultural drivers and prerequisites for personal and organizational success. A life and work in the beta version. Such a life is stressful, since in many places it represents a completely new pattern of action.

WYZE: Where do you see the responsibility of leadership, especially in storytelling?

Verena Wölkhammer: In the fact that every employee understands, feels and lives the company’s own digital DNA. Leadership respects and exemplifies the values and culture of the company’s digital identity. And since we are not in a classic change process, but in an open-ended process of change, it is about empowering employees to deal with what is often defined as VUKA (changeable, unpredictable, complex and ambivalent). I am talking here about the socially intelligent self-management of each individual. A state that can be trained and is the prerequisite for successful cooperation, communication, new ideas and real learning. This results in a better handling of stress, also a new evaluation of the handling of complex and demanding situations.

These new behaviors should of course be found in the transformation story. For example, when asked what the individual contribution of each individual looks like and what desirable and target-oriented behaviors are. It is important for me to point out that it should not be a question of superficially acquiring agile methods and corresponding management competencies – but of a deep social transformation, which leads to an inner reorientation of each individual. All in the spirit of ‘don’t do agile – be agile’. Then it turns out that agility begins in the core, in the self-management of each individual. And so, personality development comes first. To give this one place in storytelling is, of course, essential.

WYZE: How do you ‘disempower’ outdated organizational/action structures, keywords male/female leadership or communication styles?

Verena Wölkhammer: Disempowering is too brute for me at this point. Of course, there is something radical about the process, because it has to get to the root when an organization enters a serious transformation process. Nevertheless, it’s also a development in the here and now where the right priorities have to be set. It’s not a question of devaluing the old or even throwing it completely overboard today. It’s a search for the right balance between the existing corporate culture and the new values of the digital era. And it’s all about communication, cooperation and clarity.

Management, CEOs and senior executives must be at the forefront of the movement – they have to set new patterns of action and values and communicate them clearly. Corporate communication is the designer of the transformation story and controls the communication process, is the dramaturge of transformation. At this point, I’m still talking about the familiar tools of a mature corporate communication. Where the terrain for internal communication is currently challenging, is the use of exponentially changing technologies. These have an influence on our communication behavior and on the way we work together.

WYZE: Thank you very much for the interview.