Current transformations

Change is the only constant. For the CEOs we surveyed, these words of wisdom are as true today as when they were first written by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Five out of six of the companies we surveyed are currently in the midst of a transformation process. Nearly half of the companies are even undergoing transformations that involve the majority (more than 60 percent) of their employees. Only 17 of the CEOs we spoke to said their companies are not undergoing any transformation at this time. These are remarkable figures, considering that we human beings live our daily lives in the illusion that there is such thing as a status quo or at least a certain degree of constancy. The fact that 84 percent of the companies we surveyed are in a state of transition shows that intelligent handling of uncertainty and change is an essential competency for successfully maneuvering a modern company through our VUCA-world.

Interestingly, when asked about their assessment of the current market situation, their competitors and topics such as globalization, around two-thirds of the CEOs said that, despite the high rate of transformation, the situation at their own company was still stable or even very stable. One might assume that there is little need for cost-intensive and culturally demanding change processes within stable companies. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority (75%) of the CEOs of these companies who say that the economic climate as well as their own company situation currently poses little cause for concern are still investing heavily in internal transformation processes. Twenty-four of these CEOs even said that their companies are currently in stable condition even though over 60 percent of their employees are involved in transformation. Based on the data we collected, it cannot be clearly concluded whether a reliable assessment of the current economic situation is a result of a proactive approach to the future. In any case, it is clear that these sweeping transformation processes were initiated less out of perceived pressures from the outside (push) and more out of a far-reaching vision and desire to pro-actively shape the future (pull). These CEOs appear to have taken personal responsibility for leading their companies boldly into the VUCA-world and facing external challenges by actively shaping company processes and cultures one step in advance.

On the other side of the spectrum, 38 CEOs view the current situation of their own company in the economic landscape as predominantly turbulent or even very turbulent. This presumably results in a pressure to transform which is reflected in the number of employees within the company who are affected by the transformation. Twenty-four of the CEOs said that over 60 percent of their employees are involved in transformation, while another eight said more than 30 percent are involved. Despite the perceived turbulence, five of the CEOs report only a smaller process (with fewer than 30 percent of employees involved) and one company reported none at all. Oliver Willi, Owner/CEO of Visionary AG, says that, precisely in turbulent times, CEOs are faced with a decisive task:

As head of company, you have to provide certainty even you yourself are uncertain.

Olivier Willi
Owner/CEO Visionary AG

Motivations behind current transformation

The qualitative findings of the online polls and the CEO statements during one-on-one interviews show that there are many different motivations for transformations. 
From cost pressures to the need to strengthen customer focus and the necessity of omnichannel as a modern business model, a wide range of push and pull forces were mentioned. As in the CEO study from the last year, the following two aspects stand out in particular as primary motivations:

  1. adjusting to changing customer needs and competition
  2. organizational restructuring and process optimizations related to digitalization 

This view is backed up by the in-depth interviews with 15 CEOs from a wide range of different industries. Rising customer expectations and the demands of digitalization (new technologies and processes) are by far the most frequent drivers of transformation. However, cultural shifts in the workforce and/or cultural aspects related to changes, changes of ownership, the reinvigoration or realignment of their own corporate identity as well as maintaining team spirit in the face of heavy workloads were all also named as reasons for internal change processes.

Notable financial and time investments

Looking back on the past ten years, there is a clearly visible trend with regard to investments of finance and time. Even though for the first time this year there was a decline in the total number of companies currently involved in transformation processes, the number of sweeping processes involving more than 60 percent of the company’s employees has increased each year (see also the article “Long-term observations”).

The future is agile. Increasingly, it requires comprehensive involvement of many people. Accordingly, this has a high priority in the calendars of the top levels of company leadership. A decade ago, “change the business” activities took up just 20 percent of a CEO’s precious time. Today, that number has reached 29 percent. There is a growing tendency to see cultural change as part of a CEO’s job description. In 2019, more than half of the CEOs surveyed devoted at least one quarter of their own time (often much more) to transformation projects. The supervisory board and members of the company leadership invest at least equal amounts of their time as well. Along with this increase in time investment, there has also been a similar, slight increase in financial investment. On average, CEOs currently invest 25 percent of company profits in transformations. In the previous five surveys, this number was 20 percent on average.