This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
These days, I don’t often hear Shakespeare’s famous “To be, or not to be” question outside the context of one of my children’s high school English classes. The question I do hear, however, and increasingly often, from executives leading significant strategic and organizational change is its business equivalent: “Through the line, or not through the line?”
The typical logic behind the question goes as follows. CEOs know that they need to both run their business and change it at the same time. Their line executives—that is, everyone up to the CEO who has a functional or business leadership role—already carry the heavy load of delivering results within the core business. At the same time, the new ambition demands faster change than the organization is accustomed to, and the line isn’t always able to move at that pace. With so much to do, something will have to give. For help, executives often invest in some sort of programmatic resource, such as a transformation function to structure, orchestrate and enable the change they seek. In this context, it’s easy to see the temptation to outsource some components of the transformation and run them outside the line.
The latest person to ask me whether to push change through the line is the CEO of a major airline. Preparing to embark on a significant transformation program, he plans to make changes across multiple dimensions of his company. He has structured a roadmap with five major initiatives, covering things from operations and network to culture and talent. But how, he wonders, can he quickly execute such a broad and ambitious agenda and still keep accountability in the hands of line executives?
The full answer will depend, of course, on his company’s particular challenges, assets and opportunities. Yes, there are times when it is appropriate to work outside of the traditional line organization—most notably when incubating new, disruptive business models or technologies. For the most part, however, in healthy transformations, accountability for both running and changing the business should remain with the line.
“Through the line, or not through the line?” may be a logical question, but it isn’t actually “the question,” as Hamlet would say. Rather, the appropriate question is “How much support does the line need in order to achieve the change desired?”
The primary purpose of any additional programmatic resources—be they centralized or located at the functional/division level or both—must be to support and enhance the front line’s ability to deliver. As the saying goes, “the front line is the bottom line.”
The level of additional support needed depends on both the degree of change required and an organization’s ability to implement it. Efforts requiring significant change in scale or pace or both by groups that don’t have the requisite capabilities clearly need additional support. For a time, this may take the form of a project team set up to get efforts off the ground quickly and score some early wins in order to build momentum for the transformation. Eventually, though, these efforts should transition to a more permanent setup run by the line.
This is a practical and dynamic portfolio approach. Transformation office governance and resources should fit the initiative in question. In all instances, the line is expected to deliver results.
If executives aren’t clear about who is accountable and for what, myriad unintended consequences could follow. Managers may struggle to balance their historical line responsibilities with new project-related tasks, in some cases answering to different supervisors for each. Line executives not engaged in changing the business may become less relevant and even disenfranchised over time. If an employee’s direct supervisor isn’t accountable for the change, odds drop that the supervisor will support it. And if the supervisor isn’t supportive, it’s less likely that the employee will be supportive. As behavioral science teaches us, proximity trumps hierarchy, and no amount of program office support, human resources or even executive communication will change that.
In my discussion with the airline chief executive and members of his leadership team, we reframed the question to focus on the support needed by the line. That unlocked some profound insights, and as the company begins to set up its transformation governance, these insights will inform the investment, staffing and makeup of the central program office. The transformation governance will bring clarity as to who is accountable for what, increasing confidence that the plan can deliver results faster and develop a stronger, more adaptable, and more capable line organization in the process.
As Shakespeare taught long ago, asking the right question can make all the difference.