Is Your Digital Transformation Human?

There have recently been many articles published on the subject of how best to embark on a digital transformation project, which is unsurprising given the current context. Where ever we go, we see examples of digitalisation, some successful, some less, but do we stop and ask ourselves how they came about and whether they really fulfilled their original objectives? In addition to this, the history and the culture of the company involved play a major role in such a transformation, but these are factors which may not be apparent to outsiders – perhaps not even to the very clients, who are affected by the changes.

This in turn explains why some projects run aground, as clients “vote with their feet” and transfer their loyalty to another supplier, who seems more aligned to their requirements and expectations. Did something change while the project was already in full swing or were the parameters ill-judged from the outset?

Taking the lead

All too often we read that a digital expert should not be put in charge of a digital transformation project, but this is only half of the story given that there is no such thing as a standard digital expert (perhaps on order from Amazon?), just the same as every manager has his/her own style of leading a team. As Lori Michele Leavitt notes in her book “The Pivot: Orchestrating Extraordinary Business Momentum” [1] “You can be uncomfortable with uncertainty. We don’t grow if we don’t feel uncomfortable. That’s why the same skills that CEOs need to navigate crises are useful in normal times, when the sense that everything is “fine” can lead to stagnation. You have to continuously be in that spot where you are progressing and learning and changing.”

As with any change project, it is essential to take the time to answer the question “why” before launching into action. An in-depth analysis of this question will reveal which stakeholders will be most impacted, what the realistic goals of the project are and provide an idea of the budget and time period required to achieve them. Ideally a multi-disciplinary team of experts should work together on this task, each one highlighting a different facet of the project: to what extent will internal and external processes have to be revised before digitisation can be introduced? How much will this impact current task attribution? Will this also necessitate a reappraisal of job descriptions and an overhaul of the current organisational structure? Are existing communication tools appropriate for use in the course of such a project? Not to mention all the technical aspects involving the IT experts and the IT infrastructure. In all of this, one factor should be of primordial importance: the impact these changes will have on your workforce. To quote Ms Leavitt again, “you will want to keep your best people whilst executing your strategy to prove that you are more nimble than your competitors”.

Leading for success

The team needs to be able to “sell” the project both internally and externally, which means they must be convinced of its necessity and potential, this buy in will create a dynamism of its own and ensure that focus is not deflected from the defined goals. It will also ensure that a culture of fear will not arise – fear of change results in negative energy and will not encourage employees to support the project. As Michele Wucker notes[2] “The business leaders who are best at managing in uncertain worlds also rely on systems thinking that allows them to sort out complex problems. They prioritise diverse inputs, teamwork, and partnerships. These leaders assemble the best team they can, and trust that team to find the information the organisation needs.”

Clear and coherent leadership is often required to get everyone aligned and onboard; how many excellent projects have been doomed to disaster from the outset, because of unresolved internal issues and hierarchical infighting? Without the necessary focus on the benefit for the company as a whole, the project may flounder on the rocks of personal ego trips and attachment to the past. This is why a digital project is not just digital. It will inevitably impact every aspect of the company and must thus be entrusted to a multidisciplinary project management team, which can take all these aspects into account. The success of the project depends on the interaction of a multitude of experts, who can only design the right tools and methods if they fully understand the context and the implications of the proposed outcome on all company internal and external stakeholders. In this context information sharing and communication together with systematic mile stone checks and strategic realignment will play a crucial role in ensuring that the project achieves its goals on time and on budget.

Communicate as much as possible

An ongoing project communication plan should be in place from the outset both to disseminate and collect information, of course the form this takes depends on the existing corporate culture and prerequisites of the project: one is unlikely to communicate about a digital project using printed newsletters! By involving the workforce, you will not only create interest in the project, but hopefully also support and interaction in the form of feedback from the field, which in turn can provide invaluable information about any adjustments required or ongoing successes experienced. This constitutes a sort of reality check; does the experts’ concept result in an outcome which works for both employees and clients, does everyone understand where the journey is going and what it entails for them? By involving people and empowering them, the project will benefit from the sum of their experience in addition to that of the project team and there will be far less risk of misinterpreting certain indicators – or worse still of not noticing them at all! It will also help everyone to keep the global goal in focus and not be unnecessarily distracted by subsidiary interests.

The keys to success

So, the keys to success lie in assembling the right team of experts, in clearly defining the global objective of the project, in communicating clearly and welcoming feedback and in getting every-one on board. This applies to every type of project whether digital or not, the people you involve will make the difference; they will make or break your project. Inspire them and they will move mountains; disregard their opinions and they will impede progress and endanger the whole project outcome. To quote Cornelius Fichter “The “P” in project management is as much about ‘people’ as about it is about ‘project’ management”.

[1] The Pivot: Orchestrating Extraordinary Business Momentum Lori Michele Leavitt, 2017, available on Amazon

[2] Michele Wucker, “Why managing uncertainty is a key leadership skill” Strategy & Business 10.06.2020

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