Key principles for successful digital transformation

Running transformation programs - Team collaborating in an office

This article is for those of us who are responsible running a digital transformation program. It focuses on a couple of points; general comments on the topic of transformation and specific comments on the importance of building and nurturing relationships (notice I didn’t say “managing”).

This article is not a technical or process-oriented article about the complexities of running a transformation program. I work a lot with “agile” oriented digital transformation programs and this is not necessarily about agile either, although some of the underlying principles I want to discuss can be mapped back to agile principles.

This article touches on the relationship aspect of running a transformation program. It’s about the people (customers, stakeholders, shareholders, etc.). Actually, it’s always about the people but sometimes we tend to blend the people side with the technical and process side and often end up looking at all of them as assets. Before we talk about the relationship side, let’s touch on some thoughts regarding transformation.

The first principle of the agile manifesto essentially states that “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software”.

In the context of a digital transformation program that is looking wider than just software delivery we can replace the word software with something more meaningful to fit the context, i.e. features, products, etc. The real question then is “What are we trying to transform”? Clearly, we want to transform as much as possible but ultimately we want our people to work and behave differently. We recognize that investing in them is crucial to our success and we also know now that there is a greater shortage of talent than we’ve seen for a long time. Transformation is therefore needed.

I must confess that each time I hear the word transformation, I cringe. I believe in the general concept and what it typically means in the context of a project or program but I get hung up on how the word is used loosely these days to describe an initiative. It’s as if by using this word we’re now more serious about change than we were previously when we called our initiative by another name. Maybe I’m being too harsh and too cynical; I suppose the real challenge is what we mean by the use of certain words and phrases.

We recognize that in our society we use “transformation” to describe the application of new thinking and ways of working into our organizations. From that standpoint, the term seems to be appropriate. But back to the relationship (people) topic. When we work with companies to teach them the value of understanding their customer, we share how one of the dangers is that a company can become inwardly focused and sometimes miss who the real customer is. This can also happen with the team on the ground that is running the transformation program. We don’t necessarily neglect our customer but we do neglect to look beyond the customer we know in order to get to the ones we don’t know.

I’d like to briefly suggest some helpful guidelines. With any advice, you need to make it your own and it needs to work in the context of your environment but there are some principles that always apply.

Timing and tact when running digital transformation programs

It cannot be emphasized enough – your demeanor, attitude, professional appearance (or unprofessional), mannerisms and language will all have a major impact on building and nurturing relationships, good or bad. Successful teams that help clients run their digital transformation programs are ones that understand the importance of listening, displaying empathy and concern for people and leverage the experience and knowledge of their colleagues to avoid the lone ranger syndrome; trying to do it alone. Even the lone ranger had tonto.

Again, we’re discussing digital transformation programs and although all programs have similar characteristics, transformation programs seem by nature to be bigger in their challenges especially with people and culture. Navigating the highly sensitive and political climate of an organization means that you need to be sensitive and tactful in what and how you say things. It requires listening well. I realize this advice sounds a bit adolescent or even condescending; I would say that with more experience, success and failure I am often reminded that the more I know, the more I don’t know.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen R. Covey

Tools and techniques

You may know about the 3×3 technique for relationship building. It’s rather simple; a table with three rows and three columns. You put your main contact (stakeholder) in the center and then you identify who is to their left and to their right that you need to know. Once you complete this you then continue this for the person on the left and the right, eventually filling in the boxes and expanding the table to create a stakeholder map. Can I say “you’d be amazed” at how many people you really don’t know in the organization that are significantly influencing the program?

Another technique is to build an influencer map. This old and proven technique creates a visual diagram that shows where the influence and risks are in the organization. It’s a great way of visualizing the people and how they interact and impact each other. It will create a conversation that you might not have otherwise and open up lots of ideas and questions that will help you be more deliberate and proactive.

Teaching and training

How are you investing in the learning of your stakeholders or even yourself? One of the most neglected areas I see amongst business professionals, especially those responsible for running large programs is continuous learning. Are you tired of the phrase “knowledge economy”? It’s not going away and yet we spend very little time acquiring knowledge even though much of it is available today in sound bites. For transformation programs, you can accelerate the learning of your customers through programs that center on work-based learning, and put practices and principles to use immediately.

I also encourage leaders of transformation programs to keep a constant eye out for relevant stories, articles, books, blogs, etc. that will enhance the learning and bring more value into the building and nurturing of the relationships.

I strongly believe that a person’s or team’s willingness to learn is in direct proportion with their ability and speed to change.