Why a digital change program is hard… and how to make sure it succeeds

Ben Hart

Any successful digital change program demands one of the biggest organisational challenges - change. And people don’t like change. It’s difficult even at basic levels, let alone the complex environment of the modern workplace. Fear, cynicism, a lack of employee buy-in and indifferent management support can all work against you, bringing your digital change program to a shuddering halt.

To make matters more problematic, in this dynamic fast-paced digital environment you no longer have the luxury of a 5-year plan… or even a 3-year plan for that matter. Change is happening today – new technology, new capabilities, new ways of working, new relationships with customers, not to mention the market’s sky-high expectations. Just look at HMV, Jessops, Kodak, Game, Blockbuster, Borders… all eliminated by failing to stay ahead of their customers’ digital behaviour.

Atmosphere has been exploring the factors that smooth out the organisational change process.

If you’re about to embark on a digital change program, this article looks at 3 principles to consider to ensure your program succeeds:

1. Communicate a clear vision

Whether real or perceived, it’s likely that a proportion of your staff will be unsettled by significant change. Research cited by McKinsey found that 70% of change programs fail due to employee resistance and lack of management support.

A robust vision, with the benefits of change communicated clearly, is your starting point. It will calm the waters and allow your organisation a reference point to sail towards.

Some of your program leaders may see the bigger picture, but they could be running well ahead of others in their personal interpretation of the program’s impact on their time and their perceived ability to master new skills. The fact is, digital change involves a learning curve. To prevent that curve being seen as an insurmountably steep obstacle, the strategic benefits of change should be communicated, shared and genuinely believed.

The thought of managing technology projects can be a daunting burden. Yet in reality, the cultural balance of digital technology has shifted away from being something to `manage’. Everyone has a stake. When leveraged correctly, digital is an egalitarian power tool that saves effort, frees up valuable time, and unlocks potential and accelerates capabilities. Across the entire organisation, it can excite and motivate. It delivers insights, allowing employees to build boundary-free working relationships and get closer to customers.

2. Get comfortable with devolving responsibility for digital change

Digital is not a department. As long as it lives in a single space or remit, you don’t have a digital business. The buck might stop with the CEO but a top-down, single leader’s vision is too difficult to sustain. Digital change requires enthusiastic and genuine buy-in from the bottom up.

Your most powerful tools are the people you already have - the early adopters who can champion the benefits to their peers. Enjoin your leaders, your key influencers, to become digital catalysts – to foster a sense of excitement and shared responsibility for its success. And equally, for the consequences of standing still. McKinsey found that when people are truly invested in change and can see their own value in the process, it is 30% more likely to stick.

Many B2C companies have already evolved and innovated. Powerful digital tools have successfully engaged customers and shifted their behaviour. In short, they’ve made change responsive and personal. Some of these tools and techniques can be applied to change-management within an organisation. Shared dashboards, online forums, personalised feedback messaging… All contribute towards creating more nodal organisational structures, more transparency, a greater willingness to help one another beyond restrictive hierarchical boundaries.

When responsibility for the change is devolved and accompanied with appropriate empowerment, digital change can really take hold.

The positive results are manifold -  greater operational efficiency, an improved understanding of both employee and customer values, engaged cross-organisational talent who are eager to find new and faster routes to market.

3. Adopt an iterative approach… a new corporate mindset

This isn’t a big bang launch. Digital change is about constant change, a steady onward path to a better place.

When correctly applied, digital tools are powerful accelerators for behavioural change. But tools alone don’t drive change. To maintain and encourage personal ownership in the process, the value of change strategies needs to be tested, measured and proved.

Tightly focused pilots allow you to test and learn as an organisation within safe boundaries. Some changes will succeed, others will not. Celebrate even the minor successes and crucially, analyse those that offer an opportunity to learn. Share your results and encourage feedback from users… Then keep on testing. Which sounds better? Talking about a possible idea, analysing it into paralysis? Or quickly activating 3 pilots that ‘failed’ and then carrying that learning into pilot 4.

Embracing constant test-and-learn is what allowed digital businesses like Expedia to create more cohesive customer experiences for the online travel market. Expedia does not see itself as a travel business; rather, it is a digital business engaging in the travel sector.

Your challenge as a leader is more than just organisational change management. It’s establishing a new corporate mindset – one in which the entire organisation feels invested in the change process, where a growth mindset becomes the accepted approach to work and is rewarded and championed.

Digital will never submit to a 5-year plan, it’s evolving too fast.

And it will keep advancing, always slightly ahead of customer expectations. Digital change pays out dividends in the short term, but the big rewards roll in when technology is embraced as a new way of business life.

Ben Hart, founding partner of Atmosphere, is a strategist and thought leader with a track record of success in growing digital businesses and helping brands and organisations realise the potential available to them in a world increasingly full of change. Atmosphere helps business leaders navigate a path through their digital change program, allowing organisations to realise their digital potential. Ask us how we can bring value to your plans for digital transformation.

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