The 10 questions to ask to make digital transformation a success

Grahame Broadbelt, Dominic Fitch March 2019 Content Marketing, Digital Transformation, Transformation

There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for successful digital transformation. How can you lead effective and positive change? Here are 10 things you should consider.

Every company is different, with its own way of doing things, its own history and its own capabilities. It’s knowing what those strengths are and how to use them that makes the difference between real change and unfulfilled aspiration. That’s why asking the right questions is vital for anyone who is thinking of embarking on a digital transformation project. Impact International, share the questions to ask, and why.

Embracing change effectively

Anyone who works in marketing knows that companies tend to fall short of the bold goals they announce for transformation. Everything looks great on paper, but things just don’t seem to go according to plan. That’s why for four decades, we’ve been advising companies on organisational change, working out why this happens, and what can be done about it. And that’s led us to one key problem: more often than not, senior leaders issue commands from the top, but fail to engage with the heart of their organisation – its people and the way they really work.

People are what make an organisation. And while not everyone responds well to rules dictated from above, a curiosity-led approach helps to bring everyone in and give them a sense of ownership over the end result. It’s a process that starts with leaders asking themselves the right questions to understand how their organisation really works and we think it’s vital for making digital transformation a success.

1. Where are key decisions made in my organisation?

This question is harder than it looks. In fact, people usually cannot answer it. They may have assumptions about how decisions get made, but on closer inspection, those theories fall apart. Although there are people who are officially responsible for decisions, investigating how those decisions are reached really shines a light on how an organisation works.

In the most agile, effective organisations, people feel they have the autonomy to act without consulting different committees to get things signed off. But that’s rarely an accident. It needs to be intentional and deliberately designed into an organisation.

2. What do my colleagues need to do differently?

Almost everyone finds it easier to say what other people need to do, than to focus on themselves. But real change means everyone taking responsibility for their own learning, instead of sending orders down from the top, or pointing fingers at other teams. That’s especially true of digital transformation, with its focus on new skills and integrating technology. Encouraging people to take responsibility for their own learning also means trusting their instincts about what’s best for them, and focusing their efforts on outcomes.

3. What do I need to do differently?

For digital transformation to work senior leaders need to create the right conditions for success. Ultimately, if people in an organisation are not learning, it’s because leadership is not creating a learning environment. And often, we find that the more senior a person is in an organisation, the more they feel that their job is to know things, not to learn them.

That has to change. The world today is so fast-moving and complex that leaders have to show interest, inquire and be seen to be learning just in order to keep up. It’s so fast that learning about the role of technology and what it’s capable of has to be an ongoing process, not a one-off thing. Nowhere is that more true than in digital transformation.

4. What holds people back at your organisation?

People often think of organisations as being like machines, cascading management decisions through a neat system that produces predictable results. Yet most people with senior leadership experience know that that’s not how things work at all. They know what it’s like to put their hands on the levers of power, pull, and immediately discover that things aren’t quite so simple.

It’s more helpful to think about an organisation is as a set of social relationships. Consider your individual impact on your colleagues, and what might get in the way of them bringing their best versions of themselves to work. The way people relate to each other is about more than job titles and official hierarchies, and for digital transformation especially, there may be entrenched, resistant aspects of culture that need to be addressed.

5. How does your organisation respond to what it learns?

The truth can hurt, which is one of the reasons senior teams in organisations might not want to hear it. But being open to uncertainty, problems and complexity, although it can make life more difficult, is vital to create a learning environment. Encouraging transparency about failures as well as successes makes it easier to see where attention needs to be applied. It’s about gathering reliable information, then leveraging it to build something better – the same principle behind any data-driven organisation.

6. Which functions would create additional value if they were working together more closely?

Bringing people together that don't normally work with each other can have a remarkable effect. Suddenly teams see new opportunities they’d never considered before. Digital transformation is all about that kind of exchange of knowledge and skills. We often find that people don't understand what data really means, for example, or how it could make a difference in their work. Pairing them with people who are using data can make that understanding accessible.

7. How could you implement these collaborative efforts? Which specific actions would be worth testing?

Collaboration might sound like a good idea, but when it comes to implementing it, it’s easy to feel that it’s all too complicated. Think about what you can do within your remit and start testing ideas. Invite someone from another team to give input at your next meeting. Sit in on another team’s planning session. Small experiments are a great way to get things moving, and as long as you’re trying to open things up, not close them down, everyone involved should be learning, too.

8. How does communication flow through the organisation?

The best way to change opinions, provoke thought and encourage new behaviours is through dialogue and conversation. But naturally, some conversations are better than others. The most valuable have meaningful intent behind them, and involve a lot of listening from every side. Communication comes in many other forms, too, and the increasing amounts of data that people need to deal with can be overwhelming. With both kinds of communication, look to focus your attention on finding the information you really need. “Listening for” is more effective than “listening to.”

9. Where are there opportunities to influence new ways of working or new work?

Targeting your transformation plan helps establish achievements early on that build crucial momentum. Opportunities can be big or small – seeking them out makes you more effective as an agent of change.

10. Why should anyone be led by you?

Over the years, this difficult question has provoked many different kinds of reaction. Some positive, some negative, but all relevant in terms of learning. We can’t offer you a blueprint for leadership. We don’t think one exists. Instead, think about who you are, what you're trying to do, who you’re responsible for or with, and your relationships within the organisation. Ultimately, leading digital transformation is about showing your own willingness to learn.

Henkel: How a major multinational drives digital change across 53,000 staff