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Overcoming 5 top obstacles to successful digital transformation

Don’t put the digital experts in your business in charge of its digital transformation. Or, at least, that’s the latest advice from two eminent professors of business strategy at the international business school, INSEAD.

But before all you chief technology officers and IT professionals head towards the door in despair, let’s dig a little deeper into the professors’ thinking.

After all, if 70 percent% of change programs fall short of achieving their original goals, there must be common obstacles that stand in the way of businesses transforming their operations?

Professors Andrew Shipilov and Nathan Furr, and their co-author Dutch strategist Jur Gaarlandt, argue that “digital transformation is often less about a radical rethinking of the business than about learning how to use digital tools to better serve customers.”

It’s a simple but powerful observation that should resonate with every IT pro who has ever rolled-out new software or hardware.

You can equip your business with the very best technology, but if folks don’t use it right, it’s a painful waste of time, effort, and money. The potential of that new technology to transform how work gets done is diminished or lost.

So, picking up INSEAD’s theme, here is my take on five obstacles to transformation — and how to overcome them:

1. Lack of digital transformation strategy

Let’s start with transformation failure #101. Transformation doesn’t happen by accident. But too many teams seem to operate in the hope of change happening rather than planning and managing it. Worryingly, fewer than one in 10 (7 percent) executives say they expect their IT teams to lead the effort to identify opportunities to innovate. There’s a two-fold answer to this problem.

First, leaders need to ensure that everyone in their business knows they have a shared responsibility to do things better, to look for innovation, and push for improvement to processes, workflows, and outcomes. IT teams need a mindset of promoting innovation; other teams in the business need a mindset of demanding it. How do you cultivate that mindset?

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As the writer Simon Sinek advocates, start with why. If everyone understands why change is necessary - not just what or how things will change - then higher commitment to delivering transformation will follow.

The second answer is to have an organizational roadmap that sets out priorities and defines best practices. In other words, everyone needs to know the destination you’re trying to reach — and the optimal route and tools to get there.

2. Actions and business goals are not aligned

Everyone is working with their foot on the gas, but the business isn’t moving forward. Sound familiar? It’s a problem the psychologist Tony Crabbe calls “busyness” — when activity and goals are out of alignment and people feel that being seen to be busy means they are doing a good job. It doesn’t. Businesses need systems where they can see where projects are flying or failing versus their intended goals.

The answer is to modernize your tech stack with the aim of collecting data in one place about resources, time tracking, spending, from all projects, teams, and individuals. Radical transparency helps build accountability across an organization as you work towards shared objectives. Integrating your toolkit so systems speak to each other to improve accuracy, alignment, and save time.

3. Progress is invisible

Let’s imagine that you’ve solved problem #1 and you’re working hard to ensure everyone’s activity is aligned to business goals, fixing problem #2. How do you quantify progress?

Too often, progress is invisible and stakeholders - typically mid-managers - spend their days chasing status updates or trapped in progress meetings. These meetings become, in some businesses at least, an end in themselves. “We’ve had a meeting, so we’ve made progress.”

The answer is to centralize all work within a project and implement request and resource management. Take charge of incoming work and of the assignment of resources put toward that work by making sure all requests and capacity information is in one place. By taking control, you know who has the ability to take on new work, enabling teams do their best work and deliver on time.

And don’t let data live — and get lost — in multiple places. That critical file saved on a coworker’s desktop? That kind of casual approach to maintaining good communication needs to be ruled out from the get-go with a clear sense of best practice.

If you think people will hate that, keep in mind that close to one in four workers say lack of standardization and/ or processes makes their lives “chaotic.”

4. Deadlines are missed, progress is slow

I believe there’s a correlation between the number of tools used in a workplace and the volume of miscommunication. Too many tools or missteps complicate projects — and switching data between tools is often where mistakes get baked-in.
There’s no surprise in the answer to this problem: minimize and simplify. Reduce the number of tools in use, consolidate work management systems, and evaluate which systems are used by most team members and which are redundant.

Likewise, if there are low-value repetitive tasks eating up teams’ time, then automate and streamline processes.

5. The perception that work on transformative projects is inefficient or ineffective

Hitting the same delays, same conflicts, same silos, and the same questions with every project is a guaranteed way to make senior stakeholders question the value of your team and what you’re trying to achieve. Progress towards a goal will get prematurely curtailed if there’s a perception that effort is being misdirected.

The answer is to make projects scalable and repeatable. Templating processes for specific tasks will save time. But don’t accept that once a template has been created that it can never be changed or improved; ask for periodic feedback and look to make improvements as processes, teams, and projects evolve.

Once again, the best way to standardize process and ensure everyone is pulling in the same direction at the same time in the same way is by documenting workflows. If it’s clear to a team what constitutes a completed step, you’ll make faster progress.

So, are Professors Shipilov and Furr right: is leading transformation a job for anyone but the IT professionals? That’s not what I expect from my team. They know technology and the best ways to use it to get work done right. Their challenge — and the challenge for all IT teams — comes down to communication, advocacy, and as Simon Sinek famously put it, to start with why?

If you can explain why a solution is going to make a difference, there’s a better chance it will be adopted. The challenge is to view the world from customers’ — internal and external — point of view. And that is where the professors call it right.

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