12 Secrets of Digital Transformation: Part 8

In most organizations, waiting to achieve full consensus on anything is a prescription for failure, so expect misalignment in the course of your transformation initiative.

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Secret #8: Expect Misalignment

I’m not being cynical when I caution you to expect misalignment in the course of your transformation initiative. Misalignment is inevitable. Your company already has established products, services, processes and internal and external constituencies that support them. Transformation, by definition, affects all of these.

In most organizations, waiting to achieve full consensus is a prescription for failure. In many organizations, there is no consensus to be found among your peer group and other stakeholders about either the near-term or the long-term direction of the company. In many cases that is actually a good thing—because you will not be right all the time. However, if you are paralyzed into inaction by the lack of consensus on direction, you will never get anything done. Disruption is, by nature, disruptive. Not everyone will like it, and not everyone will buy in. The best you can hope for in a company with diverse points of view is the lack of organized opposition, and an overall sense that things do, or will, need to change.

The most effective strategy I’ve seen to combat misalignment is transparency. You want to give people who oppose you no ammunition to claim they were left out of the loop and didn’t know what was going on. Over-communicate. It does not guarantee alignment by any means, but it at least denies your critics the opportunity to paint you as operating too independently. This is the deadliest criticism in many organizations, and the one to watch out for since by definition you are working outside the mainstream. Listening to your critics is also important. You don’t need to agree with them, but understanding their point of view and needs is critical. They may even be right—and you may be wrong. Ideally you should understand your critic’s point of view well enough that you can present it as persuasively as they can. In any event, by listening you will learn, and your critics will at least know you’ve heard them.

In many organizations, you need alignment or at least tacit buy-in from your boss and your direct management hierarchy. In other, flatter, organizations this might not be required to get started. For example, sometimes the best approach to run a limited “bootleg” project to show success, and only then take it to your boss. But ultimately you will need to have your boss and your boss’s boss (which may be the board) on your side. At a minimum, they should be at least be tolerant and broadly supportive of your goals, and willing to give you a chance to demonstrate real progress.

Some organizations in transformation can exhibit what seems like a “Digital Death Wish”. Despite a clear imperative and compelling need to change, obstacle after obstacle is surfaced. These might be around “who owns what”; they might be about a suddenly compelling need to re-organize (repeatedly); they might be about process or technology standards. In fact, the obstacles raised can be about nearly anything—except a focus on getting the job done.

Organization, technology, process and other areas are all important to an effective transformation. However, an excessive focus on them can and often are used as an excuse to avoid actually transforming. The key to a successful transformation is to keep the focus on the end goal, and to the greatest degree possible, avoid putting energy into anything that is not needed to accomplish it. As management guru Stephen Covey observed: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” As a leader of your company’s digital transformation, keeping a maniacal focus on the “main thing” is your primary job.

Why do individuals within organizations initiate this “Digital Death Wish” behavior? Some common patterns we see:

  • Fear that this change will eliminate my job, reduce my status, or make my skillset / team less valuable
  • Fear of the unknown—is the status quo really that bad? Are the changes being addressed really inevitable and here to stay?
  • A desire to stay relevant by making my job function or team integral to the transformation initiative—even if that actually gets in the way of results
  • A desire to “protect my team” by bolting their work product onto the current initiative, whether it is relevant or not
  • The knowledge that I will not be held accountable for the company’s future performance because I’ll be gone by then. Instead I’m better off milking my current role for all it’s worth even if that compromises the company’s long-term best interest.

There are many other motivations to oppose change, of course—some of them based on honest disagreement about direction, and by no means all of them fear-based or self-serving. In general, however, as transformation champion you will need to overcome opposition—even if it is structured to appear “helpful”—from teams trying to slow or derail your initiative. To do this, you need to get buy-in from at least the first level of management common to the teams obstructing your efforts. Even then, you will have to help that person understand the negative impacts of these obstacles on the overall initiative. This is harder than it might look because it’s difficult to argue that process improvements, for example, are a bad thing—and why in this instance they are hurting rather than helping. You also need to show how this individual and their organization will benefit from the changes you are driving—or at least help them plan for and mitigate the downside.

An emerging trend we are seeing is for large companies to put an experienced technology executive on their board of directors to head a “technology transformation committee”. In the cases where we’ve seen this done, the person in this role has previously led a technology transformation at similar scale in a related or somewhat related industry. In theory, a board-level degree of empowerment should be sufficient to crush any non-principled opposition to change within the company. In practice, to be effective at doing it, this person needs to be far more hands-on than the usual board-level director tends to be. Making sound judgements about who is helping and who is hurting an initiative can be subtle and requires a lot of insight—especially when some are actively masking their motivations. The jury is out on the effectiveness of the “technology transformation committee” approach, but overall—given the high caliber of the individuals we’ve seen in these roles—it is promising.

In addition to managing “up”, you will also need to get at least some degree of alignment from your own team. As the boss, you have the authority to tell people how to spend their time. However, any smart and creative professional only does their best work when they are excited about the goal. Spend as much time as you need “selling” your best people on your transformation vision. They should ideally take your ideas further than you could yourself. You may need to shuffle people around to find the right team, but do what it takes to get people you respect and trust excited about taking the next steps with you. When you’re doing something really new, even really good people may not understand what you mean and why it matters. Be patient with this. Get them to take one step at a time with you and, if you’ve got the right people and you’re on the right track, they will soon start racing ahead.

The most effective change agents I’ve worked with tend to be excellent networkers not only in their own hierarchy, but also laterally within their own organizations. They might not get actual agreement on the detailed means, but at least they can aim for shared big-picture goals across silos. Sticking in your own silo—be it engineering, product management, or some other—will not get you the broad transformation that you want. You may need to accept amused toleration from some, while you get active support from others—but try to get all the key stakeholders at least in the neutral to positive range in terms of their broad support for your end-game goals. Then keep them informed on your progress.




Dr. Jim Walsh


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