Leading culture change: Practical tips from the trenches

Leading at times of great upheaval? Grab all the knowledge you can from your peers
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Digital transformation equals culture change – often, business model changes, fluid workgroups, and new emphasis on collaboration, just for starters. Every company’s culture is different; transformations vary in scope. But when it comes to learning from other IT leaders about leading at times of great change, you want all the knowledge you can get.

Listen to how your peers tell their stories as well. As Hardik Bhatt, CIO, State of Illinois, recently shared with us, “If you’re looking at doing a major, large-scale digital transformation, you really need to be a good storyteller. You need to come up with a very clear vision and be able to articulate that so you get buy-in, not just from management, but also from rank-and-file employees.” (See our related article, What it takes to lead IT today: 9 tips from top execs.) 

We asked IT and business leaders to share strategies they use to guide IT teams through the large culture change associated with digital transformation projects. Let’s dig into their practical advice. 

[ Want more? See our related article, 3 truths for IT leaders navigating intense change, by Red Hat CIO Mike Kelly. ]

Our advice: Number five may be the hardest, because companies love their long-cherished metrics. But don’t skip it.

1. Everyone’s work matters

Brad Cowles, COO, HD Supply Waterworks

Make sure that everyone in your organization has exciting work that matters. If everyone understands that what they’re working on now contributes to bigger goals of the company or the initiative, everyone goes home at night believing that they are contributing positively to something greater.”

2. Don’t trash the old way

“When it comes to the term digital transformation, one of the risks you have to mitigate is the tendency to say that the old way of doing things is bad,” Cowles says. “You don’t want to speak poorly of something that was built, run, or managed by many of the same people who are part of the digital transformation. Instead, you want to focus on building on this great past because technology and people have finally evolved to a point where this is the next logical step.”

3. Start by simplifying your customer’s life

Brian LeClaire, CIO, Humana

“Digital transformation occurs both outside and inside an organization. From an external perspective, becoming digital means envisioning and bringing digital (i.e., mobile, social, web) to life as a way to simplify your customers’ experiences, starting with them and working backwards from there.” 

4. You need better processes and stellar talent 

“Internally, one must focus on digitization, meaning assessing your technology infrastructure and systems and your processes and talent,” LeClaire says. “Digitization is largely about changing how work gets done within your company – simplifying the work experience as much as optimizing it. It also means ensuring you have the right talent.” 

“Digital and digitization are not mutually exclusive, but it’s much more difficult to deliver a truly digital experience to your customers without foundational digitization being in place. We’ve been driving on both fronts at Humana, explicitly linked to three of our company values: inspire health; rethink routine; and pioneer simplicity. It’s amazing what can be done when you have approximately 50,000 purpose-driven people with shared values pulling in the same direction.”

5. Change the way leaders are measured

Bruno Guicardi, president and co-founder, CI&T 

“Painting the walls and throwing bean bags around will not change your culture. If you want cultural change, you need to change the work itself, designing processes and activities that practice and reinforce the behaviors that support the culture you want to foster. In our experience, the most critical step is to change the work of the leaders. There is no sustainable cultural transformation if change doesn’t happen at the leadership level.” 

“If you need experimentation and speed, you need to change the way leaders are measured and the way and frequency in which they report progress. If the way you measure success is demanding predictability (Mary must deliver project X by date Y), you are going to get neither speed nor experimentation.”

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