Digital transformation: Are your people just paying lip service?

Unfortunately, many companies get only talk from leaders – rather than true commitment to change. Here’s how to spot the warning signs and deal with them
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The biggest mistake a company can make in digital transformation is starting the transformation journey without first getting the necessary commitment and support. Senior leaders and business stakeholders must commit to rethink and change organizational boundaries, policies, processes, talent and organizational structure as necessary to achieve the strategic intent or vision.

If they’re not committed to doing that, the digital transformation effort will fail.

Unfortunately, many companies get only lip service from leaders rather than long-term commitment to change. Company leaders can have a great meeting and talk about the need for change and a digital environment to create new competitive positioning, but not get real commitment to change.

You may face pushback and debilitating, passive-aggressive behavior from managers and employees trying to maintain the status quo.

If your company starts down the path of trying to enable change, without that real commitment, you will face a high risk of pushback and debilitating, passive-aggressive behavior from managers and employees trying to maintain the status quo. The status quo – the existing business model or operating model and efforts to sustain it – represents the most formidable obstacle in your company’s path to digital transformation.

[ Get more wisdom from Peter Bendor-Samuel. Read our related article, Does your change management plan cut it in the digital age? ]

The status quo locks people into their current behaviors and prevents them from moving quickly and acting on change. It’s a web of constraints known as “the way things are done around here,” which reinforces behaviors. A host of factors, such as organizational philosophies and policies and individual incentives, complicate that web.

What causes leaders to just talk change?

Digital transformation is a multi-year journey and many details are unknown at the outset.

A digital transformation initiative starts with a strategic intent based on a vision of the desired performance – a sense of where the company is heading in creating new value for customers and ecosystem partners and creating new competitive positioning. Part of the problem that leads to leaders’ lip service is that digital transformation is a multi-year journey, and many details are unknown at the outset. You will know the direction your company wants to head, yet not know precisely where it will land, how long it will take to get there, how much it will cost, or what resources the journey will require.

Therefore, it’s not unusual for leaders to have different reasons for “agreeing” to the change but different visions of the end state. The reality is they commit to what they think the future will be, based on their own experience.

You can recognize leaders that are paying lip service instead of real commitment to change as the journey progresses. Basically, they slow down progress or are merely compliant instead of engaged. Typical lip-service behaviors include:

  • Talking about the problems the company will face or saying that taking action will be too risky or too expensive.
  • Asking, “Can’t I do it just a little differently?” or “Can we just make this adjustment?” (to something more comfortable to the individual).

Making small tradeoffs to placate a senior leader is a big mistake. Bowing to the individual’s demands will cause the initiative to veer off-course and likely will sub-optimize the intended outcome.

Beliefs at the heart of resistance and lip service are based on human emotions. Some of the biggest motivating beliefs are:

  • Fear. Uncertainty breeds fear, and the unknown details at the outset of a digital transformation journey cause some people to cling to the familiar instead of being willing to change.
  • Risk of loss. The “what’s in it for me” principle is at work here, as some executives may stand to benefit from the change, but others may stand to lose. Similarly, some employees will lose their jobs when the company automates processes.
  • Past orientation. Some executives do not want to commit to the necessary operating model change because they believe the company’s current model and value delivered will continue to be successful. Others may believe the change isn’t necessary because they’ve seen disruption in the past and some companies weathered it just fine. They lack a future-orientation perspective and don’t recognize the existential threat to the business today.

How to get real commitment instead of lip service

The best approach to getting leaders’ and stakeholders’ long-term commitment is to go slowly at first. Spend time at the beginning building belief and long-term commitment to the strategic intent at all levels of the organization. Before your company makes major investments in technology and starts adjusting your company’s structure and ecosystem, it’s important to ensure that managers and employees at every level in the organization:

  • Understand and buy into why the change is necessary
  • Understand the benefits of the change
  • Understand that the change is possible to achieve and how it will be achieved
  • Accept personal ownership for the change

Spending time up front to build belief in the necessary change will alter their mindset from “Here’s why we can’t do that” to “Here’s how we can do it.” It will dramatically improve the chances for success.

It’s also important to continue engaging with leaders, stakeholders, and employees throughout the journey, not just up front to gain initial buy-in. Let them know that what they do matters to the organization. Yes, it takes time to do this, but engaging them appropriately in the change – instead of imposing change on them – will cause them to want to participate in the change.

Finally, make it clear that everyone must get on board. Your company must be willing to eliminate people who refuse to act in alignment with the agreed-upon strategic intent.

[ 7 new rules of the road for IT leaders: Get our infographic and learn from CIOs succeeding with digital transformation. ]

Peter Bendor-Samuel is CEO of Everest Group, a management consulting and research firm with headquarters in Dallas and offices around the globe.