Building digital culture: Think like a marathoner, not a sprinter

Many companies focus on catalyzing digital change – but fail to run the hard part of the course that comes next, says Melissa Swift of Korn Ferry Hay Group. Get her how-to advice
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In the welcome letter for the 15th annual MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, event chair Lindsey Anderson did not mince words when he warned: “The future belongs to the doers; if you haven’t started your business’s digital transformation, it may be too late.” 

And while you may not be as far behind as you think, it is possible that the odds are not in your favor. With digital native companies like Amazon and Google entering new markets, and hungry startups ready to ship code before your innovation lab can come up with a winning idea, it’s no wonder Anderson’s warning is blunt. 

But how can a large organization create a digital culture that can move faster and be as innovative – if not more so – than companies that were born digital? Melissa Swift, Leader, Digital Advisory for North America and Global Accounts at Korn Ferry Hay Group, cautions that It takes more than adopting Agile methodologies and/or experimenting with a two-track approach of traditional and advanced IT. 

[ Leading culture change requires a strong EQ skill set. Read 10 must-read emotional intelligence books for leaders .]

Swift specializes in the human dimension of digital and cultural transformation, and shared her perspectives during the recent symposium’s panel discussion on creating a digital culture. We caught up with her afterwards to get her perspective on the role agile plays in culture change, how long it takes to build a digital culture, and more. Hear her advice:


The Enterprisers Project: During the panel, you remarked: “You would be shocked to hear how many organizations believe capital ‘A’ "Agile" is a full-blown culture solution,” adding that while Agile is one piece of the puzzle, it's not the full cultural change. Can you elaborate on your observation? 

Swift: Organizations really see Agile as a panacea, and I can see why. It feels like a well-codified process, which, when you think about it, is kind of contrary to the core principles of agile. I don’t know that Agile was ever supposed to be a step-by-step “this is how you do it” sort of thing. It was supposed to be a set of guiding principles. But some organizations look at it and think it’s an easy thing to buy. 

I’m not downplaying the role of Agile – it does create a lot of great change – but I see it as a tool in the toolkit. It’s a handy way of re-engineering some processes and getting things like technology and the business to work closer together. 

What we see happening when some organizations move to Agile is that they’re asking people to operate in a completely new process, and some of the fundamental things haven’t changed yet. For example, if leaders still operate in a top-down way, if teams still struggle to really collaborate in open ways, if you haven’t meaningfully rewritten people’s jobs, all of those things push against Agile. And all of those things are critical to cultural change.

So, if you have fundamental issues with, let’s say, the way people communicate in meetings, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing nice Agile meetings or old-fashioned meetings. If there’s a gap, there’s a gap, and that’s at the core of why Agile is a tool in the toolkit and not a full-scale cultural solution.

The Enterprisers Project: You cautioned that creating a digital culture takes more than one hackathon or Silicon Valley trip, saying: "We all talk about sprints, but we all have to think like marathoners.” Why is it important to remind leaders that this type of change won’t happen overnight? 

Swift: If you think about it, we spent a long-time building a modern organization – the last 20 or 30 years. We’ve worked toward a certain way of operating to enable trends like globalization and increased complexity. The trouble is we now need to unpack that and rebuild it, and that’s a bit of a marathon. You can’t expect executives to have this immediate “ah-ha” moment, or frontline talent to suddenly say, “Okay, I did my job this way yesterday. I’m going to do my job a totally different way tomorrow.” It’s not a realistic expectation of how people work.

There’s a lot that you can do to activate people, but activation is only the start.

You can have moments of creating more rapid change – and we get asked a lot about how can you kind of kick off that activation process. There’s a lot that you can do to activate people, but activation is only the start. Think about a chemistry experiment. You set off the catalyst, but then there’s still a whole chain of reactions, and organizations oftentimes want to do these great catalyzing things and don’t think about the hard yards in terms of continually reinforcing cultural change and behavioral change.  

The Enterprisers Project: One approach to creating a digital culture is to reorganize your IT team into two tracks: Those who work on traditional projects and those that focus on more advanced, innovative projects. What are your thoughts on this approach? 

Swift: The challenge of the two-track model is you end up with two disparate talent populations, which can lead to a lot of feelings of unfairness on both sides. One side thinks:  “Who are these new special people, and why do they get to sit in a cool new office, and why is their compensation structured differently?” That can be a real sticking point. But then, on the reverse side, you may hear: “Why don’t we have greater access to the business? Why don’t we really have a strategic seat at the table? Why are the old-fashioned people still running the show?”

There’s a lot of talent and culture clash around that, and neither side is benefiting from the other side. The folks sitting in the silo are not – in many cases – learning the core business in the deep and rich way that they might if they were better integrated. And the folks sitting in the main part of the organization aren’t really learning about the ways the organization is advancing technologically, so you’re not actually building real capability. It’s as if you had, say, a prosthetic, extra robotic arm or something but you took it off at the end of the day, as opposed to something that’s organically really part of the organization, part of its capabilities.

We’re seeing a lot of stops and starts. For example, how many organizations over the last five years have opened innovation centers and then closed them? We keep going through these cycles. On the other hand, we did some work with a client that had an innovation center, but they staffed it by constantly rotating people in and out of the main organization and into the innovation center – I think that’s a really nice interim step. 

The go-forward model has to be full organizational change. I think organizations have almost been snacking instead of eating a full dinner, and they’re going to wake up in the middle of the night starving.

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Ginny Holden is an independent consultant who brings the practice of IT to life through memorable storytelling.