Digital transformation: 3 ways to manage change without exhausting everyone

Digital transformation can wear your team out. Are you paying enough attention to communication and celebration?
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[ Editor's note: Jen Krieger, chief agile architect for Red Hat, also contributed to this article. ]

While change is inevitable, it also causes a good deal of pain, particularly in larger organizations. As enterprises grapple with an ever-increasing rate of technical change, they risk demotivating – and losing – their key employees implementing these necessary changes. If you don’t bring your talent along in a holistic way, attempts to improve your business culture and technical stack will fail.

Fortunately, CIOs can take three concrete steps to help ease the organization through digital transformation work.

1. Set clear expectations

Your employees need to know not only what will be done differently, but also what role they will play in organizational change. You’ve hired excellent associates who intimately understand how to do the required work. What they must know is what they will contribute to the newly conceived approach.

Lest you think that the answer here is a slew of new and improved job descriptions, these expectations must be communicated in a broad manner. What market drivers are causing the organization to pivot? How will we measure the success of this new approach? Why did the company decide on this path as the best way forward? What are the decision criteria for another change in strategic direction?

While a bulleted list of job functions gives people a “what to do,” it doesn’t help them understand where the organization needs to go, nor how and why their individual efforts contribute to the process.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

2. Know your audiences

Nothing derails attempts to transform like the rapid retrenching that occurs when employees feel forgotten or disregarded.

CIOs leading change need effective vehicles for internal communication. Just as importantly, they need to make good decisions about what information is appropriate to cascade and when to do so. It may seem counterintuitive, but take an hour to do an audience segmentation analysis on your entire organization. This exercise will help you target your communications appropriately and help you visualize how each job function in the company has the opportunity to contribute to successful change management.

In turn, this analysis bolsters your management team’s ability to share information in a way that best supports employee engagement: The “what’s in it for me” question has already been addressed. The more time your managers spend on spreading the word vs. spending time tailoring the message themselves, the greater the organizational uptake.

Last but not least, a thorough audience segmentation ensures that you have a plan to communicate the required information to every group of impacted stakeholders, meaning no group is inadvertently left out of your outreach. Nothing derails attempts to transform like the rapid retrenching that occurs when employees feel forgotten or disregarded in the process of sweeping change.

3. Celebrate success - often

Most organizations are great at celebrating big achievements: Maybe it’s releasing a new version of a beloved product, introducing an entirely new product, or beating Wall Street’s revenue predictions. While these opportunities for collective congratulations are an essential component of maintaining a strong corporate culture, big wins are often on the far-off horizon during organizational transformation.

Getting to these big wins requires a number of incremental steps along the way, and the real transformative work done in your organization is more often achieved by a laser focus on the stuff of day-to-day: Chipping away at technical debt, iterative process improvements, and consistent, predictable reappraisal of team priorities.

To combat the change fatigue that creeps in as company evolution takes its natural course, make it an organization-wide value to celebrate small successes on a regular basis. Give each manager the directive - and budget - to arrange small-scale team celebrations.

Once you’ve started to create a culture of celebrating small victories, take the practice to the whole company. Choose a few of these small team success stories to elevate to organization-wide communications, such as the company’s quarterly meeting. Small actions like these reinforce to your whole team that the journey matters to the C-Suite, and gives your associates time to pause, reflect, and be proud of the work they’ve done to get the company closer to its new destination.

An example that works

Remember, none of these activities need to be high in production value or take a long time to organize. The key components are communicating and celebrating. And it works!

The team had a higher rate of retention without any management or HR intervention required.

One Fortune 100 company I worked with had a particularly high-performing team that instituted a practice of “Donuts for Done!” When celebrating the completion of day-to-day milestones, the team would get together via videoconference and enjoy a donut and a cup of coffee together on Friday mornings. To make sure each team member had their “Donuts for Done” on a Friday morning, the team get-together time would rotate at least once a month, ensuring that folks in far-flung time zones got to celebrate in the exact same style as their colleagues.

The total budget for this team’s yearly celebrations came in at less than 1K, but their productivity was higher than that of their counterparts in the same department. Further, the team had a higher rate of retention without any management or HR intervention required.

By spending a few hours upfront to understand your internal audiences, set your expectations clearly, and spend a few hours per month celebrating success, you’ll save your business time and money. But far more importantly, you’ll have happier and more deeply engaged employees, and those are the folks who drive creativity and innovation in your organization. Make sure they’re not exhausted!

[ Do you make thoughtful decisions? Read also: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader’s guide. ]

Collaboration and community management expert Leslie Hawthorn has spent the past decade creating, cultivating, and enabling open source communities. Currently serving as Sr.