Digital transformation: 5 signs your organization is stalled

Digital transformation takes time and patience – so how can you tell when you need to shift to gain momentum? Look for these five warning signs
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The ongoing and amorphous nature of digital transformation change efforts can make progress hard to gauge – sometimes leading to stagnation. As Korn Ferry senior client partner Melissa Swift has pointed out, digital transformation is a marathon, not a sprint. So how do you know when you’re running a productive marathon or when you’ve hit a hill that the team is truly stuck on?

[ Read the related article: The digital transformation trap: Don't ignore the marathon for the sprints. ]

Metrics matter, but also keep an eye out for qualitative signs of trouble.

Individual digital project metrics, while important to track the performance of digital transformation programs, may not provide a complete picture of progress. However, IT leaders can keep an eye out for other qualitative signs that indicate their organization’s effort may be stalled.

The Enterprisers’ Project recently spoke to MIT research scientist Stephanie L. Woerner, who with MIT Center for Information Systems Research chair Peter Weill co-authored “What’s Your Digital Business Model: Six Questions to Help You Build the Next-Generation Enterprise,” about five key indicators that it may be time for leaders to reorient their digital transformation agendas for greater momentum.

1. Lack of consensus about the transformation’s direction

For digital transformation to move forward, everyone needs to be behind it, from the board of directors and C-suite to managers and front-line employees. “Successful digital transformations are about organizational change, and changing an organization is hard enough without trying to do one where a good chunk of the organization doesn’t agree on the end goal, like the targeted business model or the process,” says Woerner. “The CEO must communicate the goal of the transformation internally and externally, and work with all levels of the enterprise.”

2. Leaders not prioritizing the right projects

There are always key elements of the overall transformation that are integral in moving the entire effort forward, although they may not be the most attractive from an immediate ROI perspective. “[Executives may be] giving in to demands to fund projects that might benefit a business unit but don’t support the transformation,” Woerner says. “This takes discipline and the willingness to forgo short-term gains for long-term benefits for the entire enterprise.”

IT leaders should make sure there is a prioritization process in place based on ongoing conversations between executives and IT that will support the transformation and ensure buy-in.

[ Read also: 3 kinds of employees who hurt transformation momentum. ]

3. Teams still driving without a roadmap

“A clear roadmap makes it much more difficult to highjack or change the process.”

A digital transformation roadmap is particularly important for those projects that must be completed to give the enterprise the right digital capabilities. “A roadmap, and perhaps a dashboard to track progress, accomplishes a few things,” says Woerner. “Employees across the enterprise have transparency to what is going on, they know what to expect, and they are able to see their role in the transformation.

“And a clear roadmap makes it much more difficult to highjack or change the process,” she points out.

4. No established digital transformation metrics

Business-aligned outcomes that can be measured, tracked, and reported widely are critical but take some effort to select. (Read our related story: Digital transformation: Are you using outdated IT metrics?) “Metrics focus attention, and if your enterprise has thought seriously about the desired outcomes and selected metrics that measure those outcomes, metrics can let you know if you are on the right track,” Woerner says.

“Metrics also support enterprise learning. Not hitting a metric is a signal that things are not on the right track and that the enterprise should take some time and figure out why the transformation doesn’t seem to be working.”

5. Few changes in work styles and cultural norms

Big digital transformation should result in big changes. “If the enterprise culture is not changing, that’s a problem. Digital transformations are about making changes to increase operational efficiency, customer delight, and innovation,” says Woerner. “Habits, norms, and work practices all reflect the culture, and you should be seeing changes in the ways that people work and the way that they understand the enterprise and what it is trying to accomplish.”

CIOs should expect to see employees using data in ways they haven’t before to make hypotheses and decisions, embracing more iterative ways of working, or collaborating more, for example. “If you are not,” Woerner says, “senior management will want to think about whether the changes are big enough and how to intensify the communication about the transformation and increase the coaching of employees so the transformation really takes hold.”

[ Read our report from HBR Analytic Services: Transformation Masters: The New Rules of CIO Leadership. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.