Digital transformation: 4 ways to build a culture of commitment

Do your people feel committed to and emotionally engaged with the mission at hand? It’s important for digital teams, since this spurs new ideas and shared practices for reaching goals
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Having a clear and communicated strategy is all well and good. But the key to transformation, particularly when it comes to changing organizational culture, is an actionable commitment, says Elizabeth Doty, founder of consultancy Leadership Momentum.

How does an organization go from strategy to action? Doty says creating a “culture of commitment” is key. “A culture of commitment is one where people have an internal feeling of commitment and emotional engagement with the mission, and where they have shared practices for making and keeping their individual and team commitments. 

“Our feeling of commitment pushes us to aim higher, raise the bar, and invent new ways of delivering on the mission.”

“Our feeling of commitment pushes us to aim higher, raise the bar, and invent new ways of delivering on the mission,” she continues. “And the practice of actively managing commitments pushes us to treat our word as sacred, to say yes when we can deliver and no when we cannot.”

A culture of commitment can be a key leverage point for IT leaders dealing with increasing demands for digital change within the enterprise – not simply because it energizes and inspires employees and enables reliable execution. It also builds trust, both within IT and between IT and the rest of the business.

“Fail on that and all of your efforts to listen, consider others’ views, or care about their interests don’t make a difference,” Doty notes. “When teams and departments are clear and direct about what they can and cannot do, they build trust and accountability and improve coordination.” Trust is particularly low when there is poor commitment-keeping between functions or business units, she points out.

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

Doty offers four tips to create a culture of trust:

1. Determine the specific commitments you want 

“One paradox is that leaders often want more commitment but are not quite clear on the specific commitments they are asking people to make or keep,” says Doty.

IT leaders should begin by thinking through exactly what one or two principles or behaviors they want to encourage with both individuals and teams. “It should be something concrete and meaningful, such as, ‘I am asking you to be sure we do everything in our power to sign on that new engineering candidate with specialized skills,’ for example.”

2. Never bully others to commit

“One common pitfall is cornering people into making a commitment with the implied or real threat of embarrassment or ridicule if they do not say yes,” Doty says. “What you want are freely chosen commitments in an environment where excellent and aspiration are expected and rewarded.” Be sure to make the commitment a choice.

Consider saying, for example, “Here’s what I’m asking you to sign up for. Can you take it on? And what would you need from or us to be able to say yes and follow through.” In that way, she says, the employee is accepting a mission rather than fulfilling an obligation.

[ Do you communicate effectively? See 12 bad communication habits to break in IT. ]

3. Figure out your role, from support to resources

“The second step is to ask what commitment they might need from you in order to say yes and commit,” says Doty. That may be something like additional resources, support, advice, or path-clearing.

“Leaders often miss the ways they slip in their part of an agreement, and this telegraphs a double standard or no real commitment to keeping commitments.”

4. Follow through to the end

Follow the process through to the end and celebrate the outcomes. “Highlight a real example or two with others in order to describe the type of culture you are looking for,” Doty advises, “and invite others to do the same.”

Sustained attention to commitments over time is critical. “If others deliver and it is not noticed, or fail to deliver and are not held accountable, the CIO or IT leader is subtly communicating that it is ok to be sloppy about our word around here.”

[ Get The Open Organization Workbook, a free download with advice from more than 25 experts on building transparent, collaborative organizations. ]

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.