Digital transformation: How to keep the momentum going

COVID-19 has forced many companies to accelerate their digital transformation initiatives – but as the pandemic takes a toll, how do you keep making progress?
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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies to accelerate digital transformation to stay functional in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis. As the global workforce shifted to a remote work model, a change that would typically take years happened practically overnight.

This kickstart offers a great opportunity for leaders to push the digital agenda forward. However, the pandemic has also taken a steep toll on the workforce, so it will take stamina to keep up the momentum as we navigate the complexities of the new normal.

[ Is your team tiring of transformation work? Read also: How to beat digital transformation fatigue. ] 

The first months of a crisis can offer an opportunity to learn more about your organization’s transformation needs. Leaders should be asking themselves: How was our organization able to cope? What broke, and why? What worked out better than expected, and what was the backbone holding us together?

Digital transformation success depends not on technology, but systemic and behavioral changes.

Answers to these questions will help to guide the digital agenda for your organization, but this is only the starting point. Once you know where you should be headed, the hard part is motivating people to change so you can get there. The success of digital transformation depends not on technology, but systemic and behavioral changes.

3 key ways to drive digital transformation forward

Here are three crucial steps in motivating people to drive digital transformation forward:

1. Make transformation purposeful 

Respecting no political or geographical boundaries, COVID-19 has illuminated the depth and scale of global interdependencies. While countries are independently handling their own responses to the crisis, the effectiveness of these different strategies depends on the actions of others.

Ideally, this pandemic will open our eyes to the closeness of other global crises, climate change being perhaps most urgent. It may have also compelled many of us to question our purpose: What am I trying to achieve with my work, and why is it important?

If your organization hasn’t already done so, now is the time to clarify the “why” behind the digital transformation, and the answer should be more than just potential efficiency gains or keeping up with competitors.

During the shock phase, many companies have focused on tackling the most immediate challenges and postponed certain development projects deemed less important, but in the longer term, the future exists only for the companies that push for renewal.

Courageous leaders will look beyond what’s right in front of them to direct their digital agenda toward creating a more collaborative global society in which everyone – business and political leaders alike – takes responsibility for building a more sustainable future. Explicitly identifying and tackling climate change, for example, as the key objective for digital transformation will help people to find meaning in change.

Be warned, however: Greenwashing your transformation agenda will backfire as employees and customers alike will see your bluff. A mismatch between words and actions crushes morale, so identify a cause to which your organization can and will commit.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

2. Make progress visible

Starting with “why” gets people excited and engaged, but making progress visible keeps them going.

Starting with “why” gets people excited and engaged, but making progress visible keeps them going.

As a leader in many digital transformation projects, I’ve witnessed first-hand how these projects tend to follow a curve: There’s a positive peak, after which things start to regress unless the team works really hard.

This regression is especially common when digital transformation is understood as a project with a specific start and end date rather than a continuous learning journey. That’s why you must ensure that everyone sees that transformation is never a one-off event, as well as use metrics that make progress visible every day.

It’s easy to lose sight of progress, especially when you are transforming an enterprise where changes touch thousands of employees. But small victories get buried by bigger fires. As you progress, there is always another fire to put out.

Clients often ask for best practices and benchmarks for measuring digital maturity, as these help them define where they are in their journey and to show how they compare to others. It’s also important to choose metrics that pertain to the drivers of change.

Once you have clearly defined what your organization wants to achieve with digital transformation (the “why” – be it increased customer-centricity, improved employee engagement, or a more sustainable business), it becomes easier to define metrics that matter. Often it will be a set of quantitative and qualitative metrics with which you can track both short- and long-term progress.

Instead of outputs or deliverables, I recommend measuring outcomes and behavioral and systemic changes that result from your work, such as improved customer satisfaction, employee engagement, or sustainability. These outcomes comprise many parts and can be harder to measure than outputs, but focusing not only on what you have created but also what influence it has had will help satisfy the team’s sense of accomplishment.

For example, when the pandemic hit, our leadership team agreed to follow certain metrics exceptionally closely – one being employee engagement. Because our operations and ways of working assume that our people are smart and self-directing, the shift to a remote work model caused little friction to our everyday work, and there was no need for micro-management. Instead, we leaders focused on human-to-human connections and improving transparency via weekly company-wide communications.

Interestingly, while our aim was to keep employee engagement consistent with pre-pandemic levels, we have seen engagement scores improve. This shows us that our hard work is paying off.

3. Don't worry if things get emotional!

Many organizations are now in a waiting mode, avoiding big risks and securing cash flow and their most crucial operations. Employees may also be in survival mode, working under more pressure than they would normally bear as they wait for things to calm down.

As we enter the new normal, companies need to find ways to make their transformation not only bearable but also exciting and enjoyable. This pandemic has brought about many compassionate acts, and I hope we will start to see more empathy in the workplace too.

Companies need to find ways to make their transformation not only bearable but also exciting and enjoyable.

There is surprisingly little talk about how emotional transformation can be. Digital transformation not only forces us to adopt new technologies, but it also changes our ways of working, our roles and responsibilities, and our work identities. Change also involves unlearning and letting go, and that evokes emotions that range from frustration and fear to excitement and empowerment.

To keep transformation moving forward, leaders need to use emotional intelligence to understand and cope with their team members’ – and their own – reactions to change.

COVID-19 has forced millions of workers to change their daily routines and adopt new digital tools. Because many employees have since come to enjoy benefits such as not commuting to work every day, we are likely to see drastic changes in work practices and office space usage.

Leaders who can create an environment that invites people to voice their ideas and concerns are best positioned to learn how digital technologies can make work more efficient and enjoyable. Psychological safety is essential: People must feel that it’s safe to make mistakes and learn from them. After all, digital transformation is a learning journey, and if people are afraid to make mistakes, little learning will happen.

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


Eeva Raita is Head of Strategy & Culture at the International tech company Futurice, with headquarters in Helsinki, Finland.  Eeva leads an international team responsible for helping both Futurice itself and client organizations to succeed in the digital era by cultivating better work cultures and leadership. She has a Ph.D.