Digital transformation: 2 habits of the strongest cultures

In successful digital transformations, people who believe change is possible become the driving force. Has your organization taken the right steps to get there?
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There’s a popular meme circulating on social media right now that asks: Who is driving your digital transformation as a business? The multiple choice style options include the CEO, the CFO, and COVID-19.

It’s funny because it’s true – right?

“Oh no,” you might say, “not at my organization.” Well, maybe not. But only if your organization has been doing all the following things since before the pandemic hit:

  1. Employees can work anywhere at any time.
  2. Employees use technology seamlessly to enhance interactions.
  3. Productive work time is prioritized over endless meetings.
  4. Quick decision-making practices that smooth the way for transformation.
  5. Culture is redefined every 12-18 months to ensure it evolves positively.
  6. Underperforming employees are placed on a performance management plan.

The best workplace cultures consistently do everything listed above. And your organization can also achieve these goals by following two steps:

Step one: Define the culture up front

For more years than I can recall, digital transformation projects have been about technology implementation rather than behavioral change. Consequently, change adoption has been low: According to one report, only 3 percent of organizations surveyed had completed a successful digital transformation. And little wonder, when the pathway to implementing new tools and ways of working hasn’t been agreed upon and implemented beforehand.

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

The first large-scale digital transformation program I was involved in took place in 2006. The organization wanted to transform every element of how it did things, from supply chain to logistics to design to support services.

We started the project where every digital transformation program should start: By defining the culture needed to deliver the desired changes.

We recognized that without self-aware people who understood the necessary mindset changes, we would never achieve our goals. As a team, we agreed on a vision, a set of behaviors, and some principles of how we would work together – regardless of discipline – to support the transformation effort.

For example, our organization had too many ineffective meetings, so we established a collaboration principle: “We don’t waste time in meetings.” We recognized that meetings are important but also that they consume productive time. We wanted to set an example of how to do meetings well.

Instead of coming up with “One Team, One Goal” culture branding statements, we simply committed to doing everything in line with the agreements we had made to each other.

It took two days to do this with over 300 people (representing 20,000 people from across the organization). Three and a half years later, the program was a huge success. Our vision statement was instrumental as it continually guided our decision making. Every time we received a new request, someone would immediately ask, “How does this line up with our vision?” If it didn’t align, we didn’t do it!

Every time we received a new request, someone would immediately ask, “How does this line up with our vision?” If it didn’t align, we didn’t do it!

To make any transformation stick, you must define the culture before you implement new digital tools or ways of working. That’s because doing so addresses the one thing standing in your way: the mindsets and behaviors of people.

That’s why the meme I mentioned above is so relevant for most organizations. It’s not that the technology doesn’t work or that new ways of working can’t be applied in your organizational context; it’s that some people seem to be doing their utmost to get in the way of change.

What’s driving this reticence? Many people see defining culture as a departure from the traditional way of doing transformation – others simply say, “It’s not in the budget.” Defining culture requires spending money and time upfront, often on something whose value can’t immediately be quantified and whose application requires time. And that’s difficult for many CEOs and CFOs to deal with.

Mindset and behavioral change are key to digital transformation, however, so it’s essential to set the foundation to help people adapt to change before it happens.

Step two: Be a role model

Once you’ve defined your culture, it is up to senior managers across the business to role-model what’s been agreed upon – and to hold others accountable.

At this stage, it’s important to recall that culture belongs to everyone, so the senior management team should never mandate what it should be and implement their vision across the organization. Instead, leadership should support what those in the organization have agreed upon.

According to an extensive 2015 survey by McKinsey, many transformations fail either because senior managers fail to act as role models for change, or because people in the organization defend the status quo. This finding is consistent with my experience working with organizations around the world.

Either of these scenarios is particularly frustrating when leaders have done step one well. For example, staff members are excited and there’s widespread agreement on what needs to be done. Then – sometimes as quickly as two months later – members of the senior management team lose interest or start to openly disagree about elements of the approach.

When such situations happen, it’s difficult to get past them – unless the CEO holds the people in question to account. That sends a message that everyone is responsible for transformation success and there can be no open dissension.

Being a role model requires self-awareness, empathy, a strong set of values, and an understanding of how to create a safe environment that motivates people to succeed. It also requires that you remain true to the redefined culture and managing out those who don’t want to be part of it.

When clients ask me how to measure the success of their transformation, my first answer is always "happiness of staff."

As a former senior manager, I know it’s tough to continually balance all of these elements. But frankly, that is your job – and when you get it right, it’s hugely rewarding to enact positive change that boosts employee satisfaction as well as business results.

When clients ask me how to measure the success of their transformation, my first answer is always “happiness of staff.” If staff members are happy, they’re productive. If they believe that change is possible, they will take responsibility and support any activity to evolve the culture positively.

A simple engagement score can provide you with the data, but when employees are happy, you can see and feel it. That feeling also reflects that they trust senior management to hold up their end of the bargain.

That feeling is what great culture is all about. The best workplace cultures consistently take the two steps described here to ensure that the feeling never fizzles out. They never question the investment of time or money – even during challenging times – and they do everything in their power to always continue evolving. In these organizations, staff members are the driving force behind transformation because they want the business to be continually successful.

There’s no meme for that. The results speak for themselves.

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

Colin D. Ellis is a culture change expert, an award-winning international speaker and a best-selling author. His latest book, "Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work" (Wiley), has seen him travel all over the world to help IT departments transform the way they work.