Digital transformation: 5 tips to help your team thrive amidst change

Change can be stressful, but strong leaders know how to ease the uncertainty. Consider these expert tips to help turn anxiety into anticipation
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When I was in the fifth grade, my family moved from a little town in the middle of nowhere to the bustling metropolis of Columbus, Ohio. On the one hand, I was terrified of all the changes headed my way – new people, a new school, and a whole lot of unknowns. On the other, I looked forward to the excitement of new friends, a new neighborhood, and the opportunities of a new school.

When you introduce significant change to your organization, each team member becomes some version of that fifth grader. They probably handle their emotions better and more easily understand the big picture, but the fundamental feelings of fear, excitement, and uncertainty that come in reaction to change remain the same.

5 ways to lead your team through change

The best leaders walk through change with their teams. Here are five things you can do to make that journey one of growth and strength for your organization:

1. Provide a vision narrative

People love stories. Stories stir emotion, paint a picture, provide deeper meaning, and create a lens through which we see the world.

A vision narrative is a short story about what the world looks like when you succeed. It’s designed to draw the listener in and provide a mental picture of what success looks like. I’ve written these narratives from the perspective of customers, employees, and in one case, of a dog roaming around the office (that was one of my favorites!)

[ Also read: Change management: 4 tips for leaders on embracing human nature. ] 

Think about the most impactful movie you’ve seen recently: Who was the main character, and what journey were they on? Then consider how much of that story applies to you and your quest for freedom, for example, or your journey in overcoming adversity.

We resonate with stories because they’re about us as humans. They give voice to things deep inside us. Leaders who recognize this can leverage the power of stories to lead the way through change with a vision narrative.

2. Actively create culture conversations

Every organizational change requires a culture change. In fact, every significant change is first a culture change. For example, you cannot simply go to the cloud without changing the way your people think about servers, DevOps, and software engineering. Culture and mindset must change before you can fully reap the benefits of the new technology

Unfortunately, culture is also elusive. It’s difficult to understand and capture, so we don’t talk about it as much as we should. People also tend to become content with the current culture, regardless of whether it’s healthy or not, and the idea of changing it can be scary.

What to do? Get a culture assessment that quantifies your current culture. This makes it more tangible and opens the door to discussion – the same way a DISC or Meyers Briggs profile makes it easier to talk about personality types.

My favorite model is called The Competing Values Framework. It provides a big-picture perspective on culture, quantifies it, and clarifies where you need to take it next. Using this perspective, you can start new culture conversations, better understand the current state, and develop an action plan for getting to the future state.

3. Encourage learning over perfection

When a toddler falls down, they usually get up and start walking again, unwavering in their determination. When their parents see them fall, they applaud the effort and encourage the child to continue trying.

As adults, we learn in the same way, especially during times of change. We require the same unwavering determination and encouragement to succeed.

By sharing your own mistakes and learning processes, you give others permission to make mistakes and learn. Your vulnerability makes room for other people to be open about their challenges.

As you share, be mindful that the goal is not to make yourself look good. Your team members need to see real, authentic failure to understand that it’s ok to make mistakes and learn from them.

Naturally, some leaders fear this idea – won’t they think less of you? Won’t they stop following you?

The short answer is no – that’s not how it works. Have the courage to try it in a small context and see how it goes. I think you’ll be surprised.

As you share, be mindful that the goal is not to make yourself look good. Your team members need to see real, authentic failure to understand that it’s ok to make mistakes and learn from them.

4. Invest in leadership change

Every successful organizational change includes both top-down and bottom-up elements. When introducing change, most leaders consider the other people in their organization and ask themselves, “What do they need?”

Few leaders look in the mirror and ask, “Who do I need to be to make this successful?” But these are the leaders who truly drive change. They recognize that change affects individual people, including themselves, so they accept the change, look in the mirror, and invest in the training and coaching they need for themselves and their peers to lead the charge.

So, find a coach, get the right technical training for your role, and have the courage to become the leader that change needs to succeed.

5. Remove barriers

About ten years ago, I worked with a team that had a $1M budget. Their project was struggling, and the team’s first complaint was that they didn’t have a projector for meetings. A $1000 projector was the primary barrier preventing the team from getting things done more quickly.

Worse, the fact that the projector hadn’t been purchased communicated that the project wasn’t important.

This small example paints a bigger picture: You communicate urgency and importance by how you respond to barriers. If you want your organization to understand the importance of the change you’re driving, remove barriers like crazy: Allocate the funds, ask where things are stuck, and move quickly when a clear need arises. This communicates urgency and the need for the change to succeed.

Successful change requires leaders to weave together the best elements of story, culture, learning, investment, and barrier removal. When done well, resistance fades, fear gives way to excitement, and the critical change for your business takes hold as you need it to. To maximize the impact of whatever technical changes you’re making, consider these five tips and how you might implement them in your current change initiatives. Your people will thank you.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Rich Theil
Rich helps IT Leaders fix Agile teams burdened by inadequate Product Management and broken business partner relationships. Prior to starting The Noble Foundry, Rich spent 12 years as CIO for a large, scrappy, and aggressive non-profit in Cincinnati. Additionally, Rich spent seven years at P&G in Information Technology.