Technologies Change, but Transformation Challenges Stay the Same: People, Process, Technology & Politics
It can sometimes seem like the concept of ‘transformation’ is a never-ending task, like painting the Forth Road Bridge, as new technologies emerge all the time. How are you supposed to know that your transformation is complete, and you won’t need to change everything again as new solutions are developed?! This requires a shift in mindset – what if technology was not the main focus of the process, rather acted purely as the enabler of a transformation (digital or otherwise)? Change is inevitable, but technology itself is not the force of the change, and on its own is not enough to guarantee a successful and effective change project.
Instead, leaders should be thinking about the wider picture: the reasons for a change project, and the goals for the business. What do you want to achieve with the project? Whether it is more streamlined processes, being more customer-centric, or even automating areas of a business, the ways of working within an organisation are usually far more important than the technology upon which they are based; a convoluted and inefficient process is still convoluted and inefficient, whether it is conducted by humans, or automated using technology or AI!
Digital technologies provide the possibilities for efficiency gains and value-add to customers, but if the current organisational processes are flawed, digital transformation will magnify those flaws and can make things very difficult. While the digital part may be hard to do, it is the transformation of organisational culture and mindsets that is the most challenging aspect of the change journey. The benefits of implementing new technologies can only be realised if the transformation project succeeds in changing people and mindsets.
People are instinctively resistant to change; it can often feel like chaos has been introduced into a workplace that was previously stable and predictable. The general air of uncertainty can be tough for your teams and feel like they are losing grip on their day-to-day work. The fear factor is not the only thing that can hold your people back – inertia doubtless plays a role for many, the idea that everything is fine as it is, so no need to bother changing. To succeed in transforming an organisation and its processes, companies must offer support to their employees, whether by providing learning programmes that help to deal with new processes or implementing new structures to support the changes in approaches to business activities.
Any fear of the unknown can be combatted with a clear communication strategy and clarity of objectives – if people know what is going on, they have a better chance of being able to join in. This can also help banish any apathy by building interest around the possibilities of the project, getting staff excited about the planned improvements to their working environment. There will naturally be a few naysayers who don’t expect much from a transformation, and so it is crucial to get buy in and engagement from the majority, to help carry the doubters on their wave of enthusiasm.
Digital transformation projects may encounter the most resistance in traditional organisations with history of strong performance and low employee turnover. Employees in these types of organisations may be reluctant to change their ways of working as their previous methods tend to have produced successful results. It is those employees with key business knowledge that most need to be involved in the transformation process as they understand the true DNA of the company. This can be pivotal in the adoption of technology that will help longer-standing organisations compete with digital-born businesses who may be disrupting the market.
So, regardless of the technology type, how can you help your transformation run more smoothly, and most importantly, make the change stick longer term?
The first thing to consider when preparing for any type of change project is the readiness of the organisation. That is not how keen a business is for the change, rather we are talking about understanding the bigger picture. Organisations should look to get a full grasp of the starting point before looking to change that and move forward. It is also important to get a sense of the scale of the project, the capacity of your teams, and how the process may impact business-as-usual. Input from knowledge holders at every level of the business is vital to ensure that the transformed processes are prepared for every variation of operational eventuality. Thus, significant planning is required to allow staff time and capacity to contribute. Without this, organisations may often find project timelines slip, not to mention increasing budgets and costs.
People should be the most important consideration when it comes to change management: those managing the project, those in charge of the budgets and even those involved in the day-to-day running of the business. It always helps for a change manager to have a strong grasp of internal politics and therefore advance warning of any potential roadblocks or challenges that may arise. In order for your people to really embrace the change and get involved, they will need to come along for the journey. Uncertainty of objectives can lead to real crashes in morale, so engaging staff throughout the program will encourage a feeling of having influenced the direction of change and will therefore be more likely to embed the change.
Stakeholder governance is often overlooked when it comes to project planning, and it is an important step. Even then, though, it is not always infallible: setting out the right governing structure does not always mean that it will work, as sometimes business-as-usual gets in the way. It is not enough simply for stakeholders to apportion tasks; instead, they should be present throughout, ensuring delivery on each area. Constantly reiterating the change message and referring back to the ultimate purpose and objectives of the project throughout the process should be a key element to this governance structure, which in turn forms a part of the overall change management approach.
Finally, don’t assume the pitfalls will be clearly signposted. Experience in change management and digital transformation can be just as valuable as experience with your organisation and industry, and combining these skills sets can be the key to a successful change project. This also includes the management of third parties who may be involved in the process, such as software solution providers or data management.
Aside from the main project delivery strategy, a people management plan that covers the wider team is vital, as is a sponsorship plan that lays out the governance strategy for project sponsors, stakeholders, and decision makers. These should include communication planning, and strategies for managing reluctance or lack of buy-in for the transformation project. Added to this, a training strategy should be developed and should be an ongoing consideration that offers continued support for teams.
The change management plan is a core guiding principle that displays the forethought and risk management for the process, and incorporates all these plans: sponsorship, people management, training and delivery. Once a change management strategy has been developed, this is not a static or immoveable concept. The strategy should be constantly monitored and allowed to evolve as things become clearer and priorities change.
Therefore ultimately, whatever the technology or solution that a transformation project incorporates, the main challenges remain broadly similar: making changes at a process level, and focusing on encouraging teams to drive change at an individual employee level.