3 Ways Digital Transformation Leaders Drive Organizational Change

A Guide For All IT Leaders

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Isaac Sacolick

Ask any leader that’s led digital transformations and they’ll tell you that success is not driven by deploying new platforms, excelling with emerging technologies, enabling better customer experiences, or by becoming more competitive with data and analytics. Succeeding with digital technologies is certainly a key aspect of transformation programs, but it’s not what drives businesses to grow, become more efficient, or sufficient to drive competitiveness in a faster pace, market driven economy.

Successful transformation is driven by changing people’s mindset about their mission, value they bring to the organization, and collaboration that enables cross disciplinary teams to innovate. In fact, the number one reason many digital transformations fail is that leaders fail to recognize and instrument the bottoms-up changes that drive employee engagement in new business-focus areas.

CIO and IT leaders must be attentive to all the hard aspects of technology leadership, including enabling enterprise agile practices, instituting devops automation, managing multi-cloud environments, enabling DataOps and data governance, and addressing the most critical security gaps. To lead transformation, it’s critical to factor in how to communicate and engage people in business, technology, and operational roles on a collaborative and change-driven mindset.

Over the past couple of years since I published Driving Digital and continue to write, speak, and consult on driving transformation, I’ve learned and shared many best practices on how leaders drive organizational change. Here are some things successful leaders focus on.

1. Transformation Leaders Challenge The Status Quo

You can’t drive transformation if your organization believes that the way it always does things is acceptable. While most transformation leaders already understand the need to modernize, they often miss the opportunities to provide employees the means and tools to challenge the status quo by seeking both incremental and transformational operational changes.

One way to do this is to show employees that it’s good to ask a lot of why questions and request to see the data that backs up the response. Why is the requested change to the CRM a priority? Why should IT continue to support an application that has relatively low usage? Why is a competitor more successful at supporting their customers? Why are customers abandoning their online shopping carts?

Organizations don’t necessarily want employees asking questions and challenging assumptions all the time because that can be disruptive, so the best leaders find opportunities to engage employees at appropriate times and on different topics. This can be done through brainstorming sessions, innovation workshops, agile demos, hackathons, and other collaborative gatherings that enable blue sky thinking.

Transformation leaders should lead by example and demonstrate this behavior at executive meetings. CIOs in particular must be challenging their peers on outdated business models and operational practices. IT leaders should be bringing data and analytics to the table and showing that their priorities are driven by data-driven insights. When employees see leaders using data, asking questions, and open to discussing new business ideas, they are more likely to engage in the transformation.

2. Leaders Drive All Aspects Of Learning

It’s hard to enable employees to ask questions if they are inhibited by business knowledge, technical acumen, or just plainly lack confidence. Driving a culture that supports learning and exploration is one way to enable employees to seek new ways to improve customer experiences, implement automations that can drive efficiencies, or experiment with technologies that can enable differentiating capabilities.

Learning is not just training. For example, in an agile process, technologists can be encouraged to prioritize spikes to experiment with new techniques. When a new technology looks promising, IT leaders can sponsor proof of concepts that can flush out business use cases and technology capabilities. In order to enable data-driven organizations, leaders should deploy self-service business intelligence programs so that business leaders can leverage data in decision making.

Enabling a learning organization also means that leaders create opportunities for individuals to share their knowledge and go beyond lunch and learn programs. Leaders can encourage employees to contribute to open source projects, volunteer at non-profits, speak at conferences, write posts for their company’s blog, or contribute on social media. Learning also implies that employees may not be the experts, especially when it comes to new practices and technologies. Leaders should educate employees on developing relationships with business leaders and partnering with other institutions in order to learn about and deliver new capabilities.

3. Leaders Ruthlessly Prioritize Business Initiatives

Saying “yes” to everybody on everything most often means very little is getting done. One of the most important jobs of transformation leaders is to establish the organization’s focus by clearly communicating where they need to win, and where other activities can be on the backburner.

It also means instituting a minimal viability mindset. Trying to get a perfect, optimal, or even a complete implementation out the door is both hard and slow. Sharing the minimal quality and compliance requirements and then driving fast changes that bundle in feedback mechanisms is what differentiates a transformative culture.

I encourage organizations that are just embarking on transformation to start with only one focus area. Selecting one driver implies that early participants in the transformation program have the greatest opportunity to succeed. And success breeds greater interest and participation by others that want to learn and change the organization.

Isaac Sacolick, President of StarCIO, is the author of Driving Digital: The Leader’s Guide to Business Transformation Through Technology which covers many practices, such as agile, devops, and data science that are critical to successful digital transformation programs. Sacolick is a recognized top social CIO, keynote speaker, digital transformation influencer, and writes the blog Social, Agile and Transformation.