A pivotal success factor of any digital transformation is ensuring that you have adequately addressed change management. Lady luck will have to smile upon you and your team and shower you with gifts of pure luck if you are to have any chance of digitalisation success without consideration for change management.

Having said this….

Change management itself will suffer setbacks if you are missing one critical element: if the leader of the organisation is not visible, proactive, and actively part of the digitalisation journey. Regardless of how expert you are at change management and irrespective of your proven methodology of choice, impactful, meaningful change across all levels of an organisation can only be achieved if the leader of the organisation, be it the business owner, founder, CEO, head-decision-making-person, you get my drift, is fully immersed and onboard.

Let’s dissect this further: what does it mean for a leader to be ‘immersed and onboard’ and what do I mean by ‘visible, proactive, and actively part of the digitalisation journey’?

To explain this, I’m going to take you through 3 real-life digitalisation projects which I led from beginning to end on behalf of my clients, and the observations I was able to make as a result.

Case #1 – Leader couldn’t care less – project flopped

We all make mistakes in our careers, and we all have to accept these mistakes and learn through reflection. Many moons ago, in a land far far away….. My team and I enthusiastically accepted a challenge: to lead the digital transformation of a retail operation. The business model we developed was spot on. The business process reengineering documentation reminded me of a piece of art that could hang on the walls of GOMA. The staff were enthused. The tech we implemented was beautiful, and did exactly what we wanted it to do, in line with the business process plan and the digital strategy. Yet despite this, the project was a HUGE flop. Most of the changes didn’t stick, despite our best attempts to manage change across the organisation. WHY? Simple: beyond signing off on the project, the leader was invisible almost the entire time throughout the project. Furthermore, once we finished and deployed the various solutions, the leader decided that they were special, that they owned the business, so they didn’t need to align with the new way of things… They simply continued doing things the way they were previously done, which after a few weeks resulted in the enthusiastic staff following in their footsteps. Slowly but surely staff bypassed aspects of the new solution, reverting to the old way of doing things. This new, hybrid way of operating got in the way, making the day-to-day unnecessarily confusing and complicated. Trust me, I learnt a lot from this experience…..

Here, the leader was not visible during the project, wasn’t proactive in their use of the technology, and was certainly not active in the implementation of the solutions. As a result, they weren’t immersed and onboard, and side-railed the change efforts.

Case #2 – Leader onboard, but isn’t immersed – project semi-successful

An enthusiastic client, owners of a national business, engaged me and my team to head up their next stage of evolution. We worked with them on their new digital transformation strategy and proceeded implementing the various solutions. This was a deep change, organisation wide. As in case #1, I was pleased with the work we had done, with the outcome repositioning the business as a digitally driven leader in the industry while helping the organisation run smoother and more effectively. Having said this, overall, the project was not completely successful. Yes, aspects of the digitalisation worked very well, but, other aspects have just stagnated. The change management process involved significant stakeholder engagement across the organisation throughout the entire project, supported by thorough training and the roll out of various supporting material such as how to use videos. That all seemed to work well initially; however, the change did not stick for everyone. The office team embraced the technologies, becoming the champions. The field team initially embraced the technologies, however, over time the old ways of doing things crept back for many in the field, resulting in about 80% of field users going back to old ways where possible. Why was this? On investigation the following became apparent: the leader, although supportive of the digital transformation and being very visible, proactive, and involved in the project, did not continue with their immersion by actually actively using the technologies (particularly the field technologies), once they were rolled out. It was a case of ‘do as I say, not what I do’, which resulted in the senior field personnel also pushing back on the technologies (despite initially using it), which then led the more middle-junior personnel to mimic the acts of the senior personnel. This led to an initial upswing in user adoption followed by the downturn.

Here, the leader was visible throughout the project, and was completely engaged, however, in the end they themselves didn’t end up engaged with the technologies, resulting in the rest of the field team in particular mimicking their behaviour.

Case #3 – Leader onboard and completely immersed – immense success

This last example highlights what can happened when a leader truly commits to their digital journey. Not just by what they say, but through their actions. In this case, like the others, my team and I were engaged to head up the digital transformation of another retail operation. Transforming a mainly bricks and mortar business into a fully-fledged e-commerce operator is not an easy task, especially when the business had been around for years prior and had its set ways of doing things. Nonetheless, we took on the challenge. It became apparent to me very quickly that this client was very different to most others I had worked with. They were on a mission to become the digital disruptors in their space, to outsmart their competition by using clever technologies across the entire organisation. The leader wanted a whole of organisation change, a true restructure to support their digitally driven mission and vision. The outcome of the transformation met and exceeded everyone’s expectations, with the project coming in on budget, on time, and with full adoption internally. Why did this success come about? The answer is clear and directed in one direction: the leader. Yes, we undertook the digital transformation in a very methodical manner using well tested methodologies, however, what made the project stick and therefore succeed was the leaders unwavering mindset that digital was their future and digital was the only way forward for them. Thus, the change was easier to manage. It also meant that when the project finished, the leader took ownership by embracing the new technologies, completely adopting the technologies and never even thinking about moving back to their old ways. As a result, everyone followed suit.

Mimicry is an often-undervalued management tool that leaders can use to instill change at an individual and organisation level. If you are a leader, then behaviour modification can be better achieved by doing as one preaches, as opposed to waving the big stick, expecting people to do as told but then you yourself acting in different ways.

Now, following on from the above case examples, you can see from my real-world examples how the leader’s mindset towards the digital directly affects the outcomes of digital transformation in their organisation. Research coming out in this space backs up my firsthand experiences, suggesting that leaders seeking to embark on digitalisation in their organisation need to develop and maintain a strong digital mindset in order to positively influence the trajectory of outcomes.

For the change and digital transformation practitioners reading this, the message is clear: make sure that the leaders you are working with are immersed and onboard, being visible, proactive and actively part of not just the actual change/transformation journey, but the post journey continued adoption of the new way/s.

In future articles I’ll talk deeper about digital mindsets, and how this type of mindset can be used to not only influence transformation outcomes, but, influence other aspects of an organisation, including the organisational identity, cybersecurity and governance.

Written by Peter Spinda – contact me by filling out our contact form or send an email to info@malekso.com.au to discuss your Business Model, Strategy, Digital Transformation or Executive Coaching and Mentoring needs!

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