CEO mandate is not enough for success in digital transformation

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If you’re a CIO or other executive tasked with leading a digital transformation project, chances are high that you’re left-brained oriented — you’re a logical thinker and are very good at solving problems. But be careful when you develop the approach to the transformation. Inevitably you’ll be asked “What’s the solution?” and “What does the road map look like?” Speaking for myself here, we folks with dominant left-brain characteristics are often “stupid” enough to answer those questions. Unfortunately, thinking we are bright enough to know the answers is a mistake that usually motivates passive-resistance to change and can even lead to a failed initiative.

Some leaders driving transformation initiatives have a natural tendency to go right to the problem, figure out the solution and start working on it. This is especially the case in organizations where there is a mandate from the CEO to make the transformation happen. Everyone understands they must get on board with the mandated change.

Executives with a vision for transformation usually think they can move forward successfully once the CEO commits to the project and the necessary resources. But in my experience of working with many companies undertaking business or digital transformation, getting the CEO’s commitment for change is just step one of the transformation journey.

The inconvenient truth

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard executives say, “We know we need to change, and we’re ready for it. We just need the solution.” And I hear service providers say “Our client is ready for change. They just need the solution.” Companies in this situation always fail in their transformation efforts. Why? Because they don’t build the organizational commitment up front to support the change. Yes, they may have a CEO mandate. And, yes, they build a business case. But that involves developing a road map.

The inconvenient truth is that individuals involved in the meetings to develop the project approach and road map may nod their heads in agreement. But after the meeting, they often become passive-aggressive in a heartbeat. Their behaviors look like this: They pounce on details in the road map, saying it doesn’t solve the problem or they don’t understand an aspect. They constantly criticize. They don’t show up for planning meetings. And as the transformation journey progresses, they pounce on any commitment that isn’t over-delivered on or needs adjustment.

The leaders also have commitment challenges due to a road map. They lock in on that detailed plan and then think, “I’ve got to deliver on this promise.” But the reality is the plan details keep changing as you iterate through a multiyear transformation journey.

What should you do instead of developing a road map?

Can a company succeed in transformation if it builds a detailed plan and road map up front without first building support from senior stakeholders on down through other levels of the organization? Certainly they can still succeed — but “succeed” is defined as getting to the end of a project or delivering a digital technology. Unfortunately, the usual outcome of this approach is that the company may achieve some early gains but falls dramatically short of the transformation vision. 

I’ve blogged before about the mistake of starting down the path of trying to enable transformational change before enough stakeholders understand where the project is going. You first must build enough belief as to why the company needs the change and that the change is possible. Otherwise, you’ll likely run into pushback and debilitating, passive-aggressive behavior — even with a CEO mandate. I refer to this as the “go slow to go fast” principle.

Instead of committing to a road map or detailed plans, you need to motivate the business stakeholders to take ownership of the vision and change. Employees at all levels must understand:

  • Achieving the vision is a journey.
  • It’s a failure-prone mistake to make detailed plans up front because there are too many aspects of the journey that can’t be known at the outset.
  • Instead of a road map, you’ll build a backlog of initiatives and then prioritize them as you go.
  • It will be necessary to iterate the solution throughout the journey.
  • Risks will be controlled by designing and planning the solution development in short sprints.

So, as the leader driving transformational change, what should be your answer when you’re asked up front “What’s the solution?” or “What does the road map look like?” My advice is to respond with “In reality, I don’t know and you don’t know. That’s because we don’t know what the business is going to look like at the end of the multiyear journey. We will iterate the solution and design the plan as short sprints with specific goals and then make necessary adjustments before we move on to the next sprint.”

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