Transformation is the goal. Digital is the tool

Digital transformation continues to be a priority for CIOs and organizations. But, maybe we are focusing on the wrong thing. Isn’t it time that leaders focused more on transformation to achieve business results rather than implementing digital solutions?

wrenches in different sizes / an iterative process of development or repair
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Why is digital transformation still a big deal? It has been on the radar for at least five years, and yet the majority of CEO’s are still saying that projects or transformation initiatives are underway to make their organizations more digital. Considering the shelf life of most business transformation ideas, shouldn’t we have moved on by now?

One reason is that too many organizations have focused on the challenges of implementing digital tools rather than the truly hard work of transforming how they think, act, and perform. As a result, they are trapped into focusing on the activity of implementation rather than the goal of transformation.

How disruptive companies are different

The Disrupt 100 annually highlights companies from around the world that are implementing new ways to serve their clients. The usual suspects such as Amazon, Netflix, and Alphabet might dominate the business news, but they don’t show up on this list. What you will find are young, vibrant companies that push the boundaries of what’s possible. They are the companies that are most likely to disrupt the legacy names in their marketplace.

The developers in these companies are not substantially better than yours. They aren’t running the latest and greatest hardware while you are stuck in the 1990’s. The difference between disruptive startups and the legacy companies with which they compete is that the disruptors have transformed how they work – and more important how they approach work.

Embracing a digital future isn’t a new concept for them. It is the only way they know. The same is true for being relentlessly curious, creative, and collaborative. In other words, disruptive companies are more nimble because they aren’t encumbered with the need to transform the thinking, culture, and work processes of the organization. This allows them to focus more of their energy on pursuing big ideas.

Showpad, a leading provider of sales enablement technology, is an excellent example of how the right mindset and culture are crucial to building an organization that moves quickly to anticipate change and adapt. And when you think about it, isn’t that really the challenge you face when getting people to move quickly with digital transformation?

Showpad has grown from 20 people in Belgium to over 250 worldwide since 2011. I had the opportunity to speak with Pieterjan Bouten, Showpad’s co-founder and CEO, about the role culture plays in keeping his company focused and engaged. From his perspective, a leader’s true values and style are ultimately reflected in the culture. He and his leadership colleagues make a conscious effort to be visible and engaged with the team. They value authenticity, humbleness, transparency, having fun, and to use Pieterjan’s words, a low tolerance for BS.

Bouten believes that these factors combined with a big mission and vision create a connection between the team and company that allows them to focus more of their energy on doing the work of delivering great products rather than navigating the challenges of convincing people of the need to change.

What CIOs can learn from a high-growth company

Every organization that struggles with digital transformation today was, at one point, a nimble and adaptive company that earned its place against slower, less effective competitors. Somewhere along the way, however, things changed. Success and size created complexity. The startup mindset that reinforced looking for better ways and collaborating to get things done gave way to silos, budgets, and procedures.

You can’t change where you are and how you operate today. You can and must fully embrace the reality that your performance and the performance of your team are being evaluated against a combination of continuing to do your current job well while helping the company transform and innovate. Here are two ideas that will help:

1. Reframe the discussion

It is easy for the tool to become the goal. Stephanie Trunzo, Global Head of IBM Cloud Garage, told me that, ““Technology is the subplot. The real question is how do you solve customer problems and business challenges?”

A former healthcare client’s situation serves as an illustration. Its doctors weren’t using the new electronic medical records system. The conversations within the organization had even devolved into using the product’s name as the goal. People at every level talked about “Going (insert product name)” to define the purpose.

From their perspective, the problem was obvious—the doctors either couldn’t or didn’t want to make the changes necessary to implement this new tool. The proposed solutions were to provide more training or deal with the resistance to change.

One question altered the perspective and reframed the problem: How well did these doctors perform with the previous manual medical records system?

It turns out that the doctors who struggled with the new technology were at best mediocre with the old way of doing things. This realization allowed the healthcare organization to reframe the discussion from adopting a new digital solution to improving the quality of care. Who’s not in favor of that?

It is important that you focus on understanding and solving a real business problem rather than implementing the technology. Every organization must continually be on the lookout for ways to be faster, better, cheaper, and friendlier. As Trunzo said during our conversation, “The last thing you want to do is make it harder to serve your customers or do the work.”

2. Practice change leadership not change management

Back in 1995, John Kotter wrote that seventy percent of all change efforts fail to achieve their desired result. Since then there have been endless books, articles, speeches, and workshops on change management. Studies suggest that the impact of all that effort is that about seventy percent of all change efforts fail to achieve their desired result.

Perhaps after 23 years of similar results it is time to accept that change management isn’t the problem. As renowned computer scientist and Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper said, "You manage things, you lead people.”

You can’t help your organization stay relevant in the marketplace unless you can make transformation work. And, that can’t be accomplished as long as change is viewed as a process to be managed rather than an opportunity to engage people who want to accomplish something important.

Change leadership begins with the way you think and talk. Examine your words and the words you accept from others. Are new ideas encouraged or ridiculed? Are changes only discussed from the perspective of a process or technology to be implemented rather than as a business problem to be solved? Our language reflects our thinking, and when it comes to leading change, thinking drives action.

The number one response I receive when I ask leaders about their difficult with leading transformation is a variation of this statement: Change would be easy if people stopped resisting.

Dealing with resistance is another crucial change leadership function, and the natural response is to either push back or run away. The better response is to do neither.

It is easy to forget that the vast majority of your team wants to do a good job. That makes any resistance the product of a legitimate fear or concern, and from that perspective, resistance is your friend. The best leaders are also great listeners. You overcome resistance when you accept it as a natural and important part of the process.

Finally, leaders go first. Digital transformation opens doors to new ways of solving problems, creating meaningful experiences, and creating connections with both customers and team members. Your team wants you to be bold not timid. They need you to add so much value and be so proactive that fears are minimized and replaced with confidence.

The best organizations are known for their awareness, drive, and ownership for positive, proactive change. That’s how they decrease their exposure to disruption. It’s not about the tool. Sooner rather than later, digital will be just the way everything is done. Transformation is the goal, and it will never go away.

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