Pick any organisation in the FTSE500 and they will probably have a digital transformation initiative of some kind. Indeed, according to IDC, budgets allocated to be spent on digital transformation globally are forecast to reach an estimated $1.2 trillion – an upward trajectory that shows no signs of slowing. But when you dig into what those budgets are actually spent on, it is solely on technology in some form.

This baffles me because we know that the biggest barriers to leveraging the agile, connected ways of working are not lack of tech spend, but behavioural. Legacy structures and processes, entrenched for decades from pre-digital era thinking, actively make it harder to enable the responsive practices that would allow an organisation to become adaptive.

Having new apps and mobile-optimised websites mean little, if your processes are still siloed with clunky hand-offs between departments. All the enterprise collaboration tools and digital workplace deployments in the world will have little effect, if people are still working out of their inbox between meetings, while big data architecture deployments alone will not save you from layers of hierarchy that block your people from acting on any insights derived. Put bluntly, all you will get from focussing on tech alone, is lipstick on a pig.

Frustratingly, many organisations we speak to know this deep down. But the way this is addressed often manifests in HR or Comms-led culture change programmes stuck in the realm of cookie-cutter ‘values’ launches, employee engagement surveys or sheep-dip training programmes. Those behind such initiatives are doing their best, but as I have argued before: sustainable behaviour change does not come from posters, classrooms or asking how happy people are. 

Target digital behaviours to cut through the fluff

The appeal of these approaches are that they are visible, tangible examples of action, but if we measure by outcomes rather than vanity metrics, they come up woefully short. They endure as a go-to play by corporates simply because they are looking for a silver bullet (spoiler alert: there isn’t one) and any alternative is put in the “too hard to do” pile. So, if doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, how do we stop the madness?

Through our combined experience with clients and extensive research, we have found that there is a specific set of behaviours that are best focussed on to overcome barriers to digital transformation. These are the behaviours (pictured right) that, in some measure, are found in every good practice example of adaptive organisations, from pioneering industrial firms like Morning Star to tech start-ups like Valve.

Together, these behaviours form the antidote to calcified 20th century firms. This is because they enable the holy grail of adaptiveness, the quality most needed to survive in the unpredictable markets of today. It’s for this reason that we use these as a starting point for client engagements, working with them to identify their unique focus areas of each. Nurture these behaviours and you unlock the full ROI of your digital transformation investment.

Measure and empower rather than prescribe and decide

How you go about encouraging these adaptive attributes across an organisation can be daunting, which is partly why so many traditional firms still believe that command and control is the answer. Old habits die hard as broadcast communications and trainings are launched, telling people how to behave if they want to succeed. But as anyone who has ever been told (or has told themselves!) to lose weight knows, simply telling someone to do something, doesn’t make it happen.

We suggest a different approach. Resist the urge to “tell” – instead, seek answers in data, and trust your people as you empower the organisation to take charge of their own progress towards digital behaviours, working through these four activity areas:

Health: Taking the time to build a measurement model of your target behaviours and sharing the data is far more effective than edicts from above. This can be as simple as regular pulse check surveys zeroing in on the health of your digital behaviours (you can try our free Quantified Org Diagnostic as a starting point). As you become more advanced, look to combine several datasets from internal systems (e.g. from your ESN and CRM systems) to paint a well-rounded view of progress towards an adaptive culture.

Goals: Seek to include the organisation in the challenges ahead, not just by communicating what change is needed and why, but by sharing the findings from your measurement to allow employees to truly understand the transformation journey. Since top-down change programmes do not work, seek to empower the organisation to manage and track their own progress towards cultural change. Let them use your measurement data to identify the areas to work on, and what change actions they want to try to address this. Encourage them to share their progress with the wider organisation, recommending what has worked and cautioning against what hasn’t.

Guides: Identify and mobilise a network of ‘digital guides’, i.e. your change agents and emerging digital leaders, who can act as your ‘sensor network’: carrying the message for change, spotting opportunities to solve practical problems and using new ways of working. Facilitate a networked conversation around the collective achievement of becoming an adaptive organisation, celebrating success and supporting learning from failures.

Skills: Employees need support to learn new ways of working, techniques and practices that embed digital, adaptive behaviours. Provide opportunities for them to teach themselves these techniques by reading and testing out ideas that appeal from other organisations. We use our extensive knowledgebase of case studies, tools and techniques with clients, as a practical way to provide the resources everyone needs to get started. Encourage exposure to learning from other best practice organisations through organising knowledge exchanges or ‘lunch & learns’.

Reprioritise your digital transformation investment

Taking an inclusive, socialised approach helps to humanise the organisation and unlock a broader spectrum of human capacity, beyond simply adopting a new technology. Approaching transformation with behaviour as a focus allows for development of the new skills and ways of working together with the culture change needed to make the transformation work, creating a win-win relationship between the two. It also becomes a process that your organisation can own completely, as nothing has been imposed through an off-the-shelf, top-down framework or roadmap. Instead, they have co-created the goals and the actions, creating change together.

We believe focussing on these four areas of activity vastly reduces the risk of digital transformation programmes failing. Given the level of investment by executive boards on digital strategy, they may argue whether they can afford to invest more on the human side. My challenge would be, you don’t need to find more money: redeploy budget traditionally plowed into communication campaigns and training programmes into something more effective, more engaging, and more likely to make change stick. Taking a distributed culture-led approach may not be as neat and tidy as ticking off ‘Value posters printed’ on a campaign checklist, but given the failure rate of such initiatives, the real question is: can you afford not to?

If you are interested in discussing quick ways to get started, please get in touch.