Digital transformation may be the most convenient shorthand for today’s efforts to digitise business models, organisation and processes, but, never-the-less, the term is far from perfect. The word digital brings its own challenges (because in this context, digital really shouldn’t mean just tech), but the ’transformation’ word is more problematic.

At Post*Shift we get the opportunity to meet and talk with many organisations at various stages of identifying what they need to operate effectively for the digital age. The ones that concern me the most are not those who have only just started or even the ones who are not sure where to start – but actually those that claim their digital transformation programme is going very well and is on track to complete. (Many of these by 2020, I’m counting down the days!)

These programmes are usually costly and often not undertaken by choice, but by necessity. There will have been some combination of market dynamics that have led to change being required whether that be from changing consumer demands and behaviour, to new responsive ways of working pioneered by start-ups – all enabled by the rise of technology.

However, those that are leading in the digital age haven’t emerged from the other side of an organisational makeover.  Those that thrive are the companies that constantly work on tweaking, improving and responding to these fast-moving dynamics because it is embedded in their day-to-day work structures and processes. It’s part of their DNA.

Arguably, if you are clutching a 3-5 year transformation Gantt chart as your ticket to greatness, you have spectacularly missed the point.

You will never know your end date and that’s ok

Time and time again, our experience from working with firms of all sizes and industries tells the same story, top-down wholesale change initiatives do not work. Part of the blame for this can be put on an over-emphasis on technology rather than the new structures, culture, processes and leadership methods required to leverage what technology enables. However, another large part of the failure-rate is that approaching Digital Transformation in programme form implies there is a magical end state with a big reveal at which point all wrongs have been righted.

One of the hallmarks of the digital age is its unpredictability. Therefore change cannot be viewed as a one-off improvement initiative. These will tend to show short-term, surface-level results through delivering a new collaboration platform or consumer app or the set-up of an innovation or digital team, but will rarely produce long-term sustainable impact. To do this, change must instead become routine. Focussing on increasing your adaptiveness as an organisation is key to achieving this, rather than having a more traditional deliverable.

Unfortunately, this approach is less exciting, as it lacks a big-bang end date where everyone can look at something tangible, pat each other on the back, and say congratulations. However, it is the most effective method we have found for “change as routine” which allows an organisation to truly be able to adapt to the unknowable. In our view, this sustainable approach is far more rewarding.

But how do we know we’ve changed anything?

When you are ensconced in a large corporation, with default organisational structures and processes that were designed when markets were stable and predictable, it can be hard to shift to a mental model of change that doesn’t involve an end date. It can feel too soft, vague and impossible to achieve across a large organisation without some kind of centralisation. However, it is very possible not only to make this type of change concrete, but also to harness the power of your people to do so, by following two activities:

1) Distribute:

Enforcing change on employees usually involves a lot of time and resources sunk into communications plans that are not only expensive but they just don’t work. We recommend taking a distributed approach, helping employees to understand the reasons and goals for change, and then empowering them to identify and undertake small change actions in their own areas as they see fit.

Create a digital guide network to enact your change at scale, empowering them to support the rest of the business in enacting change.

Use the principals of behavioural economics to “nudge” creating small changes as part of their daily work, encouraging them to constantly review and improve towards adaptive goals. When looking at larger change actions that are required, involve those impacted in designing what is needed and in the implementation where possible.

2) Measure:

With distributed change approaches a key challenge is getting oversight of progress successes and struggles. When you distribute authority and empower employees to enact change in their own way, how do you keep track of how well the organisation is progressing as a whole? How do we prove that these small actions are adding up to large-scale change?

We would recommend regular measurement of your progress. Identify what your target adaptive attributes are and conduct pulse surveys with your employees to understand the current state – we have created a free diagnostic test you can use as a starting point.  With regular measurement, you can start to create a picture of how well you are progressing towards your goals.

Share the results with employees in as close to real-time as you are able, so that they have the information they need to course-correct as needed.

By involving the whole organisation in leading the change, and giving them the tools to understand their progress you achieve two things. It not only addresses any short-term need for adapting for the digital age but also embeds the skills and capabilities needed to continue to be adaptive in the long-term. In this way, your digital transformation may never be over, but you will know that things are getting done.