Transformation Blues

The verdict is in: digital transformations aren’t going away.

Digital technology’s ever-widening and deepening impact on the way we live is flowing on to the way we work, and the way customers want companies to meet their wants and needs. Competitive pressures mount as rival companies use digital technology’s reach and capabilities to continually chip away at the layers of cost, inconvenience and time that stand between them and their customers. Each innovation rewrites the rules of doing business and becomes the standard for everyone else.

When the old rules can no longer enable the enterprise to compete effectively or efficiently; when even the most change-resistant manager has a hard time denying the need to adapt to the digitally-connected world, it is time to face the digital transformation.

And so the digital transformation project is conceived, then planned, developed and implemented: smart people making the smart decision to reinvent the organisation in order to survive and thrive.

A digital transformation is an extensive, and expensive, undertaking. There is the cost of maintaining business as usual. Add to that the cost of applying technology to develop a new way of doing business. Then add the costs of ensuring customers buy into the change.

As expensive as such a project will be, there is a greater cost. The leakage that can occur as part of the digital transformation can overshadow all other budgeted costs: lost customers or sales; lost organisational knowledge through employee turnover; loss of productivity through worker uncertainty, frustration or skill gaps; lost organisational capacity from disrupted social and operational networks, confused systems, loss of business momentum.

These costs don’t even contemplate whether your digital transformation needs were correctly identified; there is nothing good about the effective implementation of the wrong strategy.

Digital transformation is complex, and so are the factors that lead to success and the causes for their failures. It would be naive (and repeat, expensive) to think otherwise. According to IBM, 84% of digital transformation projects fail, while other experts estimate that 7 out of 8 digital transformation projects go wrong.

There is, however, a way to considerably improve your chances for a successful digital transformation project.


By ‘conversation’, I mean engaged exchanges between parties that are personally vested in the quality and/or outcome of the interaction. I mean the words used, how they are said, and are received. Body stance and placement, gestures, attentiveness, expression and tone of voice are as central to conversation as the words themselves. I also mean direction, timing and who the conversations includes or excludes. You know that not being spoken to at the right time by the appropriate person can often carry more meaning than anything that is actually said.

Think how instantly your entire understanding of a relationship can be undermined or enhanced by a single conversation. A disparaging, belittling, unsympathetic, self-serving conversation can tear apart feelings of trust and respect. On the other hand, a heartfelt, empathetic, interested dialogue can elevate a relationship to new levels.

Why conversations? They form the bedrock of all relationships and how people act and react within those relationships. Without conversation, there can be no relationship-building.

What else are digital transformations but customer, supplier, partner and employer relationships reconfigured for the digital era?

Thinking of digital transformation as a technology project misses the main point of the transformation project: the relationship. As in all relationships, when you want to change the nature of your understanding and interaction, you need to talk.

Have a listen to the conversations taking place. If the core of them is about software, configurations, programming, data, or otherwise technological rather than people-oriented, you could be slipping dangerously close to being one of the failures.

Is conversation just communication strategy lite?

Communication isn’t conversation any more than sex is love. Communication is a technical and mechanical process, a series of tasks and actions that improve the flow and transfer of information. The primary objective is to deliver a message, usually to drive to some form of action.

Conversations are a human process. The relationship is as much the point as any topic of discussion. Conversations are expressions of emotions, connectedness, ideas and desires.

Communication is, of course, vitally important to the success of the transformation project, but what happens after the message is delivered? What are people saying? Is the language that of understanding, support, excitement or confusion, skepticism, fear or resentment? Are the right people talking to the right people? Are there pockets of silence where nothing is being discussed at all? Communication conveys the details; conversations help to drive their meaning home.

Conversations are powerful. Their power can be seen in gossip – an unhealthy form of conversation – and the grapevine where information can spread much faster than even the most well-planned communication campaign.

The purpose and vision of a digital transformation for the organisation can be conveyed through communication, but conversations make the process of change personal and real.

Why digital transformations fail

Other than misunderstanding a digital transformation as a technology project, the other misunderstanding relates to the the term ‘transformation’.

Transformations are all-encompassing changes; skills, processes, policies, workflows, resource requirements, relationships, methodologies, practices and norms – these must be revised, reset and reviewed. Familiarity and security of old ways, however, makes them sticky and hard for people to let go. That can lead to the continual winding back of the transformation plan to the point that they become a patchwork of old and new.

Under traditional management, managers do the doing; the people are done to. Managers lead, instruct, inspire, give feedback to, motivate, coach – everyone else receives.

Transformation is a collaborative, not a submissive, process. People must be contributors to the change, they can’t be passively compliant. The scope of the change requires it. If traditional management is planning a holiday in another country, transformation is the equivalent of relocating to another country.

Traditional management isn’t equipped to deal with transformation; it has always been a function of improvement – incremental, not transformative change.

After years of top-down communication given organisational priority, managers – and their employees – have not developed the ability for deep conversation. All the focus has been on communication, a mainly cold and sterile process. Conversations have faded into mostly superficial interchanges devoid of concern, understanding and empathy.

The organisational over-emphasis on communication has turned people into fact receptacles instead of inviting them to enter an exchange as thinking and sensate beings. Conversations open up the possibility of interacting on both these fronts. What should be a genuine conversation opener: “How are you?” has become little more than an empty formality, a preamble to a communication. When was the last time you were able to answer something other than the expected, “Fine, thanks”?

Before you undertake your digital transformation, start with conversations. It not only builds common understanding of the direction your transformation should take, it creates buy-in and strengthens the relationship that your transformation project should be working to improve.

Conversations are a window to the mind. With a little help and preparation, you don’t just glean information, you can form understanding. Before you embark on a difficult journey, insight and understanding aren’t just a luxury. They can be the difference between success and being in the failed 84% of digital transformation failure.


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