Change Management for a Smooth Digital Transformation

PUBLISHED: 2/22/2019

Change—it’s happening right now. And whether it’s something that your organization is actively pursuing or a series of outside forces that are having an impact on your business, the reality is that changes are taking place all of the time. Keeping that in mind, it stands to reason that effectively managing change is in your business’ best interest. But even though the benefits of wrangling change can be many, the path to making it happen isn’t inherently smooth. Follow these tips to make your organization’s path to digital transformation a bit less rocky and to avoid common gotchas.

Plan for Continuous Change


Today, we’re moving from a “planned change” approach where we may look ahead several months (or even into next year) and set aside a time for a large upgrade or transition toward a “continuous change” approach. Why? Because technology is already moving too fast for people to stop changing—we simply don’t have the option of booking “down time” in the future to make a big switch.

Change management happens all around us, all of the time; all companies are always managing change, whether we’re conscious of it or not. The key here is to get ahead of the curve and manage it as it happens, creating a culture of continuous improvement, ensuring that people are leveraging their experience with change, managing their competence with change and communicating with the right people at the right time about the change, adjusting the message to fit each person’s priorities, competencies and roles.

Put People’s Needs At the Top


Some people think that change is inherently difficult for humans, but that isn’t necessarily the case; it isn’t the change itself that is difficult, but the uncertainty of what will happen as a result of that change that causes such concern. What will happen to my job? What if I’m unable to keep up? How will my role change and how will it impact my social status here at work? All of these unspoken questions are at the core of the uncertainty and the anxiety that can make change seem so scary and overwhelming.

However, by being proactive and taking a people-first approach to change management, you can alleviate much of the tension and apprehension surrounding change. Ensure that you have buy-in from your leadership team as well as the project committee who will be leading the execution. Getting both teams involved means that you’ll have not only the money and staff to put toward a successful implementation, but also in-the-trenches project champions who will provide updates and serve as a feedback loop to the executive team.

Additionally, develop a detailed communication plan that identifies direct and indirect stakeholders and outlines who, what, when and how they will be informed of the reasons for and the benefits of the change, as well as the path forward for getting there. The plan must also include a clear mechanism for gathering feedback, addressing concerns and answering questions.

Remember—with technology transformations specifically, your employees’ number one concern is that they will lose their jobs—it is likely the subtext of every initial question concern raised. Your communications plan and every written or oral communication around the transformation must be aware of this underlying concern. Proactive and empathetic communication from the C-suite through every level of management will be imperative to quelling fears and allowing employees to move from a place of fear into a place where they are ready to learn.

Provide Opportunities for Wins, Early and Often


When it comes to creating a smooth digital transformation, nothing creates confidence like a small success—and one way to provide that is by kicking off the project with a reminder of prior positive experiences and existing capacities. Leveraging earlier wins as evidence of the potential of future wins is an incredible way to get even more mileage out of the hard work that your team has already provided and to give them an incentive to strive to do their best again. After all, if you have a marketer who’s struggling to learn a new platform, discussing with them how they became a rockstar on a platform just a year ago may trigger their brain to think “You know, I struggled on that at first too but after a while I ruled!”

Other strategies that provide opportunities for early wins include:

  • Incremental change: A best practice in technology implementation anyway, incremental change will allow your team to quickly realize both the benefits of the transformation as well as the joys of a victory on their own rather than having to wait months or years for a “win.”
  • Ample training and resources: Create a situation where your staff has access to comprehensive training in a variety of formats (online, in person, etc.) as well as additional resources so that they can become subject matter experts in a “safe” environment. Remember that people learn in a variety of different ways and provide resources for different learning styles.
  • Flexible/agile roadmap: Just as senior management needs the ability to shift priorities, make tweaks and speed up or slow down implementation as the context changes, so too do your front-line staff. Build flexibility into your technology roadmap that gives the staff and organization some breathing room during the implementation; doing so will provide the greatest chance of overall success.


Three Change Management Pitfalls to Avoid


As you’re in the midst of continuous change, you’d be well served to keep your eye out for these common “gotchas” that can derail even the most valiant digital transformation efforts.

Overplanning for Change


Famed boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the face,” and the same holds true when it comes to change management. Overplanning is one of the best ways to ensure that your digital project doesn’t go as planned. For the best results, create a loose plan for your technology project, realizing that the context will change, strategies will need to be modified and other elements will need to be tweaked. And plan on rolling with the punches as they come in, rather than suffering a knockout blow.

Handing Down Change to Operations


If you want to be 100% certain your digital transformation project fails, manage your change at the strategic level and then push it down to the operational level, simply announcing it is now in place.

A smooth digital transformation isn’t just about communicating change; it’s about communicating the entire thought process that went into it—the options, the criteria, the decision-making factors, etc.—and giving the opportunity for the operational level to provide feedback.

Punishing Mistakes


If you want people to be okay with change, you have to give them room to make mistakes, fail and fall flat on their faces, period. If you scare your staff from learning the future because you reprimand them, they’re going to long to go back to what they see as the “safety” of the past—which is no longer there. Instead, you must create resources and systems that allow for both failures and learning to take place, leveraging their strengths and past successes to help them best prepare for future successes.

Change at the Speed of Today’s Technology


At the speed of today’s technology, you’re constantly attaching the wings to the plane as you’re flying it. But by following a few tips and avoiding a few pitfalls, you can navigate a smooth digital journey. By getting ahead of the curve and creating a culture of continuous improvement, empathetically putting your people first and leveraging their strengths and early opportunities for wins, you’ll be setting up our organizations for success. And by keeping plans flexible, involving operations in the process and creating a failure-friendly environment, you’ll be sidestepping many of the mistakes that can throw well-intended transformations off course.