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Leading a digital transformation, but to what?

How to become a change leader

Authored by: John Zak, Senior Consultant, Digital Agility Consulting 

A wise old software engineer once said, “I know digital means ones and zeros, but I don’t think that’s what you mean”. In today’s world of rapidly changing competitive landscapes, businesses need to create and adopt new processes, new behaviors, and new tools just to keep up. Going digital is the latest trend; No more paper forms, instant and accurate communication, machine learning and artificial intelligence. But what does digital transformation mean for your organization?

Organizational change starts with behavior

Digital transformation means change, and effective change means that leaders need to paint a specific vision of what the organization needs to do differently. Mindset! Agility! Culture! Innovation! None of that is specific. It is soaring language grounded in [competitor’s] whitepapers, listicles, and management paperbacks. No matter where you are in your transformation, if your people can’t tell you where you’re headed, you need to double down on a clear vision for the future. This takes finesse. Some call it an elevator pitch; some do it with a postcard from the future. Whatever it is, your people should feel an emotional connection to the goal. The organization needs to know why they’re making the change, what they’re changing to and the WIIFM – what’s in it for me? Great vision statements for digital transformations describe where the company wants its people to be because of the transformation:

To become the world’s premier digital industrial company, transforming industry with software-defined machines and solutions that are connected, responsive and predictive - GE

More than mindset, it’s about behavior

After establishing and communicating your vision for the digital transformation, you need to work on your mindset. The funny thing about a mindset is, nobody can see it. They can only see your behaviors and the results associated with them. Your new “digital mindset” needs to be embedded in new behaviors. You can’t measure an innovative mindset but, you can see teams trying divergent and convergent thinking; you can see people trying a new skill, reading a new book, or building something differently – and they are looking at you to do the same. Tell them about what you’re learning and show them how you do it.

Leaders of unsuccessful transformation initiatives often sound like this to their people, “I’ll lead the way! You go first.” They show up with great motivating ideas, “we’ll be making our triple-bottom-line stakeholders happy.” They talk about how we all have to learn new behaviors with buzzwords: Lean, Agile, Customer Centricity. Then they say, “When you demonstrate these new ways of working, we’ll be unstoppable”. There’s no leadership shown in these actions. No matter how many times you beat that drum, you’re drumming from behind the front lines.

If you want new behaviors, mindsets, and results from your people, modeling it yourself is the best way to get it. Organizational change starts at the top. The “do as I say, not as I do” approach is immediately seen for the hypocrisy it is. If you say “we want to be an X culture,” you must show how you execute that.

Here's an example that probably hits close to home. When you want the status of an initiative, do you ask “can you get me your status/what is the status?” or do you ask, “where do you maintain your metrics, so I can get it any time I need it?” The first emphasizes push-based, punctuated, effort-intensive reporting and the slight-of-hand that comes with tailoring that report to be well received. The latter reinforces pull-based, just-in-time, information radiator principles that drive the change in mindset, investments and behaviors you need to sustain the transformation.

In digital transformation leadership, resilience is more important than perfection

Learning to behave in new ways takes practice, and that means inevitable failures. In many organizations, it feels like failures and mistakes are unacceptable. As a leader, you have to make your failures visible and make them okay. If this leaves you feeling a little exposed, use your current transformation as an example when it’s not going perfectly; Talk about how you’re sticking to it through the challenges, learning and adapting. When you demonstrate this resilience, then you will see the benefits of failing, learning, and ultimately excelling. When you lead, others will follow.

Organizational change is more than declarative sentences and words on paper. Start by telling your people the vision, and work to get emotional buy-in. Show them that you’ve started the transformation by taking them along on your journey. What did you learn? How did you apply it? How did you fail, demonstrate resilience and ultimately succeed? It doesn’t stop there; keep doing it. Celebrate your team when you make it through the next valley on the road to that digital frontier.

Find out more about how CGI is helping clients to become change leaders in our new viewpoint paper: Getting Unstuck: Accelerating results from digital transformation

CGI manages complex, multi-stakeholder information technology projects, integrating, streamlining and modernizing systems and business processes to reduce costs and better serve citizens.