Digital transformation can be intimidating. In many ways, upgrading a company’s technology platform is like trying to get your own body into better shape. Even when we know we need to work out, many of us get put off by the gym bros, weight benches and complicated exercise machines at the local health club. Similarly, the importance, scope and costs of a digital transformation initiative are enough to make any executive nervous. And that’s not even mentioning the risks — both business risk and career risk — if the transformation effort falls short of its goals.
In any organization, it’s up to senior technology leaders to help management overcome those fears and get the firm moving on this essential task. In my experience working with large financial institutions, I’ve found an approach that’s surprisingly effective in helping senior executives overcome their hesitations and commit to digital transformation: I use the analogy of personal fitness.
As we age, the health risks associated with being in poor physical shape increase. Intuitively, we understand that a major change in lifestyle and conditioning could transform our lives. However, actually making such a dramatic change can be daunting. Getting into better shape requires real effort. You have to get to the gym, start a workout plan, and then be disciplined enough to stick with it over time. Because the challenge can seem so large, getting started is often the hardest part.
A series of smaller steps
Doctors and fitness professionals know that the best way to overcome this hesitancy is to show the patient or client a clear plan for success. They break the overwhelming concept of lifestyle change into a series of smaller steps that are much more readily achievable. Health professionals provide proven techniques that can help accomplish interim goals; if the client sticks to the plan, they’ll eventually achieve their bigger, healthier lifestyle change.
The same model can be applied to digital transformation. Companies with aging technology platforms are at risk. Managers [WP1] know their businesses need to change but are often put off by the scale of the project. Technology leaders can help spur their firms into action by explaining that, like a fitness transformation, digital transformation is not a single high-stakes event. Rather, it should be viewed as a series of smaller and completely achievable steps that can be undertaken sequentially to minimize risks and operational burdens. The sooner one starts — and this includes planning — the sooner the small steps become transformational.
Most companies’ transformation journeys use the digitization of paper-based documents and processes as a starting point. Then, a company’s plans might focus on building a centralized data platform. Next in the queue might be building on progress in digitization and data management to start automating systems and functions.
The concept of a physical fitness plan can be quite useful in creating that strategy. In order to get to the sequence of projects listed above, companies will have to undertake a comprehensive review of their existing technology stack and business processes, identify shortcomings and opportunities, prioritize initiatives and then execute on detailed plans for implementation. Here’s what that process looks like through the lens of a personal fitness plan:
· Get a thorough physical checkup to set a baseline: Organizations must identify the primary issues and opportunities they’ll have to address during their digital transformation. Harness the knowledge of internal technology and business teams. These professionals are using your systems every day: They understand what works, what doesn’t work and how things can be improved.
· Find a good coach or trainer: Complex change initiatives can die from inertia. Often you need a partner. Someone from outside who can bring capabilities and experience to the table. To succeed at digital transformation, you also need motivated individuals throughout the organization who understand the strategy. Your external partner and the technology team must be equipped to take on this coaching role. They should communicate the digital strategy’s goals to their peers and explain how reaching those goals will benefit individual workers at all levels. You can increase your odds of success by also recruiting business unit heads and professionals from within business units to act as champions of change.
· Train to build muscle memory: Like an athlete perfecting a jump shot or golf swing, companies can develop “muscle memory” that makes them better at transformation. Organizations should document change strategies and interview key team members and stakeholders to identify best practices. The resulting template can serve as muscle memory for later change initiatives, accelerating the process of digital transformation.
· Monitor progress: Like a person working to build strength or lose weight, it’s critical that companies measure their progress and adjust their plans based on results. As part of a digital transformation initiative, firms should create a steering committee that establishes the right metrics, assigns reporting responsibilities to technology and business teams and delivers regular updates and suggestions to senior management.
· Celebrate small victories: Celebrating victories and milestones can help you and your organization stay motivated. During their digital transformation, firms ask a lot of their employees, who will have to manage the inevitable demands and disruptions associated with any major technology deployment. To keep staff motivated and engaged, firms should recognize teams and business units who accomplish their goals and celebrate the business and workflow enhancements they achieve.
Using a simple metaphor like physical fitness can help demystify digital transformation for executives without backgrounds in technology. Senior technology leaders should be constantly on the lookout for other tools and techniques that can help them convey the importance and achievability of digital transformation to senior management and ensure that the organization’s technology platform stays in the tip-top shape needed for the firm to live a long and healthy life.