70 percent of digital transformation projects don’t reach their goals—and the reason is rarely technology.
This may come as a surprise. After all, digital transformation is exactly what it sounds like: transforming your business through technology. At its simplest, this means replacing manual processes with digital tools designed to improve efficiency, productivity, integration, and collaboration. It can also mean replacing older, outdated, or less effective tools with new tools that improve process, reduce costs, or otherwise benefit the business and its customers.
So, when we think about digital transformation, the focus is on the tech. There are countless articles about finding the right technology, putting it in place, and balancing its cost and value. Meetings revolve around which tool is right for our businesses. And plenty of digital transformation projects start with an edict from leadership about how we need a specific new tool.
But while tech is largely where the process of transformation starts. But what the high failure rate tells us is that this is a problem.
Because the change that needs to happen within our organizations may involve technology, but the real challenge with any major organizational change is people and processes.
As the Harvard Business Review points out, “Fundamentally…most digital technologies provide possibilities for efficiency gains and customer intimacy. But if people lack the right mindset to change and the current organizational practices are flawed, [digital transformation] will simply magnify those flaws.”
Successful transformation projects know this—and they spend time and money not only changing technology, but also changing attitudes, optimizing processes, and helping people understand and take full advantage of the new technologies they’re adopting.
If your company is finally joining the digital revolution, here are the 9 things you need to know about how those successful projects approach things differently.
9 steps to successful digital transformation
1. Lead with strategy and story — not tools.
When management establishes a clear, well-communicated digital transformation story up front, their efforts are three times more likely to succeed, according to McKinsey. Collaboration, likewise, improves chances of success — with companies about twice as likely to reach their goals.
This means the first thing you need for a successful transformation is a strategy and a full understanding of your goals, processes, and current technologies.
During the strategic process, you may find that the original tool that inspired the project isn’t the right one for your organization. Or the way you’ve been thinking about the tool doesn’t actually fit your process needs. Or the tool is right for you but is going to require major process and training changes or a phased implementation. Knowing these things up front can make the difference between meeting goals and missing them by a long shot. Not to mention that it’ll save you money, time, and a lot of frustration.
2. Find out how teams (or customers) use your tools today.
Before you choose new tools, you need to have an in-depth understanding of how the old tools are being used — and what teams need future tools to do for them.
The simplest way to get this information is through interviews — sitting down with the people who use your systems every day and asking them: What could be better? What trips them up? What works well for them? What saves them time? What do they wish they could automate? And do they need tools to do something that they currently don’t?
Ultimately, you may decide on a new tool that doesn’t match every workflow your teams rely on today, but before you make the change, you need to understand what those changes will be and how you will alter the workflow in your new tools (and train users on the change).
Jira is a good example of this. An assumption we hear often is that the tool is primarily used by software development teams. But the truth is that Jira is used by a variety of teams and roles. Project managers use it to track status. Design teams use it to communicate directly with engineers. Marketing uses it to keep up with project status and plan their campaigns. If you don’t involve all these teams in your discovery process, it’s easy to miss out on some of the important use cases you’ll need to plan for in your new tools.
The best-case scenario here is that you’ll switch tools and maintain a similar workflow or process and/or you’ll switch tools and be able to improve your workflows and processes. But this doesn’t happen organically. It takes up-front understanding and planning.
3. Identify challenges before you make a move—and use that information to update workflow, process, roles, and responsibilities.
What do teams complain about with your current tools and workflows? What are the most common support requests your help desk fields? Where are the opportunities to improve collaboration, efficiency, data sharing, etc.?
Identify issues up front and use your digital transformation to address them — not only with the tools you choose, but with improved processes, integrations between tools, and perhaps even the way teams are structured or who is responsible for what.
In fact, when companies use the goals of their digital transformation to refine the roles and responsibilities of their teams, they’re 150 percent more likely to succeed.
4. Understand the trade-offs.
There’s a lot to love about innovative digital tools, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t trade-offs to consider. Make sure you understand these up front.
For example, if you’re moving from on-premise to cloud, you’re trading some control (now that your vendor handles everything from updates to bug fixes) for speed, convenience, innovation, and less maintenance burden on your IT team.
Similarly, moving from a specific on-prem tool to a cloud version of that tool might mean trading familiar apps and processes for new ones and embracing a learning curve in the process.
Before you make a move, identify what you’re trading and what you’ll gain.
5. Prioritize your people.
When senior leadership encourages people to experiment with new ideas and challenge old ways of working, chances of success nearly double. And when teams are directly involved in planning for change, success rates jump by 160 percent.
Digital transformations that come down the chain of command as edicts don’t work nearly as well as those that take teams into account from the start—not only asking those teams to experiment and weigh in, but also accounting for the ways the business will need to support them in the transition.
Are they overwhelmed by work and likely to skip learning something new because they just don’t have the time? Are they afraid the new technology is going to leave them without a job? Are they frustrated because they need more training to understand the new tech?
6. Don’t let tech teams make all the tech decisions.
This seems a little counter-intuitive, and we’re not saying you should take your IT team out of the decision-making process. But what we are saying is that the teams that use your tools every day are the ones who will best understand if a new tool meets their needs, improves their processes, and eliminates their frustrations with the current tool.
Have the day-to-day system users brainstorm better processes, evaluate features, and choose tools that work for them.
7. Treat your transformation as an ongoing process.
While you certainly may undertake a massive one-time project that moves you from on-prem to cloud, changes up your tools, or requires a major shift in process and company culture, you’ll also want to be constantly evaluating those changes, improving, and adjusting.
Plan for a transformation where teams can be agile, make ongoing changes where needed, and continue improving over time. Do your best to keep the roadblocks to change within each team low. If they need to upgrade a tool, don’t put a 10-week board-approval process in place when a single person’s approval will do. (After all, if your digital transformation includes a move to the cloud, agility is probably one of the reasons you’re making the switch. Ditching the 8-week waits for procurement, budget approval, hardware delivery, etc. and embracing real-time scaling is a huge part of the appeal.)
8. Create a frequently-updated training library—and task each team with maintaining it.
As processes and tools change, so should your training materials. Make sure it’s clear whose responsibility it is to document process changes—and make sure those processes are accessible to everyone who needs them (be it teams adopting an existing tool or a new team member being onboarded).
In the ITSM world, this practice is known as knowledge-centered service (KCS), and the average company that adopts it sees retention go up by 20 – 35 percent.
9. Create a “champion team.”
At Atlassian, one of our top tips is to have a champion team—a dedicated group that helps plan and test your new tools. The best teams are composed of stakeholders from every relevant department—be it IT, legal, compliance, engineering, marketing, sales, or HR. They’ll be the first to test new features, work through new processes, and ask vendors their questions.
Successful projects ask these questions and plan to support employees as they face changes head-on. Managers meet with their people to find out their concerns—and take them to heart. Project leaders seek out overwhelmed team members and help lighten the load while they learn new processes and tools. Leadership communicates why the new processes and tools will ultimately save teams time and create efficiencies. And transformation champions help quell job security fears by letting people know that the tech is here to free them up to work on more creative and strategic tasks instead of the repetitive work that can be automated—not to put them out of work.
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A digital transformation success story: Fair
Sometimes the catalyst for a digital transformation is rapid growth—like when Fair grew from 50 employees to 100 and then 500+.
At 50 employees, it wasn’t too hard for the team to share and analyze data via email or Google docs. But once the business took off, they needed digital systems that would help the much larger group collaborate and communicate.
When they turned to Atlassian, they already understood their strategic goals and what teams needed from the tools: to make their workflows as fast, easy, and reliable as their customer service.
The end result of that strategy-led transformation? As Brett Lakey, People Operations Manager, explains: “Everything from equipment to seating to software access for a new employee can be handled in one Jira Software ticket. One of my team members was able to cut onboarding time in half.”