The high mortality rate of digital initiatives in organizations is nothing short of shocking. Various studies peg the failure rate at more than 70%. There are plenty of reasons why organizations lose their plot when it comes to digital transformation. Given our vantage points of having been a part of digital transformations both internally within a large enterprise context and from an outside in perspective as a consultant, we have seen multiple reasons why digital transformations don’t deliver the outcomes they were set out to. Some organizations simply don’t have a clear strategy around digital. Others don’t have the organizational capabilities needed for the transformational journey and yet others don’t have the right culture to support the transformation.
While all these are well researched and written about, there is one crucial aspect that often gets overlooked: The micro-narratives that leaders indulge in.
At the outset, this is not about ‘walking the talk’, that in our mind is straightforward and the following narratives will surely ring a bell for most:
- Do we need digital transformation? Yes. XYZ consulting says that it is now or never.
- Should we change? Yes. ABC consulting says that if we do not change, we will be disrupted.
- Should we set up an innovation team to drive change? Yes. MPQ consulting says, we need to set up a digital transformation office.
- Are you all on board as leaders? Yes, of course. QRS consulting says that digital transformation starts at the top.
- Do we have the capabilities? Yes, HR says that digital agility is a future leadership competency, along with digital quotient, dexterity… you get the drift.
When all this ho-hum is over, leaders typically go back into their workflow and engage in micro narratives mostly with good intent but sometimes derailing the change. Here are some popular micro narratives to watchout for.
“I do not think it is either/or. It is ‘and’”
We are sure you have heard this one before and this micro narrative has picked up steam in the recent past. This is primarily because the organization has a large physical element in the business model that brings in the bulk of the revenues. Leaders cannot afford to abandon the cash cow and catapult the organization into the digital stratosphere overnight. The ‘and’ narrative helps the organization marry the two seemingly disconnected business models.
The challenge, however, is the leader’s lack of appreciation of what this ‘and’ means. Often the teams take this as digital, being a poor cousin of the in-person experience. This can be customer experience, employee experience, or any experience in general. If you think of consumer experiences, it has turned this narrative on its head. We do not shop blended, hybrid or ‘and’. We do not consume entertainment in a hybrid mode either. We consume it online. Period. If you do not change the narrative, please do not be surprised if you get a below-par consumer experience, albeit hybrid.
“Digital will not replace the human. It can augment the experience”
We hear this a lot from leaders in their attempt to allay the fear of job loss or resistance to change. The teams often infer this as a reason to procrastinate, not play ball or generally show a lack of enthusiasm. Digital can replace the human in most cases, and this is not limited to repeatable tasks but nuanced and complex jobs. If you do not change this narrative, do not be surprised if you wonder why teams ‘don’t get it’ and the general lack of urgency.
“All this Virtual stuff is good, but the in-person experience is irreplaceable”
It is a bad idea to compare an in-person experience with what you can deliver via digital. If your experience was built for digital, it works. If it is a poor adaptation of what you delivered in person, it will not. Every time this narrative gets floated, the leader reinforces the fact that digital is not optimum. Can you run a super engaging awards event online? - Yes. Can you run an inspiring leadership meeting via digital? - Yes. Can you design an engaging learning journey via digital? - Yes. It takes thoughtful design, planning and execution.
“I do not want to do ‘Digital’ to meet someone else’s KPI’s”
This is the classic passive supporter who says yes to all things ‘digital’ in the boardroom only to communicate something different to larger teams in a work context. Just that one statement and it can only go downhill from there, no matter what the broader organizational intent is.
“We need to walk before we run. Let us go slow with digital as our people are not ready”
We are sure you have heard this one before. Again, this is an example of simplification and underestimating what people are capable of. Often this is an alibi to stay away from overseeing the change. If your competition is running, and it is a 500-meter race, you better run, or you lose. We live in a “winner takes all” market ecosystem, so few companies have the luxury of deciding their pace of change. You must get going or risk losing the competitive advantage.
How do you solve this?
We have seen the following to work:
- Help leaders articulate their point of view clearly around digital and show the mirror to them when they are not acting consistent with their stated views.
- Exposing leaders to multiple outside-in examples of successful narratives that have helped the transformation process can be a force multiplier.
- Help the organization build a positive mental model for change. Being explicit about what you expect leaders to do / say / behave as they drive change around digital also helps.
Checking in with leaders when you spot a derailing micro narrative and helping them uncover their biases can go a long way as well.
There are no silver bullets, but the possibilities end where our imagination does. What are the popular micro narratives you’ve come across in your organization? What are you doing to help leaders to see the potential impact of their micro narratives in your organization?