Let me paint a picture: You’re about to start an exciting kick-off meeting that’s been weeks in the making. The room is full of stakeholders looking at you expectantly. That is, until you reveal the agenda: digital transformation.
Immediately, the air goes out of the room. Instead of excitement, the mention of the phrase is greeted with rolled eyes and slumped shoulders—at best. At worst, it’s met with active resistance. “Here we go again,” they say.
Your organization’s executive leadership team (ELT) may be committed to transformation and are willing to invest in it, but without a strategy to engage stakeholders and manage expectations at all levels, the program may fail before it even has the chance to get off the ground. And then, of course, if it fails, the cycle repeats itself.
One of the biggest contributing factors for the failure of a program—whether we call it digital transformation, strategic realignment, or any of the dozens of buzzwords pointing to a change in the way the business is run—isn’t lack of vision or investment, but fatigue. The constant upheaval of change without stabilization is not only draining on the people being asked to implement the program, but it’s also demoralizing when failures occur, leading to further fatigue in the next cycle.
As you know, there is a big gap between planning a transformation program and the reality of executing it. To determine if your organization is at risk of transformation fatigue, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Am I trying to do too much at once?
The “big rocks” metaphor has become a staple of time management and productivity, but it doesn’t do any favors for your quality of work. Yes, you should prioritize critical tasks before sorting through the gravel but putting too many big rocks in front of a team only serves to set them up for failure. This isn’t a reflection of their intelligence or talent—it’s simply unrealistic to expect the level of commitment necessary for transformation success. You can expect the team to be excellent at one or two things in parallel, or you can have mediocrity across a wider range of things. Quality is directly related to bandwidth.
2. Do people know the why or how of the initiative?
It’s impossible to get people invested in a transformation program if they don’t know why the transformation is needed. Downstream contributors need access to information that the executive team is working with, including how the decision was made and how it benefits the organization. Beyond the big picture, teams should know how the program benefits them and what intellectual and emotional investments are needed to make it a success.
This can be done by painting a picture of what the outcome looks like—creating a vision and using a range of mechanisms to get the message out. Companies tend to vastly underestimate the human element of transformation and overlook the importance of marketing the idea internally. Excitement is the catalyst to inertia, and this is the time to excite the team.
3. Am I celebrating the right things?
More often than not, digital transformation initiatives are carried out with an event-driven approach. Let’s say you’re implementing a new ERP system. You’ve spent weeks on classroom training and workshops, and you’ve made sure everyone is on the same page. And then the go-live date arrives, you pull the switch, and you’ve done it—you’ve crossed the finish line! Time to celebrate, right?
There is nothing wrong with celebrating small victories along the way but this milestone should be seen as Day Zero. All the work up to this point is preparatory, and the go-live date is when the real work begins. Teams will need continuous support going forward, such as coaching and additional toolsets, and it is crucial to consider and budget for stabilization. Celebrating at the finish line gives teams a false sense of victory, which contributes to transformation fatigue.
When a new transformation program is considered operational, you need to set up metrics and frequent check-ins to ensure teams are reaching these milestones and producing the expected value while working at a manageable bandwidth. Having smaller, incremental goals to celebrate—all while moving towards the grand vision of the transformation program—is essential to its success.
4. Is anyone tying the pieces together?
When there are multiple, cross-functional initiatives underway, the entire transformation project often lacks a governance function that can integrate all the different touchpoints. I see transformation governance as an essential part of any initiative, but unfortunately, it’s more commonly done as a distributed model. Companies do this in the spirit of agility, but they may not realize that by trying to run several initiatives in silos, they risk losing sight of the big picture.
When you’re launching multiple transformation initiatives, it deserves its own governance board: both as an arbitrator and orchestrator. A transformation governance function would be able to lead with empathy to keep the organization on course towards the vision of the transformation program, even with changes in the executive team. Ideally, they would be able to see the enterprise vision and tie that to every individual’s capability and capacity, as well as have a seat at the executive table to defend their points of view.
5. Is there a culture of continuous improvement?
I find that as soon as most companies reach the go-live date (as mentioned, seen falsely as a completion point), immediately the investment fades—both financially and emotionally. It’s essential to budget for the stabilization period past the event, as well as to provide continuous emotional support to ensure people are not exceeding their capacity to complete the tasks.
It’s easy to get swept up in the hype of change, but to succeed, it’s essential to treat transformation as a journey instead of a quick-fix. With an inspired workforce equipped with the financial, emotional, and intellectual support, you can ensure your organization is always heading towards the grand vision of the transformation—instead of losing steam and getting fatigued after every sprint.
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