The thing about hard things is that we tend to get used to them. While this is one of our great strengths as humans — consider our ability to overcome loss — it can be detrimental when this trait causes us to disengage with important topics.
Sustained pressure or urgency can cause people to become desensitised to the extent that we simply tune out. One example of this is the lack of urgency we see in some quarters when it comes to tackling the climate crisis. People are becoming accustomed to seeing reports of extreme weather, diminishing biodiversity, and climate refugees. After a while, bad news simply is the norm. Perhaps it is no surprise that Collins Dictionary's word of 2022 was permacrisis.
Similarly, while organisations have repeatedly been confronted by the need to transform their business through digital technologies, there is a measure of comfort in relegating this realisation to the background. "Of course we need to change, but this can wait." Executives might have daily reminders that systems and processes are broken, or that many of their senior leaders are not future-fit, but even this state of permacrisis becomes routine after a while.
For this reason, digital leaders of all stripes face a challenge in keeping the topic of digital transformation front of mind. Yet how to maintain a sense of urgency over a multi-year period? Not only do leaders need to have the appropriate degree of persistence, but they also need to balance this with a modicum of restraint, lest they inordinately vex their peers. One should also consider the personal efforts required – given transformation is a marathon and not a sprint.
Most important is that there is a clear vision that unites people, a goal that can be used to reinvigorate jaded stakeholders from time to time and allows disparate teams to reconcile their individual efforts with an overarching goal. The challenge here is to ensure this vision has enough detail to be tangible, while not being so detailed as to veer into the mundane. "Save the planet" will not cut it, but then neither will "migrate payment API services to new cloud environment."
The other critical enabler is a culture conducive and open to change. Whether accomplished through role-modeling, incentives, lighthouses, or other means, one needs a fertile environment for transformation efforts to take root. The key here is that bad behaviours are weeded out, as they inhibit positive change flourishing. Tuning out is also a risk here, as tackling this type of cultural friction head-on takes time, and sidestepping these conflicts can be tempting.
Finally, teams needs to be given the tools, skills, and capabilities required to empower them to drive these changes. This involves everything from software to processes to training. Given how hard it is to comprehensively define these top-down, leaders need to create opportunities for dialogue and collaboration. This can also involve providing ongoing support and mentorship to teams. The goal is to ensure everyone feels like they have a degree of ownership.
At the end of the day, digital transformation is a topic that requires sustained engagement from a broad set of stakeholders over a long period of time. While urgency is hard to maintain, it is often consistent focus that determines success.
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