There Is No Transformation Without Our Better Angels

Ryan den Rooijen
Ryan den Rooijen

It is a truism that the biggest blocker to digital transformation is culture. Leaders repeatedly call out culture-related challenges in research and surveys. On the one hand, the root causes and remedies are well understood by now. On the other hand, why does addressing these not guarantee a positive outcome?

Let us start by considering the most frequent challenges and their mitigations.

Firstly, there is the question of ambition. Unless a desire to change exists it will be difficult to make an impact. Tackling this means 'selling the dream' and painting a  picture of how transformation delivers value. Value not just to the organisation at large, but also to individuals. Winning together, if you will.

This is where the second challenge comes in: a lack of practical understanding of what transformation entails. Here you need lighthouse projects or other proofs-of-concept. These tangible deliverables allow people to see the potential, as well as give the organisation confidence that ambitious aims can be achieved.

When it comes to scaling the impact of these lighthouses, the next challenge rears its head. Does the organisation at large have the skills in its arsenal to successfully execute on the opportunity? While this can be addresses with hiring, this also requires rolling out specialised training to build critical skills.

The fourth challenge relates closely to the third: business change. Even with examples and training, stakeholders and internal customers need to become familiar enough with the offer that they choose to migrate away from legacy solutions. Production is only 20% of the battle, the other 80% is adoption.

Digital transformation is like a puzzle where pieces are missing. Photo by taopaodao.

The final element is that of test and learn, as a clear-eyed ability to assess initiatives' impact is essential to digital transformation. Whether this leads to amplifying, pivoting, or killing a project, it requires degree of transparency, accountability, and psychological safety foreign to many organisations.

While there are other cultural blockers, these five are some of the most important. Reflecting on their mitigations, the question arises whether addressing them removes culture as a blocker. After all, others, like technological readiness, can be fundamentally resolved by 'working through the list.'

This is where culture as a blocker is different, as beyond the practical mitigations there is a moral character demanded of employees. For example, there needs to be a willingness to collaborate, to break down siloes, and to focus on long-term benefits – in other words, people being asked to transcend self-interest.

Failure to live up to these behavioural standards can undermine any of the aforementioned initiatives – and often does. So what are leaders to do? Perhaps instead of focusing on relentless best practice sharing and communication about objective benefits they need to acknowledge this moral component.

Taking a lesson from history, in 1861 president-elect Abraham Lincoln faced a major cultural challenge: the preservation of the nascent United States. Perhaps realising that diplomatic maneuvering would only get him so far, he ended his 1861 inaugural address with an appeal to 'the better angels of our nature.'

Those leading transformation efforts would do well to remember that all the accepted mitigations in the world will not guarantee success without these 'better angels'. Therefore, any strategy aiming for long-term impact should encompass the moral dimensions, lest it risk being crippled from the start.

– Ryan

Cover photo by Shot by Cerqueira.

Digital Transformation

Ryan den Rooijen

Chief Operating Officer of Appsbroker CTS, the leading Google-only digital consultancy. Formerly Chief Ecom & Data Officer.