Let’s be honest, digital transformation is not new. In fact, I was an early victim of digital transformation in my early teens, when my uncle, a sociologist, bought the original domestic IBM in the eighties, and my profitable ‘weekend job’ as a human calculator of data tables vanished to the flamboyant Lotus 123. Not a happy boy. And, although the concept is not new, the COVID pandemic has accelerated the need for digital transformation. The lockdowns in 2020-21 have taught companies that businesses had to get closer to their clients and employees alike. From the need to increase the volume of home deliveries, to the necessity for bringing services like health closer to patients, to the requirement for employees to be fully operational from home. The pandemic has simply accelerated the pace of change, not invented it.

So, if digital transformation is so important in 2022, are Companies really succeeding at it? We have received wisdom that only a small number (20-30%) of business transformations demonstrably succeed in their ambitions and deliver the benefits and ROI envisaged. Those with a high digital content often prove the most challenging. How can this be possible?

Transformation is hard to define, and it is a lot more than just change. Transformation is about achieving a fundamental shift in the way a business operates in response to an inflection point – e.g. scaling, disruption to competitor landscape, technological innovation, economic or political change, change of business ownership etc. Transformation is required when evolution is insufficient – when we want a butterfly, not just a bigger caterpillar.

There are plenty of books out there that talk about change and transformation. Probably too many. In my head there are 10 simple rules for simpler change. And just like the ten commandments, the more of them you break, the less chance you have of implementing successful transformational heaven…

1. Establish the need for change.

Fully understand whether transformation is truly required and what will constitute a measurable success. Fear stagnation, as it only leads to obsolescence. But also fear FOMO (‘fear of missing out’). Have a crystal clear vision. If you can’t define the strategic vision in fifteen to twenty words, start thinking again.

2. Define the journey before turning on the engine.

When you have a clear vision, create a narrative for the journey. Work it backwards: destination to origin. Don’t just get going from origin in the hope that you won’t get lost in your route to destination. Scope the route IN. And, more importantly, scope the route OUT. What do you want (what do you really, really want) and what you do not want. Avoid grey areas. Be ambitious and optimistic, but be fully consistent with the size of the endeavour.

3. Be a ruthlessly determined sponsor or don’t start.

Half houses, lack of time, insecurities will not cut the mustard. Be wholeheartedly in or be out. Commit fully (and personally) to the change or don’t bother starting it. It really is that simple. Light a fire to get things going.

4. Don’t just appoint good leaders. Always go for the ‘A team’.

I am sure that Person X is a decent operator, and available for leading this transformation. But does Person X have the right skills for leading one of your most critical activities? Operators and Change Leaders are completely different breeds. Operators are from Mars. Change agents are from Venus. The skills are different. And what should be expected from them should also be different. And, as your future may depend on this, always appoint your Team A to the job, not your reserves. Set tangible goals for the team – the better people understand what, why, when, etc. the more they will engage and work with the transformation. Empower, enable, and equip the people to work in new ways.

5. Always watch out for the fifth columnists.

Once everything is clear, get a few supporters on board. No man is an island, as they say. Actively analyse which influencers amongst the organisation will be pro-change. And who may be against-change. Manage stakeholders actively and look for strange behaviours. Change is difficult. Since we gave up hunting and established ourselves as farmers, humans became change averse and settled in their ways. This is the territory where fifth columnists crawl: they will show full support for the change, but actively resist it in the dark, sabotaging the effort, resisting the hunting. With a smile on their faces. Make a conscious effort to think about who needs to be involved in this change and who could make it difficult and find ways of getting them into the tent. Or out of the initiative…

6. Get into bed with Finance (well, not literally).

Questionable as this may be, the reality is that the Company’s main reason for existence is the production of dividends for their shareholders. This is the very reason why the CFO is so important in the organisation. Companies may or may not have a CMO, COO or CIO but they will always have a CFO. And this also the very reason why the second most important job in the country is the Chancellor, just after the Prime Minister. The problem here is simple: transformation initiatives tamper with yearly budgets. And they tamper with cash flow (big sin, especially in service-oriented organisations). So, getting into bed with finance from the very beginning of any transformation effort should help significantly and prevent future dramas. Try introducing change with no Finance involvement at your own peril.

7. Chunk the elephant (well, literally).

The most difficult part of digital change is not the technology. That’s often the easy part. The truly difficult one is behaviours. People. At the end of the day, it will be people (customers or employees) who will be using the tech. Focus from Day 1 on the behavioural changes that are needed to achieve the desired outcomes, and always consider three key factors. I call it ‘the change trinity’: people, process, and technology. Forget one and the change will struggle, and most probably fail.

8. Keep a very tight control on changing the change.

Or, in other words, allow changes from the original scope only when absolutely necessary, and always through some sort of formal governance, bureaucratic as it may seem. It pains me to say this, but when implementing change, democracy is overrated. Too much freedom for the team leads inevitable to chaos. It’s a human thing…

There is always a temptation to increase the scope (the more we deliver, the happier people will be, obviously). My strong advice is to not grow the elephant into a mammoth and, eventually, into a dinosaur, but to chunk the elephant into digestible pieces. Frequent and small delivery instead of months of wait for a final ta-da! This will also give you some oxygen when things don’t go according to plan (and trust me, they won’t).

9. Manage risks consciously, not unconsciously.

“Prepare for the worst but hope for the best”. I did not come with this quote. Benjamin Disraeli did. And I love it. Easy to interpret risk management as a negative, even defeatist attitude. Easy to denigrate the leader as weak for having negative thoughts. However, every change has risk. Often a lot of it. If we consciously thing about the worst, and put steps in place to manage the risk, we are still hoping for the best, but within a controlled environment. Assign specific risks to people to come up with ways of minimising the risk, and always consider the trade between risk and investment in preventing the risk. Sometimes acceptance is the best option. Two particular areas that need big respect are cyber security, and data protection. Ignore these, and you may not have a business at the end of it. No ‘project fear’. Just the reality of 2022.

10. Don’t just stop the day that the project is delivered.

In fact, change starts the day you finish the project. Always keep the accelerator down post-implementation, and don’t move the team until the change is embedded into the organisation. Often much of the transformation value is lost after change has been affected due to complacency and recidivism.

So, going back to the original question: are Companies really succeeding at Digital Transformation? Since the lockdowns in March 2020 we have moved the digital dial enormously. My CEO at that time, like many CEOs, was not a keen user of computers. By mid-April 2020, he was playing with backgrounds in Microsoft Teams.

We now talk to Doctors via Teams or Zoom if there is no physical presence required. My local chippy in deep rural Norfolk implemented a small e-commerce solution and we now place our order online and have it ready for pick up within a period of 5 minutes. Parcels, so necessary during the COVID months, are now tracked by the hour, showing the tracking real time to the waiting customer. We can order through a mobile app in our favourite café, and we can pay for stuff with our mobile phone.

However, many other digital transformations are ending up in frustration, cost and a much-weakened strategic position for the business.  So, if you are planning a digital transformation strategy, consider these 10 rules to ensure your success.

Author Enrique Fernandez-Pino (Digital & Technology Partner, Orbbis) supports companies to develop digital strategies, converting them into pragmatic, down to earth, implementable solutions that turn ambition into award winning realities.  To find out more get in touch.