Seven mistakes that can trip up your business transformation project

Failure is all too frequent in grand transformation projects. But why? Seven experts offer their suggestions for overlooked causes of catastrophe 

Fixating on distant goals

“A solid strategy must avoid all-encompassing initiatives without careful understanding and planning. Instead, taking on board ‘quick wins’ will help to bring a clear impact on operations and obvious benefits. This can be done by running multiple small projects in parallel to ensure the best ideas are progressed rapidly and the bad ones fail early.”

Matt Jones, lead analytics strategist at data science consultancy Tessella 

Failing to get internal buy-in

“Once I advised one of the major Russian banks on the process of blockchain technology implementation, and we encountered an enormous amount of problems even at the process development and planning stage. After two weeks of communication with the IT vice president of the company, it became clear there were two main reasons. First, 50 per cent of managers just didn’t understand why digitalisation is necessary and co-operated passively. The other 50 per cent realised the implementation of transparency and self-verification of transactions, operations, rights and responsibilities was not convenient for them and sabotaged the process. I believe that overcoming these two factors inside the company is far more critical than the technical or managerial skills of a particular digital transformation office (DTO) or its total absence. At the current stage of corporate readiness to digitise their processes, the role of a DTO is often not relevant at all.”

Aleksei Antonov, chief financial officer of decentralised fog-computing platform SONM 

Neglecting design

“An increasing number of fast-growth startups are founded by designers. The design course on Stanford University’s MBA is one of the most popular and it’s increasingly understood as a powerful strategic tool. That said, many businesses still don’t realise this and not only neglect to create a leadership role around design, but also fail to invest in growing design capabilities more broadly in the business. Done properly this will force a company to entirely rethink how it brings new products and services to market as well as how it runs and organises itself.”

James Haycock, founder and managing director of innovation and change consultancy Adaptive Lab

Rivalry between change leaders

“Herd instinct driven by the kind of digital disruption that is ubiquitous in today’s global economy can lead to confused, ‘me too’ efforts by businesses to transform. Nothing is more symptomatic of this failing than the bewildering cast of characters that variously present themselves as digital leaders – chief information, marketing, digital, data, customer, technology and digital transformation officers to name but a few. According to research by Digital McKinsey, a third of company executives do not know which leader is responsible for digital and technology functions within their business. In most cases these are either people who have successfully ‘made a play’ for the digital piece or they are brought in to spread some digital pixie dust across some previous perceived success.”

Chris Porter, digital transformation director at cybersecurity and transformation consultancy 6point6

Too top-down

“Today’s decision-making and development processes are becoming much more ‘bottom-up’ than ‘top-down’. Rigid hierarchies are increasingly taking a back seat and flatter corporate cultures based on collaboration have moved in. It’s important that the person responsible for transforming the digital capabilities of a business supports these changes, creating an atmosphere where innovation is encouraged across the whole organisation. Responsibility for digital change doesn’t stop with the executive committee, so it’s vital that companies as a whole are equipped to adapt to the challenges they face. Declarations of intent from the board are simply not enough.”

Mike Blanchard, director of customer intelligence solutions at business software provider SAS

Wrong qualities in leaders of change

“A common misconception is that the head of transformation needs to have a strong IT background. In reality, the ideal candidate should have a passion and curiosity for technology and all that it can deliver, but other qualities are essential. Leading digital transformation is all about inspiring change. And realising that, a lot of the time, people don’t actually want change. They’ll need to have hugely strong people and mediation skills to bring leaders on side and hold senior managers accountable. They’ll need a strong business and management background to build the business plan for change and argue the case for change. They’ll also need a strong constitution. It will require considerable investment, it will disrupt the status quo and it won’t be plain sailing.”

Kieron McCann, director of strategy at WPP’s technology consultancy Cognifide

Passive bosses

“Transformation should be championed by the chief executive, the front and centre face of the company who intrinsically understands how the business fits together, who knows how transformation tessellates with other priorities and who has the greatest sense of proprietary. To help them get ‘the plumbing’ right by implementing the right changes, the CEO needs a fine chief operating officer, someone who gets things done and isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty. And if the CEO isn’t all over the process of digital transformation, it’s simple – you get a new CEO.”

Chris Gorell Barnes, chief executive and founder of content agency Adjust Your Set