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Five ways to avoid digital transformation burnout

1. Know why you’re transforming

Research from Econocom shows that digital transformation failures are all too common, with one in four UK projects failing to realise their desired goals.

“There is a big risk that transformation projects can run out of steam. They’re typically quite long and they’re usually disruptive to ways of working, so it can seem like an uphill battle,” says George Marcotte, managing director at Accenture Digital, UK and Ireland. “However, if you take the right steps at the beginning of the project, you can stop these challenges turning into negativity towards the transformation.”

The first of these steps is arguably establishing why you actually want to digitally transform the in the first place. “Establish the why. Reinforce the why. Validate and evolve the why. Communicate it again and again,” says Ben Hart, founding partner of business futures practice Atmosphere. He adds that this “why” must be “compelling, clear, believable and motivating”.

Indeed, organisations that don’t develop a strong “why” may struggle to convince employees of the benefits of digital transformation. “Without a clear focus and a dedicated workforce, projects will fail, resulting in transformation lethargy and a consensus among staff who ‘have seen it all before’ that ‘nothing will ever really change’,” says Irene Molodtsov, chief executive of business transformation consultancy Sia Partners UK.

2. Share goals, successes and failures

Even when organisations do have a strong vision in place, poor communication can still lead to digital transformation failures. “Far too often a transformation project is launched with a fanfare,” Ms Molodtsov at Sia Partners UK explains. “Then time passes, nothing is heard and the project is forgotten. So when a staff communication is finally sent out, it is not met with the enthusiasm that is required to ensure long-term success.”

Messages from senior leaders should be short and simple, she adds. “Remember that the frequency of these messages is also important to help ensure staff are kept up to date with progress.” Leaders should also strive to be open. “All transformational projects suffer setbacks. This is normal. Tell staff; they will appreciate both the honesty and humility. Otherwise, both rumour and lies will undermine the success of the project,” says Ms Molodtsov.

Ideally, everyone should feel able to get behind the company’s strategy. “If you don’t have people on board with the change and driving it all levels, then you’re going to get hit with natural resistance points, particularly at the middle-management level,” says David Holliday, partner at Gate One, a digital and business transformation consultancy. “That can be a big challenge.”

3. Don’t overemphasise tech’s role

“Digital transformation that hinges around technology, as opposed to the benefits and outcomes it will achieve for people, talent internally and customers externally, will almost certainly fail,” says Atmosphere’s Mr Hart. “Fatigue can set in quickly when technology leads and people are expected to ‘get it’ without investment in new people-led skills, attitudes and behaviours for digital success.”

Devolving responsibility for digital transformation to the IT department can also cause digital transformation failures. “In many cases, digital transformation is still entrusted to the IT department alone, which must balance this responsibility with day-to-day maintenance and pursuing innovative new concepts that drive the company forward,” says Ian Fairclough, vice president of services, office of the chief technology officer, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), at MuleSoft. “This leaves IT with an insurmountable task that, unsurprisingly, often leads to burnout.”

Inefficient use of existing resources can compound the problem. “All too often, IT staff will spin up new digital projects from scratch, without first looking to use digital capabilities that might already exist elsewhere within the business,” says Mr Fairclough. “Effectively, this involves IT staff doing a lot of the same foundation work over and over again, creating a ‘Groundhog Day’ scenario that makes digital transformation projects take longer than they need to.”

4. Encourage everyone to contribute

When digital transformation becomes the preserve of one department or certain teams, it’s almost inevitable that those on the outside will lose interest, resulting in digital transformation failures. Indeed, as Mr Hart at Atmosphere says: “Being heard, involved and having a voice helps to increase engagement, reducing fatigue.”

Engaging with interns or graduates who’ve grown up in a world of rapid digital change can also help to counterbalance the lethargy of senior staff who are wedded to current ways of working or cynical about the need for digital change. “In many organisations, the thought leadership, development and fresh thinking on digital, AI and robotics has migrated to this [younger] age group,” says Sia Partners UK’s Ms Molodtsov, who believes these individuals are likely to feel anything but fatigued by the digital vision and agenda set at the top of the organisation.

The IT team can also help to democratise innovation by connecting the organisation’s digital assets with application programming interfaces and exposing them on an application network, so anyone in the business can easily discover and harness them. “In this way, anyone, not just the IT team, can start building new digital products and services based on existing capabilities,” Mr Fairclough at MuleSoft explains.

5. Look for quick wins and build on them

If your digital transformation strategy doesn’t allow for measurable successes early in the process, it can start to feel “like a long slog towards a moving target that can appear persistently distant”, says Atmosphere’s Mr Hart. “If this occurs, for months or even years, people can quickly lose sight of why they are even doing this in the first place.”

Felix Gerdes, EMEA director of digital innovation at Insight, advises businesses to remember the story of the tortoise and the hare if they want to avoid digital transformation failures. “They must pace themselves when it comes to digital transformation, making sure they do not burn out by embarking on too many initiatives at the same time,” he says. “It makes sense to first focus on a small number of projects that can generate quick wins as this helps to develop highly motivated champions in the organisation.”

Mr Holliday at Gate One believes there is often a misconception at board level that digital transformation is a destination with a defined end-date. “There’s a constant need to evolve, to adapt, to explore new innovations. So it’s not a sprint. It’s not even a marathon. It’s a full-time commitment to a new way of working. And I think that gets right to the heart of the question of fatigue,” he concludes.