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Digital Transformation—it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room

Over the 20 years Prosci has been conducting the Change Management Best Practices research, sponsorship has been ranked the #1 contributor to the success and failure of initiatives. Which makes it surprising that in a recent article, “Digital Transformation Is Not About Technology”, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) avoided the elephant in the room. This is despite reporting that for every $1.3T invested in digital technology $900B is wasted.

For those of us working in digital transformation (particularly in enabling change) this isn’t a revelation. While HBR touches on the ‘hearts and minds’ aspects of digital transformation to support the ‘right mindset for change’, it neglects to call out the critical role organisational leaders play in transformation.

The article talks about digital transformation jumping from the 10th highest risk factor for executives and boards in 2018 to 1st place in the 2019. HBR suggests this is because “…digital technologies provide possibilities for efficiency gains and customer intimacy. If people lack the right mindset to change and the current organizational practices are flawed, digital technologies will simply magnify those flaws.”

The key takeout here is that with the understanding of the criticality of digital transformation, what we are doing is not working nearly well enough for the leaders in our organisations to set themselves up for success.

It’s simple to say, not always as simple to do

Effective sponsorship means different things in different contexts—one size does not fit all. However, the Prosci research also calls out that project teams ranked 50% of their sponsors as “having only some to no understanding of their role in managing the people side of the change and graded them as ‘average to poor’ in terms of sponsorship activities.”

The research consistently tells us that the key mistakes sponsors make during transformation initiatives come down to not being visible through the life of the initiative, underestimating the impact it has on their people, outsourcing and delegating their sponsoring role and in short, just not walking the talk.

More often than not, the reason people don’t ‘do’ something is because they either haven’t bought into the need to do it (and don’t understand what’s in it for them) and/or they don’t know how to do it. Just because a leader has sponsored multiple projects and/or been in a leadership position for a long time, doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be supported during the life of the next initiative. After all, sponsoring the transformation is only one thing that they’re doing.

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At Valiente, we still see many executive sponsors not fully appreciating the value of their roles and not wanting to spend time on the ‘touchy, feely stuff.’ One of the key things we see consistently overlooked during transformational initiatives is effective, contextualised, executive sponsor induction to ensure everyone is on the same page. Often if there is an induction, it’s rarely supported with a planned and considered coaching approach. Ironically, it’s also one of the core skills a leader should be using during a transformation. This is probably more of a skeleton in the closet than an elephant in the room.

Coaching is not training, and it is not a once-off induction pack that gets ticked off a PMO checklist for change management activities. Coaching is about respectfully challenging and encouraging rather than teaching or directing (which can be a bit career limiting when you’re the one reporting to the said executive sponsor). Coaching provides sponsors (new and experienced) with support and insights to help them avoid falling into the common pitfalls so many project sponsors fall in. It is but one element of many to successfully address the elephant on the room.

We’ve been unpacking some of these strategies to effectively de-risk Digital Transformations and in my next article I’ll explore some more of the common pitfalls.

Are you seeing the same elephants in your organisations? How are you managing it?

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