“And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack, they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.” — Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1532)
Swap “Prince” for C-level executive and that passage could easily be applied to a digital transformation programme in a modern organisation.
Change makers are often driven by passion, a vision of what is right for their company and how it will need to change to ride the coming waves of digital disruption. But even after they have won approval, can fall at the first challenging set of quarterly results. Be prepared to stay the long and usually difficult course of change.
Yet there are many in an organisation that agree with you that change is too slow. Change projects are too scattered and flimsy, easily brushed aside by quarterly targets to hit, skeptics and cynics, the fearful and the resentful.
To start making changes that stick and allow rapid change to how the company operates it is going to be up to you take a lead. Whether you’re in the board, in the CMO, CIO or whoever’s team. This includes changing how its people behave, enabling its systems to serve quick decision making, risk-taking and customer delight. Combine the courage to do this, a group of like-minded allies, and a belief that it is the main priority if the company is to survive past this generation of leaders. These are the elements needed for broad and emphatic digital transformation to be enacted.
But this isn’t enough.
For your project to survive its first months, it will need a business case. A solid, growing body of commercial and strategic logic, a story backed by a growing and compelling body of data and evidence that it must continue.
This language is emotive, sounding like it belongs more on a 19th century pulpit or atop an 18th century barricade — but that’s because we’re talking revolution. Revolution is needed, and if it is to be more than a street protest or a dramatic gesture, it has to build a blueprint for a new order of things.
So let’s shift gears now, from the passion to the paperwork that is required to build a digital transformation project. One that will start, what a senior leader at a top UK brand described to me as their “quiet revolution”.
Brilliant Noise have been working with clients on digital transformation projects around culture, capability for more than seven years. Often we are the allies of change-makers inside organisations. Helping those who urgently need to adapt to the challenges of digital but are finding it tough to either get started or sustain transformation efforts beyond an initial rush of enthusiasm.
If this sounds familiar, here are five of the lessons from our success and failures along the way that could help you win the support you need for your project.
1. Being right is not enough – “Pioneers are the ones with arrows in their backs,” the saying goes, implying that the winners are the ones who wait for their military to genocidally clear the way for them to settle new territories in peace. But there’s a truth in that ugly metaphor, and an old one. As seen in the quote at the start of this article, Machiavelli recognised this in his advice to his prince in the 16th century — if you’re trying to do radically new things in an organisation, you’re going to come under attack.
2. Momentum is all – When leaders say “let’s put that on the back-burner” they often mean “let’s put this down and pretend it never happened”. Transformation projects may start with fanfare and bold declarations by leaders, but are fundamentally about creating benefits for the medium and long term. This makes them vulnerable in their early months to the distractions of the now.
So how to defend it against short term re-prioritisation? It’s hard for pioneers with an eye on the future prize to grasp, but they need short term business benefits as well to build confidence in the project. Build business cases for the now with passion and zeal equal to the grand plan for change. Start with the user (the stakeholders with decision-making or blocking power) and develop metrics and headlines that fit with their agendas. Counterintuitively, we have found short-term deadlines work well for long term change projects. If you know you need to re-pitch for budget and resources every quarter, you can be sure that the team will turn up with compelling results and ready to fight their corner. Hope is not a strategy, as the saying goes – so when you start your plan, even if funding seems assured, plan as if you will be fighting for the project’s life on regular basis.
3. Don’t worry about what they call it – In the excitement of the moment, the rush of technological and commercial innovation happening in the world, pioneers can get hung up on the wrong things. How you think about digital transformation and innovation, what terminology you use, may only be useful within your peer groups. When it comes to persuading the business and leading change – you need to hold language and definitions lightly. “Isn’t everything digital now?”, someone asks – shouldn’t we just talk about business/marketing/strategy. Sure, whatever works – we just need to get moving and start changing.
4. Embrace the politics – I get it, politics is a dirty word. Especially when you’re a visionary, especially when you’re right about what the company needs to do. Think in political terms as that is how human organisations – from nation states to small businesses – get things done. If it’s not your forte, or your team doesn’t have anyone who operates like this, you’re going to find a Machiavelli who can advise you — by that I mean that someone who can translate what the team wants to achieve into the “art of the possible”.
5. Be ready to compromise – Holding your vision tightly, but the details of the outcome lightly, is part of thinking politically and practically. The full “art of the the possible” quote is from Bismarck and runs “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” Having won support to get your digital transformation project going, think of it in terms of a trajectory more than a destination. Pragmatism will get you a lot further than the inevitable disappointment of a compromised manifestation of a too-perfect vision. To manage your own and your team’s expectations – focus on what’s going right and the greater goal.