5 Organisational Obstacles That Delay Digital Transformation – And How to Overcome Them
Published on: Sep 29, 2021

Okay, by now, we have established that digital transformation is not only a desirable strategy but most likely a necessary one to stay in business. 

Why? Because, as we have banged the drums time and again, digital transformation is less about technology and more about the specific business needs. Its ultimate goal is to make your life easier and your business more efficient and profitable. 

We all want that, right? But our experience showed us that companies rarely move in that direction without being pushed. Why is that? 

The short answer is… political stuff. 

The long answer is… well, what you’re about to find out. 

In this blog post, I cover the 5 most pressing problems clients come to us with regarding organisational/political setbacks, as well as the solutions that will help you navigate them and move forward.

The trigger

This is what usually happens…

First, you identify the specific business needs.

Then, you look for technology to deliver on the needs.

It all sounds good – your digital transformation journey can proceed, right?

Unfortunately, that is often not the case. 

There is a third issue that always pops up and it’s actually the one that triggers setbacks: someone will most likely throw a spanner in the works, and either delay or completely derail the much-needed activities. 

This issue is called many things: internal political processes, red tape, or just plain power struggles. 

So, what to do?

For a successful digital transformation you need to address all 3: 

  1. The specific business needs of your organisation 
  2. The necessary technical solutions to address the needs  
  3. The internal red tape hindering the change

Now, read on to discover the 5 most common political obstacles we encounter working with this type of project and ideas on how to tackle them.

No time or budget for long specification processes

Engineers love specifications before committing to any building action. And the approach makes sense – I mean, how can you build anything meaningful or remotely useful if you have absolutely no idea what is needed? Hence the “specs” – the detailed specifications required before any build. 
But here is the thing: specifications take time. 

They require comprehensive work and are, thus, a costly process. And it is a highly political process involving many stakeholders, so you run a significant risk to get the whole process sidetracked. 

Basically, any progress is stalled because, traditionally, it’s difficult to develop anything without specs. 

The solution

Use the ETTO Principle (Efficiency – Thoroughness Trade-Off principle).

Let’s put it like this: focus on efficiency (meaning getting something done fast) vs being far more thorough and engrossed in the details. 

Try something and see how it works. Test some ideas and get feedback from the users, and use that to improve the solution. 

This approach is so different from a traditional approach with a focus on “we need the specs first”. Remember, the primary focus should be on speed. Develop a prototype as fast as possible, get feedback, and iterate accordingly. You can also say you develop the specs as you iterate along. 

The constant change in needs and/or business processes

Most businesses experience frequent changes in how they work. 

Business processes are altered, they don’t do some things anymore and new things emerge all the time. In such a fast-changing environment, it’s easy to get a bit lost and maybe find comfort in thoughts like: let’s just wait a bit until things settle down. An understandable, but probably wrong premise. Things will most likely continue to change at the same high frequency. 

Parts of your organisation might prefer to wait a bit, to put a digital transformation initiative on the back burner until things get a bit more stable. They will claim that, currently, the organisation is experiencing so much change (probably right), that starting any digitalisation is a fool’s errand (probably wrong). 

If you buy into their premise and arguments for stalling a digital transformation initiative, you will most likely never get started. It doesn’t look like frequent changes are disappearing anytime soon. 

The solution

Look for things that do not change. 

In the immortal words of futurist thinker and writer John Naisbitt

Many things change, most things don’t.

John Naisbitt

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is famous for saying something similar…

People will always want to have their things on time, cheaper, and faster.

Jeff Bezos

In any given business, at any given moment, you have things that change, and many more things that don’t. 

It will never go out of fashion to identify and fix bottlenecks in the production process. Or automate tedious manual processes. 

Look for places or processes where people do something they would love to get rid of. They are unlikely to complain and say “oh geez, I wish we had all the manual paperwork back!”

Find the small, but valuable things that will make people’s life a tiny bit easier. Forget the major, life-changing interventions and start small instead. Start with something where a significant number of people will agree with you on the usefulness. 

Don’t know exactly what is needed

If you feel a bit overwhelmed or insecure about where to start or what is needed, know this: you are definitely not alone. 

Often, we hear statements like “we need better access to data”, which on the surface sounds like a reasonable thing to say. But what does that really mean? Which data? And from where? Just to mention a couple of obstacles. 

These and many similar statements are often abstract and not remotely actionable. To be actionable, we need problems like: “we need this specific data from over here, connected with that specific data from over there to get this specific analysis done.”

The solution

Look for things (problems and needs) that are actionable.

If a problem is not actionable, it isn’t a problem. It’s just a fact. Such problems are also called gravity problems, because, similar to gravity, there’s nothing much to do about it. 

The keyword here is actionable. 

Where do you experience constraints or specific problems in your processes that are actionable? 
Don’t waste time or resources on daydreaming about all kinds of abstract problems, which might be equally interesting, but non-actionable. Focus on things you can do something about. 

Lack an understanding of what is possible

This is a situation we encounter in almost any project on digital transformation…

The development on the technological front is so high that most people struggle to keep up. 

The challenge is probably a combination of two things:

Firstly, a relentless pace in technological development. Things (both software and hardware) get smarter, lighter, faster, and even cheaper every day. 

Secondly, a massive hype on “the next big thing” you should not miss out on. Whether it is AI (Artificial Intelligence), AR (Augmented Reality), or maybe ML (Machine Learning), the hype will tell you that, if you don’t jump on the train today, you’re doomed.

 No wonder that, if you are involved in bringing digital transformation to your organisation, you should be excused if you think that maybe you missed the train. Listening to all the hype you could easily get the impression that you alone in the whole wide world missed this, and everybody else is so far ahead, that it might not even be worth your effort. 

The solution

Realise that most of the hype is just plain BS.

Alright, sure, the development on the technological front is high-paced, and it is difficult to follow along. But it doesn’t matter. Let me repeat that one: it doesn’t matter. You have plenty of time to start your digital transformation journey. 

Let me explain why I feel so certain about this. For two reasons. 

Reason number 1: 

In most industries, companies fall under one of these categories: very few at the top ahead of the pack, very few at the bottom who are lost causes, and the vast majority of companies in the middle struggling, like everybody else, to figure out what the heck is going on. 

Reason number 2:

We should distinguish between digital transformation, refinement of solutions, and pure hype or BS. 

The best way to exemplify this is to have a good look at the iPhone. 

At the time of writing this, the brand new iPhone 13 is released and the true believers will race to the stores to get the latest shiny thing. But think about it for a moment: how is it different from the previous 1 or 2 or more generations of iPhones? 

This is what I call refinements. The real revolution came when the first iPhone saw the light of day. That was a real game-changer and can be compared to the digital transformation. 

Basically, the launch of the iPhone was the true transformation, while all the models that came after were only refinements, making the product better, faster, and more customised. 

Thus, forget the idea of having missed the train. The journey hasn’t even started yet. Get on the train and start reaping the benefits in a long continuous development. 

Change needed, but perceived as risky

Let’s assume you managed to create a common understanding that change is needed. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean you get buy-in for the idea that change is a good thing and we should start as soon as possible. 

In general, despite all kinds of corporate statements about “change is in our DNA”, most organisations avoid change as often as possible. Hence, also the old management trick of creating some form of burning platform to make it clear to the organisation that change is needed. 

I’m not really in favour of creating burning platforms just to convince people about much-needed change. It creates all kinds of insecurity, and I’m not so sure about the idea that, if you create a burning platform, people will just go in the right direction. I haven’t really seen that one work in practice. 

What about avoiding all the insecurity and trying a different route based on transparency and facts instead?

The solution

A combination of transparency and facts. 

First of all, we need to acknowledge the insecurity surrounding new technology. 

Often, these projects or initiatives push old and established lines of responsibility, and thus create some tension. Some people might experience a real loss, either in the shape of responsibility or maybe influence. The person who used to be in charge of extracting valuable data from the SCADA system might be less enthusiastic about a digital transformation project aiming at “making data available automatically for everybody”. 

This experience of loss of influence, power, or simply insight is real and has to be addressed. 

As the catalyst for digital transformation, you may struggle to understand why not everybody finds these initiatives something positive. You might be super enthusiastic about all the opportunities and fail to understand the underlying currents of insecurity. 

Remember, people have two different mindsets: some play to win, but most people play not to lose. The implication of this is huge. Those playing not to lose will do their very best to throw a spanner in the works. 

Be transparent and empathetic about what is going on. Explain the why, what, when and how of the initiative. And avoid “Frankenspeak” at any cost. Be clear and transparent in the communication and lay out the facts as well as possible. 

Ask yourself the critical question: 

Do they have a point? Have we previously initiated something without involving people and listening to their thoughts and fears?

You’ll be surprised at how insightful the answer could be. 

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