When it comes to transformation, whether it's in the context of digital transformation, organisational change, or any other variety of transformation, it's important not to overlook the human element of the process.
For centuries, humans have been fascinated by the idea of transformation. Whether in popular culture, mythology, or nature, we are constantly drawn to some form of major change or evolution.
The world and society are forever changing due to the advent of groundbreaking technology evolutions such as the internet, smart devices, social media, and digital native services. Now, with Artificial Intelligence entering the arena, it is set to bring a complete step towards human advancement and interaction.
As a result, leaders across all industries are adapting their strategies to meet the demands of this altered global landscape. The Covid-19 pandemic has only enhanced the speed at which necessary changes must be made to meet growing customer expectations; companies must now develop new products and services relying on technology - though studies suggest many are not succeeding.
An article in the Harvard Business Review suggests that ‘various studies from academics, consultants, and analysts indicate that the rate of digital transformations failing to meet their original objectives ranges from 70% to 95%’*.
Digital transformation failure is rarely a result of the technology itself. Instead, it stems from difficulties transitioning an organisation and its people to evolve and operate differently. It is critical to understand that modern digital transformation calls for an all-encompassing shift in how things are done. Recognising this and establishing a human-focused strategy can often bring significant advantages to projects and teams, resulting in stronger inclusion within an organisation. Furthermore, a people-oriented view of digital transformation can lead to increased benefits for both employees and organisations as a whole, fostering higher levels of communication and equality.
The power to transform and evolve is an innate quality found within humanity. This astounding ability to learn, think, and react enables us to thrive in various situations.
Although rarely discussed, transformation can come with a hefty price. Fear of the unknown, and feeling forced to sacrifice the familiar or pre-established learnings can cause people to feel lost and excluded during transformation activity.
Change and, by proxy, growth is an uncomfortable and arduous task to undertake, as it necessitates relinquishing familiar things. We may find ourselves attached to our previous reality, which can cause psychological distress when faced with change. For progress to occur, we must understand and be willing to part with what is known, to be open to new circumstances.
Through experience, there are five underpinning principles found in a human-centric strategy:
Principle 1: Lead with empathy
Empathy has to be at the core of a human-centric approach. In times of change, we naturally look for strong leadership to pave the way with empathy, vision and behaviours with which we can align. Charging off ahead with a “follow me because you have to” or a “do as I say because I am in charge” attitude will disenfranchise. Fear is a terrible motivator, it will leave people behind and not sustain the ones who do follow. Cultural markers need to be recognised - initially used to protect us, could now be a large constraint to our progress.
Tap into people's sentiments, gauge how they are feeling, be present, be visible, engage with them, be an active listener, take feedback, and drive an inclusive culture. Act on feedback or discuss how it may not fit the vision.
Principle 2: Maintain a clear definition of value
It seems obvious, but it's incredible how often outcomes are not clearly defined or understood across a transformation project, let alone the importance it intends to deliver.
How can you go on a journey if the destination is unclear? How can people get behind something, honestly buy-in, and engage if they don't understand what they are trying to achieve and the value it will deliver?
The why and vision needs to be precise. It must be continually referenced, and objectives tasked to people and teams need a tangible link to achieve the desired outcome. Establishing and communicating the why and vision will ensure that people are aligned to a common purpose and goal and understand their contribution.
Principle 3: Enable Transparent Communication
Open and regular communication is paramount; without it, people tend to create their own narratives. Common understanding and alignment are lost when this happens, often leading to disillusionment, perceived failure, frustration, or disengagement.
Leave the ego at the door, be vulnerable and don’t try to paint a different picture of reality. People will see through it. Transparency breeds trust, and with confident communication, we humans are more readily open to facing adversity, changing or pivoting in a direction with a different mindset.
Principle 4: Provide ownership enabling accountability
Change accelerates when people are invested and have a sense of ownership in the outcome. Co-creation comes from ownership, drives personal responsibility and a sense of pride in what you are trying to achieve.
Creating shared ownership is critical, as it builds a culture of ‘we’ and ‘us’. Bring people into the conversations early, and leverage their experiences to gain further perspective, input and feedback. Share the load, co-author and co-create rather than design in isolation and allocate and delegate.
Principle 5. Advocate Vulnerability
Transformations will never be smooth. There will be pitfalls, issues and challenges along the way. The vision at the start may change or morph, and real-life situations can prove assumptions wrong.
Being vulnerable and saying, ‘We made a mistake, we got that wrong, or it wasn’t what we expected,’ shouldn't be seen as bad, nor courageous because it should be considered normal language. Naturally, you need to demonstrate that you recognise a mistake and have a strategy or plan to address it, but vulnerability breeds trust and breaks down walls that can exist between people and teams.
Never forget that mistakes are the best way to learn and improve. No one has ever improved from getting things right all the time. On the flip side, callouts on success are important. Not everyone is capable of running a marathon. Small success stories drive an affirmation that things are on the right path.
It is people who will drive a successful transformation, who view the change in the right way, as an opportunity and not a threat. Although there is an ideal to grow, growth can be difficult and people can often resist change.
“Fire can burn your house down, or it can cook you dinner and keep you warm in the winter. Your mind is the same way.”
The key is for the organisation to harness the 5 Principles of a Human-Centric Approach, being empathetic to a range of personas, providing clarity and visibility, showing progress with engagement and learning from all outcomes, driving ownership, learning and trust with their peers.
V2’s focus on transformation humanised is just one part of creating and accelerating the digital next for our customers. Driven by outcomes, unleashed by technology and powered by humans, together, we evolve Version 2.
If you are as passionate about this topic as I am, contact me on LinkedIn, I’d love to hear about your experiences.
*Reference Dr Didier Bonnet is a Strategy & Digital Transformation Professor at IMD in Switzerland. Harvard Business Review.