Digital Transformation: The Secret Ingredient We Often Forget

By Sarah Weise (UX Director, Booz Allen Digital Interactive) and Carrie-Ann Barrow (Partner, Bixa)

When I was growing up, my Italian grandmother made the most delicious marinara sauce. The kind that would simmer for hours and scent the entire house with garlic and love. Grandma Nucci’s sauce was legendary, and she was often asked for her recipe, but no one could quite replicate it. Unknowingly, she always seemed to leave out some crucial ingredient when she recounted how it was made.

I’ve spent my career encouraging digital transformation through lean and mean User Experience (UX) techniques: how to integrate UX into agile cycles, and how to create a quick-turnaround, repeatable process of learning, iterating, and testing. However, in all my teaching, I may have left out an important (and often unsaid) ingredient: organizational support.

Digital transformation is not possible without an organizational backbone that supports change.

Over the past few years, I have traveled the country giving UX workshops. Students leave energetic and eager, prepared to test sketches, make changes based on a handful of users, and observe real customers as they try to complete tasks. With renewed confidence, they commit to building customer-centric products with gusto.  They ideate with their teams as soon as they get back to the office. They pour their souls into visioning sessions. They plaster the walls with stickies. They schedule user testing twice a month. They nail it!

But then, more often than not, the project slows. Decision makers do not agree. Issues are tabled. Momentum fades. Talent is wasted. People return to autopilot, and enthusiasm drizzles like a slow leak, draining one drop at a time until everyone’s running on E.

It is what happens when one person in a household reads The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, commits to spark joy with the KonMarie method, but everyone else keeps on hoarding.

Digital transformation cannot happen without organizational transformation first. One cannot exist without the other. A “customer first” mantra is only sustainable if an organization takes action based on customer insight.  Management practices and culture that truly trust in users must embrace change, and too often the fear of giving control to users brings progress to a halt.

Change is hard. Even when the stakes are incredibly high – a matter of life and death – people refuse to alter their behavior. One study demonstrated that 90% of patients who had gone through heart bypass surgery or angioplasty go back to the exact lifestyle they had before the surgery; only 10% make major diet and lifestyle modifications. As humans, we are paralyzed by the thought of change, even when faced with overwhelming evidence that we should. When you consider human evolution, risk aversion was a form of survival. And most corporate cultures are bred to be risk averse: to tolerate mediocrity and to avoid rocking the boat.

While we know that the most successful companies are the ones that take the time to listen to their customers, taking action based on customer insight may seem like a loss of power.  It feels vulnerable. We live in a world that values comfort over vulnerability.  Even in today’s modern society, most corporations are still operating as traditional hierarchies. Gerry McGovern describes this traditional leadership culture as, “Hierarchical and authoritarian. Most organizations are like monarchies. Once you’re outside management, whether you are an employee or customer, you are expected to listen and be led.”  Leadership within this type of organizational culture is terrified when business or website decisions are made because of customer insights. When customer needs lead to change, this empowers customers – thereby undermining the power of the people “in charge.” For most risk-averse leaders who hate to lose more than they like to gain, it is more comfortable to tolerate mediocrity and status quo than to risk losing power.

How can organizations create the change they need?  While there is no secret ingredient, it is possible over time to construct the organizational foundation required to support a digital transformation. Corporate culture inevitably evolves over time. We have identified four principles that are key to working with this evolution instead of fighting it: shifting culture by engaging employees to craft a shared vision and start taking action to move it forward, articulating what already makes the company great, to build upon existing culture, and learning to put the customer first.

  1. Connect with a Shared Vision: Your North Star to Guide Business Decisions

A shared vision is a strong vision. Engaging staff to become part of any process is critical for change that sticks. According to Harvard Business Review, “Too often a company’s strategy, imposed from above, is at odds with the ingrained practices and attitudes of its culture… Some corporate leaders struggle with cultural intransigence for years, without ever fully focusing on the question: Why do we want to change our culture? They don’t clearly connect their desired culture with their strategy and business objectives.” Invite key resources within your organization to represent each department and include them in visioning sessions and workshops.  Keep employees informed and excited about the visioning process and the vision statement.  Share your vision throughout your company  – through emails, flyers on the wall, magnets mailed to employees’ homes. Get it out there and make it tangible.  Spark excitement about how digital transformation will take the organization to new levels, and be specific – how will the shared vision make everyone’s job better?  How will it affect the customer?   People want to be a part of things bigger than themselves; offer them the opportunity.  Encourage ideas and make your people part of the vision.

Collaborative visioning sessions offer the possibility for fundamental change. They give a group something to move toward and generate creative thinking, passion, and ensure that customers are placed front and center. Proven facilitation techniques help teams ideate and ultimately expose the intersections of business objectives, technological feasibility, and user needs. At its core, a visioning session democratizes the design of your experience. Many of our clients revisit their vision statement often, hang it on their walls, and use it as a “North Star” to guide future business decisions. Visioning sessions are so powerful and effective that they should be a keystone of any organizational coaching or experience consulting process. Bring your team together to gather insights, goals, and strategize to design a clear picture of the future. Through visioning, your team will create a shared business vision and direction, an understanding of target audiences and their needs and preferences, and start a culture of rapid iteration.
Sticks alone are weak; in a bundle they are nearly unbreakable.

  1. Find Values & Differentiators that Are Already Working

Swimming against a strong current is tiresome and ineffective. Culture shifts that stick build upon the strengths of the existing culture. They honor what is currently working well, and build upon it. In visioning sessions and culture surveys, we often spend time discussing how the company stands out, and what values make its people special.

Jon Katzenbach, founder and co-leader of the Katzenbach Center at Strategy&, claims: “Because deeply embedded cultures change slowly over time, working with and within the culture you have invariably is the best approach. The overall change effort will be far less jarring for all concerned. Simply put, rather than attacking the heart of your company, you will be making the most of its positive forces as your culture evolves in the right way.”  In fact, research shows that companies mindfully working to shift culture are significantly more likely to see transformative change that sticks. In Katenbach’s 2013 Global Culture & Change Management Survey, 70% of the firms consciously trying to shift culture observed “sustainable improvement in organizational pride and emotional commitment.” Compare that figure to 35% for firms that did not use culture as a lever.

Reframing attributes that people complain about may shine a new perspective on the culture, and work with it instead of fighting it. For instance, a confrontational vibe may be reframed as a deep commitment to innovation that challenges the status quo. Finding ways to demonstrate the relevance of original values acknowledges the company’s existing cultural assets and will make a major organizational change feel less like a top-down decree, and more like a shared evolution.

Often we use observation of employee behavior, in-depth interviews and surveys to diagnose a culture’s weaknesses. These same approaches can be used to clarify its strengths, and find pockets of employees who are practicing the values and behaviors the company needs. These data gathering techniques serve a secondary purpose of collecting stories of how people at the company are applying these strengths. Storytelling is a powerful and memorable way to incite change, and can be used as a part of an organizational change management strategy.

  1. Start Small: 1-2 Specific Asks to Propel a New Culture

Often organizations that conduct an internal visioning session walk out with a laundry list of desired values: customer focus, innovation, risk taking, data quality. But what next?  A lengthy, vague list is too broad to start with. It sounds great on paper but does not correlate to actionable change.

For each of these values, conduct a follow-up activity. Gather representative leaders and employees in a workshop and have them write out what they don’t mean by this term, and then what they do mean (in that order). Start a discussion about these traits, and work to find examples and stories of when these values have shown up at your company in the past.

This type of exercise helps a company to envision, as a group, a clear picture of how the company sees itself post-transformation. What will change look like?  How will it impact culture, customers, and day-to-day responsibilities of each employee? From there, you can find specific tasks that each employee can start with to help the shift toward a more targeted culture.

It is far easier to get a message across about something specific. If you want people to change diet, for example, instead of a vague statement about eating low-fat foods, you may request that people drink skim milk instead of whole. This works because a specific, concrete task is easier to grasp and try.  Start your organizational shift by asking employees to focus on 1-2 small, actionable requests. Brief, clear asks ensure that people can understand what to do – and actually take steps to move your company in the right direction. With enough small steps, you will reach a tipping point to propel your new culture forward.

  1. Build on a Shared Value of Customer Service

A company would not exist without those who buy its services and products. Digital transformation enables companies to respond faster, develop more efficiently, and produce what the customer needs. But without a pulse on the customers’ needs and service expectations, it is all for nothing. Your customers will not care if you want to be innovative, bold, diverse, or anything else if it does not benefit them in some way.  Kick off your digital transformation initiative by investing in customer research.  Learn about your target customers: who they are (note: take “general public” or “the world” out of your vocabulary and get specific). Learn about their needs, pain points, mental models, and journey lines. There is no point in transformation if it is not to improve, to serve.

Digital is transforming power structures. Today’s technology empowers customers, and it empowers employees to connect with customers. It can be quick and easy to communicate with your audiences. According to Nielsen Norman research, talking to just 5 users can identify nearly 90% of usability issues. Steve Krug contends that just a morning a month is all it takes to continually improve. What a tiny investment for monumental change. Encouraging employees to get to know customers will shift your organizational culture. It may shift your business model. Talking to customers will let you learn things you did not even know to ask. The people at the top will no longer have more knowledge about customers than the people at the bottom. Our modern structure of effective companies is changing. Companies must accept this change and learn to use it to their advantage if they are to survive in a world where the digital landscape has fundamentally changed.

Digital transformation is not possible without an organizational foundation that supports change. Cultural shifts – designed around your current strengths, differentiators, and customers – can and should be an early priority. These organizational changes will not only make your company more effective and innovative in digital, but also energize and engage your top talent, driving retention and satisfaction of your top performers.

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