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This is an excerpt from Expert360’s latest PDF downloadable “An Expert's Guide to Leadership in the Age of Digital Disruption”. Download the free PDF here.

The focus here is on two things. Firstly, common leadership attributes of successful digital projects. Secondly, a deeper look at some aspects of change management that leaders should be mindful of in a digital context.

Common attributes of successful projects

Many of the aspects below are relevant to any major business project. However, because “digital” may be unfamiliar territory for some staff who are involved or impacted, it is particularly important that they be addressed to minimise the chances of misunderstanding or concern.  

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From our experience, the following key areas should be included:

  • Set the baseline – the best way to build momentum is to demonstrate positive improvement and to do that, you need an unarguable reference point of where you started from
  • A well articulated rationale for change – you can’t force cynics to agree but you must at least give them recognisable trends, data points and other evidence that justify the program
  • A Future State vision and the benefits it will deliver – whilst set primarily from the perspective of the company and its customers, if there’s any significant change resistance, articulate a vision from the sta perspective e.g. “this is how it will be better for you” (see more on this below)
  • A robust project Charter – this should include all relevant elements eg. scope & objectives, governance, leadership, project plan, resources, timeline, KPIs etc. and should be readily accessible for any interested stakeholders
  • Customer journey & experience mapping – aside from being good practice and demanding a focus on your customers, this activity and output also provides a powerful lever for change; when the benefit to a customer is clear it’s very hard for anyone to argue against it
  • Short delivery & measurement cycles – whether the program is delivering a technology-centric outcome eg. a new e-commerce platform, or a digital education program, modern practice is to manage on short cycles to demonstrate progress and minimise the chances of going o the rails
  • Draft deliverables early & iterate – whether it’s a working prototype, wire-frames or a report structure, generate a draft of final output as early as possible and then iterate continually. Many people can only really comprehend something when they can see a representation of it
  • Demonstrable senior leadership – tone comes from the top; be positive, don’t scrimp on time commitments to the program and err on the side of over-communication
  • Regular project communication with all parties – this is particularly important if your staff generally have relatively low levels of starting digital understanding (see more on this below)
  • Diligently identify, track & address risks arising – self-evident; don’t let things linger unaddressed  


Change management in digital programs

If your organisation isn’t a digital leader, it is quite likely there will be a proportion of your staff who are unsettled by significant business transformation (whether real or perceived). Workforces with one or more attributes such as; relatively low technology skills, high average age, high average tenure and limited demonstrable industry disruption to date, will have the furthest distance to travel on a digital journey and may be most personally confronted by it. In such circumstances, in addition to being particularly diligent in executing the best practices of program management (many of which are listed above), pro-active change management is extremely important. If any more than a minimum number of affected staff react negatively to the changes they perceive, at best, widespread anxiety may divert attention and hence productivity dips or at worst, there will be outright opposition and attempts to white-ant the process. To minimise the likelihood of negative stakeholder reactions, there are two more specific change management practices we recommend.  

  • Enjoin key influencers – every organisation has certain individuals who are particularly influential through informal, social networks (that have no direct relationship with formal organisation structures or seniority). Identify who those people are and whether they are initially pro or anti the plans, use whatever is most effective with them personally to enjoin them to the process ideally to be an advocate, but if not, at least to minimise the likelihood that they will be an active opponent
  • Put yourself in your staff’s shoes – the key things to bear in mind are that senior leaders inevitably have a higher level strategic understanding and perspective than most staff and secondly, that the leadership group’s thinking, planning and personal rationalisation of impending changes inevitably runs well ahead of the rest of the staff as indicated by the graphic below:  

Any digital change program moves from a Starting state to a Future state typically going through five stages as indicated above. When such change occurs, every impacted individual goes on their own personal, emotional journey. Some people will be instantly positive, “thank goodness, I thought we would never do this”, whilst others will be profoundly concerned, “this will wipe out my job!” In a digitally immature organisation, it would be prudent to anticipate that the average staff reaction may be negative in the first instant as shown by the broken black line above.

This contrasts with the experience of the senior leadership group who understand the strategic benefits to be realised so should have a positive view of the change from rst to last. The second point to recognise is that program leaders, in addition to seeing the big picture very clearly, will be running well ahead of the majority of staff in their personal interpretation of the program’s impact. As an example, point A on the graphic is the moment in time where there is the maximum gap between the perception of the change impact between leaders and staff. The leadership team may be running 2-3 months’ ahead of their staff on this journey. The key message here is that, when communicating, senior leadership must both cast their mind back, several months if necessary, to that stage in their own process of understanding the change and also demonstrate empathy for reasonable concerns all through the program but particularly during early announcements. Even with a good management consulting program, change management and communication disciplines in place, any project of scale is likely to encounter challenges along the way, some of which will be controllable and others not. The next part in this series will identify some of the more common pitfalls that arise in digital projects together with mitigation strategies you can draw on to stay on track.


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