Why digital systems transformation efforts fail

Change Management

8 reasons why digital change projects fail, and how to make yours a success

Would it surprise you to know that the failure rate of change projects has been placed as high as 70%? That’s not a good statistic. It doesn’t have to be that way. Given that pretty much every digital project that comes through our door here is a change project, it seems like a good time to tackle this subject. When it comes to systems change, what goes wrong and how can it be avoided?

So here it is…with 15 years of technology change projects under our belts, here’s what we know about change. We’ll tell you how to identify the 8 main pitfalls in a technology project and how to avoid them.  We’ll show you what it takes to make your project a success (and as the title suggests, not without a healthy nod to leading change specialist Dr John Kotter).

1) Not enough urgency

How do you motivate people to change? Answer: You have to make them recognise whether or not they are actually sitting on the proverbial burning platform. If their business is not moving them to a position of being an end-to-end digital company, then the reality is, it’s about to start getting uncomfortably warm.

Most businesses can keep going with a string and sticky tape approach to their digital infrastructure for a long time, but that’s just survival. What about growth? The world is full of apocryphal tales of the ones that failed to invest and got left behind (Borders, Kodak, Blockbusters..just about any newspaper), and we could tell you a lot more about some less well known household names, who are currently losing ground to their digitally more savvy competition. These are sad stories.

So how do you go about telling that story in your business? If you are struggling to create the urgency you need in your team, it’s time to show your directors the dream… in the world of Salesforce, that would be the London Salesforce1 World Tour, or even better Dreamforce in San Francisco. I challenge anyone to come away from one of these events without a sense that the world is moving on, and there is only one direction of travel: digital.

Bring that message home to your business, repeat, repeat and repeat.

2) Not getting the right people on the team from the beginning

Let’s assume you’ve managed to create the urgency needed to start the process. Now you need to get off to a good start, and that has everything to do with assembling the right team.

Projects get off to a bad start when there is not enough time spent understanding the requirements. Further down the line,  this results in an uncontrolled ‘firehose’ of user requests pouring into the project scope. At which point the management team step to one side and question what the point of it all was in the first place.

Avoiding the situation above, means putting in place the right team members from the beginning. A GOOD team needs a committed, strong project owner or manager. This role can be on the client-side, filled by your technology partner, or brought in as a third party. The next person you will need to have onboard, is an executive sponsor (or project champion). He or she is going to back your project at the highest level in the business, and the more visionary this person is, the better. One more essential element of your team: your end users. Make sure they are represented on your guiding team right from the beginning.

When we look at our most successful projects, this is the structure that was in place from the beginning, irrespective of scale, scope or budget.

3) No clear objectives

What’s your vision for this project? ‘Vision’ may seem a lofty word, but that’s exactly what you’ll need from the start: that is a clear picture of what the future will look like, after the changes are in place. From the vision, you can build something a little more concrete, that’s to say your objectives (or key deliverables). And from there, you can work out the strategy.

This is by no means specific to digital projects of course, this is the case with any business effort.  Maybe that’s why it’s so surprising how often we find people in the business who seem a little fuzzy on the details. Which leads us onto the next point of failure..

4) Not making sure that everyone gets WHY

Did you let everyone in on what the systems changes were going to mean for them, and why you were doing it?

One of the larger IT change projects we worked on involved moving people off their IBM iSeries Green Screens and on to the Salesforce Platform. Suddenly, they were going to be able to login from anywhere, solve problems on the fly, eliminate weekend working, reduce bottlenecks in the systems that kept them at work late… basically all the stuff that really changes people’s working lives for the better.

You would imagine that the people on these ageing legacy systems might welcome this change with open arms. Not so. The green screens had been around 15 years and the people working on them had become amazingly adept at handling them, tabbing through at lightening speed to get just what they needed to do their jobs..most of the time. They loved their green screens.

Putting in the integration work to replace an element of this system with the Salesforce platform was certainly a complex project. However there was another project here – communicating WHY we were doing it to the people using it,  how it fitted into the bigger picture and what was in it for them. The real challenge was to get across that although effectively starting over can be painful, and the business benefits may initially seem invisible, in the long run, day to day tasks will become a joy (honestly!)

Those users are happily moved over to the Salesforce platform now but it was a bumpy ride. It’s a good job that Salesforce keep rolling out improvements incrementally with each release, because step change is much tougher, that’s all we are going to say.

5) Failing to give your users tools they love and a reason to use them

‘Ownership’. That’s a word we are hearing a lot more often these days, and with good reason. Modern, collaborative digital platforms are the perfect environment to give people real ownership over their own systems. The implementation of Chatter at BSkyB, coupled with equipping their field engineers with iPads, is a great example of giving a team the tools to drive change across an organisation. Not only did the customer service team adopt the new platform, they became enthusiastic evangelists of the new technology.  Team working became the norm, as Chatter provided the environment for real-time collaboration over customer problems. Some very visible leaders began to emerge on this forum, who had never had the opportunity in the past to excel visibly in an organisation-wide arena.

Don’t make the mistake of just saving the good stuff for the people at the top. You need to get buy-in at all levels. Of course, you could move the holiday booking process onto the new platform. That’s always a good way of moving user adoption on quickly…

6) Allowing people to lose interest by not delivering something early on

Have you ever worked hard on a business initiative over a number of months, only to find by the time you roll it out the game has changed and things have moved on? That’s ‘Waterfall’ delivery for you. Characterised by long periods of non-delivery, and a final ‘all-or-nothing’ end result, the margin of error on these projects is huge. In worst case scenario, the project is obsolete before it has even been unveiled.

There is another way in this world of fast-paced change, and that is Agile. Agile project management is about getting everyone talking to each other from the start of a project (no more Chinese whispers) and trying, testing and adapting until something works. And then rapidly moving onto the next stage.

If you can get something to your users faster then you can get feedback faster, all of which can be incorporated into the next agile sprint. Identifying that one of your changes DOESN’T work is crucial (AKA testing) to your change process. Rolling things out that do not work is the quickest way there is to lose people.

We would go as far to say that if you are serious about change, forget the big rollout, the only way is Agile. That way confidence levels are high, the amount of change is not too challenging, and no one forgets why they embarked on the process in the first place.

7. Not realising that there is no ‘end point’

It’s a difficult idea to communicate, this one. Implementing a new platform for your business processes is going to be a concentrated effort to begin with, there’s no escaping this fact. By taking heed of the failure points 1-6 listed above, then you will do a lot to make this change process a successful, and less painful one.

However, once you have done the heavy lifting (your fields are configured, your objects built, your workflows in place and your data uploaded…), unfortunately it’s still not time to relax. Systems, like businesses, like people, are an ever-evolving thing. Business requirements move on, technology innovations come along, a major disruption occurs in your industry, or indeed all of the above. You will need to continue to invest in and develop your digital infrastructure, otherwise it’s questionable whether or not it’s worthwhile making the initial investment in change in the first place.

Of course, not all businesses want to retain an in-house development team. That’s where a good consulting partner should come into their own, working alongside you when you need them, to help you to identify your future priorities and keep moving forward in the direction of travel. Not all contact with your consulting partner needs to cost you money either. Groups such as Forcewest, Awesome Admins & Developer Groups are a good way of hearing what other businesses are doing and what’s working.

8. Not understanding that digital is about cultural change, not just systems change

This is the final point and one that plays a role in all of the possible pitfalls outlined above: bringing in new systems is just one part of the picture, the change process needs to address the business culture as a whole.

The most successful digital transformations we have seen all have one thing in common – they have been committed to from the top, and led from the top. Only when the most senior people in an organisation are using their new systems to run the business, will the change process be successful.

On a simple practical level that means for example, using the dashboards and reports to drive the Monday morning management meeting; using the communication tools (Chatter) to communicate with the wider team, rather than email; relying on HR systems data to make performance related decisions etc.

On a more fundamental level, culture change means identifying yourself as being a digital business. That means always asking how technology could enable you to do business better; making decisions on your digital infrastructure which will allow you to scale over time; establishing digital governance in the business; creating the role of Chief Digital Officer in the senior team.

In short, it takes commitment from the highest level, which in turn will inspire change right down to the grassroots, and that’s not to be underestimated.

So, there it is – The 8 pitfalls of a digital change project. While every project is unique, but the ways of getting it wrong are surprisingly similar.

You may have read through this article with a growing sense that embarking on a project of this type is almost doomed to failure before it begins. Not so, and we have a long and growing list of successful change projects as proof (you can see some of them here).

The good news is that whatever the size of your organization, your budget, or your level of technical know-how, you can lead successful IT change management projects in your business. What you need, is determination and a healthy dose of awareness of where the challenges lie. This article is of course just a starting point on the long journey ahead. If you want to talk more about where you are heading, then get in touch, and we can talk specifics. If you want learn more about IT change, then sign up for our Good Systems Newsletter (registration form on this page).


Change Management
By Alex Tennant
20 May 2015
BusinessThe Good Systems Blog

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