I’m getting annoyed. Properly upset. I can’t seem to get anything done. And I am not alone. These days, I find the overwhelming sensation – from many people I talk to about delivering digital transformation – is frustration. All the new digital technologies and practices in the world will not make a difference if we can’t change our organisations to adopt them in managed, meaningful ways at a pace commensurate with the disruption taking place in our lives, workplaces, and industries. Yet, it feels like we’re getting slower, not faster. Or is this how it’s always been?

Unreliable Memoirs

I am starting to realise that many of my most vivid memories are things that never really happened. This includes places I recall seeing, but can’t find any evidence of having visited. People I’m sure I know, but they are convinced that we have never met. Conversations that did not take place, or at least not in the way I recall them. They all contain a grain of truth. Yet, somehow over the years, these recollections have morphed into stories that are more fiction than fact.

My family get the brunt of this. When I tell my kids about growing up in Liverpool in the 1970s, the picture I paint makes it sound like I was lucky to survive from one day to the next without being left for dead by the side of the road. Similarly, my tales of scoring goals as a would-be footballer make me sound like I had the skills of George Best and the qualities of Bobby Moore. Neither of which could be further from the truth, of course.

I am now concerned that my recalled experiences of working life are equally flawed. Did I really start out by spending all those hours punching out Hollerith cards with COBOL statements to feed into a room-sized computer? Was I travelling for many years on trains and planes across continents to attend 1-hour meetings, to sell software that didn’t quite work, to people who didn’t need it? Maybe.

But most of all, what I recall is that we found ways to make things happen. There was a flow and an energy that moved us from need to action. Nowadays, one of my strongest feelings about working in – and with – large established organisations is how hard it is to get things done.

I am not alone. In many of my discussions, I find that the dominant concern is an increasing frustration, from senior leaders driving digital transformation in their organisations, that they are not going fast enough. Rarely do they raise concerns about what’s in flight. Much more often they worry that maintaining momentum is hard, alignment of efforts is complex, decision-making is too slow, and internal management systems are unable to adapt to support new ways of working. We need to pick up the pace.

A Kick in the Grass

We know that the challenges of digital transformation are many and varied. As described in previous writings, the complexities faced in making any significant change create a natural inertia. We keep doing what we’ve always done. As highlighted in the work of the DIGIT Lab, this is particularly found in large established organisations (LEOs) facing numerous concerns:

  • Large: Issues of scale require change to be coordinated and organised across a variety of different teams, roles, and geographies.
  • Established: Over time, a wide collection of working practices, products, and services have been put in place that now require complex, costly adaptation to be able to continue in the new environment.
  • Organisation: Substantial risks must be addressed in revising the structures and management practices that are necessary to ensure that activities are effective, safe, legal, and comply with all relevant regulations.

Overcoming these challenges requires dedication and focus. Their impact on slowing down progress cannot be overstated. So, inevitably much of the energy and investment in digital transformation programmes is taken up dealing with them.

Furthermore, placed in the difficult position of trying to manage existing ways of working and delivering change, it is inevitable that some individuals in these LEOs shy away from such uncertainties by looking for ways to delay decisions and avoid taking responsibility for actions. Overwhelmed with the challenges to enact the changes, my experiences working in a variety of digital change projects is that they typically put forward three main reasons why delay is needed.

The first is one of timing. Change may be needed, but now is not the right time. Depending on the context, this could be due to an upcoming deadline, a change in leadership, a reorganisation, or any other similar event. Of course, business continuity is important. However, this can be seen as an opportunity to highlight the importance of digital technologies and practices. In these circumstances, it is essential to find ways to align the digital transformation actions to the current needs.

The second focus for delay concerns the need for more reviews and analysis. Many leaders believe that taking action is inappropriate without more and more data gathering. They convince themselves that more time to study the change will bring the insight needed to gain control. In fact, often the opposite is true. In times of uncertainty, the most effective approach is to take action and learn as quickly as possible by building momentum and guiding the path forward. In times of massive uncertainty, momentum trumps more data.

Finally, the third reason given is that change means increasing risk. In today’s complex and volatile conditions, they will argue that stability is required in order to maintain business resilience. Again, this thinking is at odds with the experience of many organisations today. Adapting to the changing environment is critical. Indeed, the risks of not introducing changes can be viewed as greater than standing still. By engaging in experimentation and supporting flexibility in key areas, organisations are finding that they reduce risks to their business operations.

The Need for Speed

As challenges increase for businesses in all domains, we are also experiencing rising tensions and frustration to accelerate how our organisations move forward quickly and purposefully. The impact of digital technology and processes can only be realised if we face up to these barriers and overcome the hurdles blocking change. This requires facing 3 key concerns: Timing, Completeness of Understanding, and Managed Risk. In this way, perhaps we’ll be able to enjoy the future we all remember.