Upper management at your company has decided — it is ready to take the plunge with a digital transformation project. The budget is in place, the enthusiasm in the C-suite is strong and the end results sound genuinely promising. Now what?

Getting started on any project always seems overwhelming but the very nature of digital transformation suggests big changes are coming. To navigate this process it is best to rely on a managerial discipline called change management. There’s only one problem. “One of the challenges we face as an industry is there aren’t many best practices around change management for digital transformation,” said Neil Kinson, chief of staff for Redwood Software. “To be sure, there is a classic playbook for change management. It starts with the C-suite and cascades down through the organization through various layers of management,” he continued. 

Digital transformation is different, though, he said. Why? For starters it is doesn’t have the track record that more traditional projects do. And as already noted, the change such a project will usher in will be immense. With that in mind we’ve assembled a list of change management best practices for digital transformation from various experts. 

Defining Digital Transformation

Digital transformation has become a buzz word, meaning different things to different people, said Erik Gfesser, principal architect at SPR. That is why it is important to define the term for employees right at the beginning. “To me, digital transformation means you’re changing something fundamental about your business and new, modern technology is usually a big piece of that but it’s not necessarily the overarching concern.” 

Instead, digital transformation is intended to envelope the entire spectrum of business and IT. “You want a common view or idea that digital transformation is not just a series of new software applications — it’s transformation how you do things and how people interact with one another.”

Related Article: Why a Digital Mindset Is Key to Digital Transformation

The First Mile

Change management for technology previously used to be applied in what could be referred to as the last mile, said Bill Kirst, senior manager in West Monroe Partners' Operations Excellence practice. “When you were implementing the technology you would focus a lot on the process and then look at what the impact will be on the people,” he said. “Then you would evaluate that impact and compose a change management plan. With digital transformation, though, change management has become a first mile step. Before you take on any aspect of a digital transformation project the leading practice is to get people to have that conversation about the change ahead.”

The point of that, Kirst said, is to increase the buy in and advocacy around everything that is going to happen. “Some of that will be unknown and thus will bring some uncertainty. But with digital transformation, the days of being able to put out a whole, tightly compartmentalized communication plan where you have a lot of certainty about what will happen, are over.”

This is the stage where you want to get people excited about your digital transformation plan, said Danielle Moffat, managing director of Global Capabilities at Accenture Operations. “You want them to understand you have a plan for your people and that it will be exciting for them to embrace change rather than feel like something is happening to them.”

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Learning Opportunities

A Deep Understanding of the Technology

In any digital technology implementation, you have to understand the technology itself, deeper than you previously would have for a more traditional IT project, Kirst said. “You have to understand how it is going to fit inside the organization and how it is ultimately going to change the way people work.” Just as importantly, you have to invest time to ensure that employees are able to work with the new digital technology, Moffat said. For example, she continued, Accenture Operation has several AI advisors deployed throughout the organization and it also offers various training programs for team members to help them learn about how AI works.

Changing the Way Teams Work

Change management for digital transformation also means curating the conversations around not only the technology but also how the teams are working, or will be working, differently, Kirst said. “That is all likely going to be done differently in a digital first world, primarily because of the transparency that comes along with it,” he said. 

So work silos will likely have to be broken down. “You have to work in a very collaborative function, which doesn’t always come easy to some organizations.” In these situations the change management team or lead has to have some honest conversations about what the future is going to look like and allow employees to express their concerns in an honest way. “If you don’t do that, then you’ll get a lot of invisible naysayers and some of these initiatives will stall out,” Kirst said.

The changes needed to facilitate digital transformation may be immense. It's important to remember the breadth of change that will occur across teams. “Oftentimes, with digital transformation, it’s impacting the front, the middle and the back office compared with previous projects that might have affected just one area.” Instead, she said, digital transformation transcends all these areas, which means there is a greater level of collaboration needed.

Related Article: Understanding and Meeting the Challenges of Digital Transformation

Be Agile With Plans

Planning, of course, is a good, even essential, step to digital transformation, Gfesser said. “You need to know what is your game plan.” But, he added, he has seen companies spend many, many hours for months working on detailed plans for a digital transformation and then become very rigid about keeping to those plans — even if subsequent developments signal that change may be necessary. “You need to be agile with plans,” Gfesser said. 

Essentially the company is seeking to make change, but if you are looking at things in too fixed of a way, by the time you get to the end of the road map, Gfesser warns, “you may find you have been spending a significant amount of time working on something that is not really viable anymore.”