Digital technology is fundamentally reshaping how people live and work — and the pandemic has only accelerated the adoption of cloud computing, predictive analytics and other high-tech tools. But in their rush to retool analog operations, organizations often neglect the human side of becoming digital, an oversight that can slow the pace of change and put such efforts at risk of failure.

Transforming a business into a digital operation isn’t just about upgrading software or revamping a website. You need buy-in across an organization — from frontline workers to management — to successfully retool it for the digital era. In fact, an estimated 70% of digital transformations don’t achieve their objectives, often because of organizational inertia and cultural resistance.

The end result should put users at the center, organizing a business around human needs and priorities. To get there, every part of the organization needs to behave differently — yet cohesively. Here’s how business leaders should approach the process.

Prepare for the Long Run

Humans don’t like change, even when it’s change they’re excited about. Becoming digital requires a clear-eyed assessment of what tools, people and behavioral shifts will be needed to achieve your goals. Getting there can be a slog if executive leadership doesn’t allocate the right funding and staff or understand what’s required to get people involved and invested in the process as early as possible.

Think of it like training for a race. While gearing up for a 5K might be a relatively small undertaking, becoming digital is more like signing up for an Ironman Triathlon. For most people, just getting through a grueling 140-mile-plus race requires a major shift in how they approach exercise, nutrition, and hydration — and it will likely still feel difficult.

Becoming digital is a similarly substantial undertaking, involving deep focus on technology, data, operational change, and — above all — people. But while it cuts across all parts of an organization, it doesn’t have to be an expensive process. Start by drawing up a roadmap to change that makes sense for your business or enlist a partner to help strategize. It can be helpful to have the outside perspective to take a look at your organization, not unlike having a personal trainer to provide tough love, keep you accountable, and notice areas of improvement that perhaps you wouldn’t notice yourself.

The first step is the same regardless of what your end goal is: You need to figure out where to begin, and what’s reasonable for your organization given your budget and resources. Whatever the path, it’s important to remember that human change, especially on an organization-wide level, doesn’t happen overnight. Getting there requires practice and communication.

Related Article: Communicating Change: Overcoming Resistance Through Empathy 

Human-Centered Design in Everything You Do

Organizations need to understand who they are serving when creating digital products and experiences, applying a user-first approach whether it involves customers or employees.

For example, a hospital that organizes its website around different departments or business units probably isn’t putting the site’s end users (the patients) first. Consider user needs and human priorities, such as finding the nearest clinic or seamlessly being able to schedule an appointment, when building new digital architecture. In the hospital’s case, digital transformation aimed at patient-centric design might require recalibrating operational structure by having the tech team work more closely with the patient feedback team.

Human-centered design should also help people inside your organization do their jobs better. Evaluate whether your internal tools are empowering or impeding the humans running the business, and understand what improvements may be needed on a deeper level.

For example, take the at times cumbersome task of onboarding new employees. Creating a centralized, searchable digital repository for documenting and sharing businesses processes can streamline training and get new hires up to speed more efficiently. That approach can help speed up the creation of internal training guides and convert hundreds of documents into a new, digestible format.

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: What Design Thinking Can Bring to Employee Experience Programs

Manage Change Through Communication

Successful transformation involves a heavy dose of people skills. Be up front about the task at hand. You can’t trick a business into changing. The shift must be overt. Deploying technology to cut across silos and hierarchies means changing how people do their work.

Don’t assume you can roll out new technology or a new workflow and everyone will automatically get on board. Informal conversations, focus groups, and pulse surveys are all ways to understand how people are reacting to change and what concerns they may have. Create pilot programs to gather feedback before you launch, and check in with employees as technology rolls out more broadly across the organization.

Along the way, keep these principles in mind:

  • Change is hard, but it’s easier if it’s fun. Bring creativity, intellectual curiosity and an open mind to forge bonds across teams and with digital transformation partners. For example, consider tools to encourage adoption with authentic, real conversations that allow employees to talk about what’s happening in a safe space while bringing human interaction to every step of the process.
  • Embrace the player-coach model. Invent something together, instead of reading from a prewritten playbook. New ideas and innovation can come from anywhere, which is why having organization-wide understanding of what’s happening is so crucial. When you bring in outside help, make sure they are going to work alongside your team in a player-coach model, not just hand you a strategy to execute and leave you to figure it out alone.
  • Failure can be a learning experience. When going through change of this magnitude, it’s important to have a learning mindset. The most important potential benefit to come out of trying something is to capture learning and iterate toward the goal.

Once you’ve assembled your team, focus on building momentum and investment in the project. Celebrate small wins and incorporate real-time changes to the business as you move forward.

Be ready for honest conversations, healthy conflict and vulnerability. Lean into the human side of things to get to a place of meaningful dialogue that advances the culture, instead of papering over friction that over time could derail a project’s success.

And remember, digital transformation is more of a marathon than a sprint. That’s especially true when it comes to bringing people along with you.

Related Article: Digital Transformation Isn't a Sprint, It's a Marathon

fa-solid fa-hand-paper Learn how you can join our contributor community.