Person slipping on a banana peel
PHOTO: Steve Buissinne

Galeazzo Ciano wrote in his diaries, “Success has a hundred fathers, defeat is an orphan.” If so, there are probably a lot of orphan digital transformation projects out there.

Almost every business leader feels the need to somehow improve their operations by utilizing the power of information technology — but few know where or how to start, and even less are clear on how to be successful. Worse, many business leaders aren’t even clear how to define “success” or have a different definition than their peers and their CEO.

In short, it’s a mess.

So how do you avoid falling into the same trap as so many others as you travel down the path towards digitization? While there are a lot of pitfalls and indicators that you might be headed into trouble, thankfully there are strategies to avoid them.

Related Article: Failure to Launch: 5 Causes of Digital Transformation Failure

Pitfalls on the Road to Digital Transformation: What to Avoid 

The first, most common mistake made about digital transformation is thinking about it as a project. It’s not. Projects typically have a team assigned to them. They have a budget. They start and then they finish. And treating digitization as a one-off project will derail your digital strategy before you’ve even begun.

Digital transformation is exactly that: it’s a transformation. It’s a deep, pervasive and long-lived change. And the only way to sustain the level of change and the cultural shift you need to make is to adapt a mindset that continually seeks transformational opportunities, not just for a defined period of time, but day after day, year after year. This is why businesses are bringing chief digital officers (or some variant of that title) on board, to give the process of transformation the long-term care and feeding it needs. Digital transformation isn’t like going on a crash diet to get ready for your beach vacation. It’s more like a lifestyle change that delivers long-term health benefits, and it needs to be treated as such.

The second pitfall is not thinking big enough. For once, it’s important to think about something that reaches far and wide rather than focusing on narrow and easily measured goals. Digital transformation initiatives must affect enough of the business to make a meaningful difference. Too often, initiatives end up being highly siloed, mostly in a well-intentioned attempt to limit the scope and therefore deliver something within a reasonable time frame. However, this approach can be risky if it fails to garner sufficient buy-in from other stakeholders, and if the scope becomes relegated to non-strategic, losing that critical element of C-suite support.  

While you still might want to avoid trying to eat the elephant all at once, if you don’t take big enough bites, the elephant will simply wander away before you make any progress.

The final, and perhaps most dangerous trap is perhaps the most seductive, and that’s transforming the wrong things first. There’s no doubt that efficiency gains within your business are important. However, if the chief beneficiaries of digital transformation are your operations and IT teams, you run the risk of missing out on the most powerful digital lever you have at your disposal — the ability to improve customer experience.

Transforming internal processes can deliver cost and efficiency improvements, but real transformational change must ultimately be felt by your customers. And that means starting where your business meets your customer base. Transforming how you better understand your customers’ needs, becoming more agile in the way you meet them, and ultimately engaging with them when, where, and how they want, will deliver the most powerful form of transformation. 

Related Article: Why Customers Are the Real Drivers of Digital Transformation

Digital Transformation Starts and Ends With the Customer: Metrics for Success

Successful digital transformation really boils down to one thing: the ability to better meet customer needs and deliver a better customer experience (and yes, your customers will tell you one way or the other).

Transformation processes that focus entirely on operational efficiency (or euphemistic renderings of "modernizing legacy technology") may deliver benefits but those benefits are yours, not your customers’. They may improve the bottom line, but the benefits of such improvement may take a long time to become apparent to your customers — and therein lies the risk. For while you may be running more efficiently or may be squeezing a few more years out of that tired mainframe implementation, when the benefits of these internal facing digital strategies take too long to filter to the customer, it opens the door to more customer-focused competitors or disruptive new entrants.

Digital strategies that start with customer engagement, that improve your business’s ability to listen to the market and customers and react in a more agile, even predictive way to their needs, will not only deliver measurable improvement for your customers, but will quickly garner the support of the c-suite. As a result you'll have a more fully aligned business and reduce the chances your work is seen as a short-term project that other stakeholders can ignore.

So if you’re looking for a single, predictive indicator of the likelihood of success for your transformation strategy, begin by measuring the distance between the improvements you seek to gain, and the customers you serve. 

Success may have a hundred fathers, but real success is engaging your customers too.