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Any organization that treated digital transformation as a technology project learned the hard way that it takes a lot more than that.
Digital transformation is a process. Not an event.
It’s often tempting to declare victory in digital transformation too soon.
Especially when one sees some improvements and financial progress when new systems are implemented.
Unfortunately such celebrations hardly last long.
Declaring victory too soon is a sign that the team does not know what it takes for behavior change to stick in the organization.
Successful digital transformation takes time.
It takes time. Yes. But how long?
I’ve met executives that did exactly the opposite. They were so obsessed about the long term that their teams started wondering if they’ll ever reach that future.
The problem with this approach is that the organization may lose momentum. In fact, most people won’t go on this long run unless they see compelling evidence within few months that the journey is producing expecting results.
So you need a balance.
In fact, a successful transformation goes through a clear roadmap that stretches to the long term, while building on small wins in the short term.
And I’m about to share with you the three phases through such transformations go through, and what exactly you’re expected to do at each phase as the leader.
A lot of organizations consider three, five, and even eight phases in their transformation roadmaps.
But No matter how complex a transformation is, it can really be broken down into three phases, with specific objectives.
- Unfreeze phase: getting the organization ready for transformation
- Transform phase: implementing the changes, and
- Refreeze phase: making the changes stick
Now, let’s dissect what happens at each phase.
1. Unfreeze Phase
This first phase is meant to prepare the organization and its employees for transformation.
And your role as leader is to make sure people see the need for transformation. That’s to say everyone has to understand the problems faced by the organization today.
It’s also at this phase that leaders must take steps to ensure that employees will get on board, and proceed with new ways of thinking and acting.
Most problems are known.
But you need to bring everyone to the same level of understanding.
Are there problems with customer service? Is decision making slow? Is the product development process delivering expected results?
And so on.
Some people call this phase “taking charge”, or “setting the stage”.
Whatever the situation, this period is for questioning current ways of doing business, setting goals for performance in the future, and designing realistic changes that employees can carry out.
The psychologist, Kurt Lewin, had a good reason to call it “unfreezing”.
Here’s the idea:
At the start of a change process, the firm and its employees are frozen in the current ways of operating, many of which are often dysfunctional or problematic for the future. Leaders have to, therefore, unfreeze” the organization. They have to take a metaphorical torch or chisel to an organization that’s hardened in the ways of working so that it can adapt to the new demands it faces.
So your role at this phase is to:
- Help employees understand the need for transformation—at both the cognitive level (head) and the emotional level (heart).
- Communicate far and wide the problems facing the organization. No sugar-coating.
- Create a sense of urgency by making it clear what will happen if the organization does not transform.
- Motivate people to change by establishing a compelling vision of how the organization will operate in the future and how that will benefit others. Use digital technology capabilities to envision the future of your customer experience, processes, or business model.
- Build a coalition of influential supporters who can help lead the transformation and manage it on the ground.
- Draft a transformation plan with inputs and recommendations from those who will be responsible for carrying it out.
- Outline exactly what new behaviors will be necessary.
When you’re confident about the readiness of the organization, it’s time to move to the next stage.
2. Transform Phase
This is where you carry out the changes.
Also known as the transition phase.
And this middle stage can be drawn out and difficult, because it requires behavior change by people–which, as you know from personal experience, is never easy.
As the leader, you’re expected to lead the team to overcome the common barriers that come up at this phase.
You must also specify how exactly people must behave and work in this new environment.
This is also where you implement the new systems that transform your customer experience, processes, your business model and so on.
Make sure to align all changes with the vision of the future by altering the company’s strategy, structure, systems, processes and, above all, employee behaviors.
And of course, the momentum you built from the unfreezing phase should help you, while you generate more momentum by achieving and celebrating quick wins.
So to succeed with this phase, you need to:
- Specify exactly how people must behave and work in the new environment (hands).
- Reinforce new ways of working—at the top and on the ground—by modeling good behaviors and providing coaching and support.
- Manage the organization’s mood as people execute the plan.
- Repeatedly communicate the vision and how it will benefit employees and stakeholders.
And be rest assured people are watching you. The right combination of leadership qualities will facilitate the transformation.
Leaders and managers who talk up transformation but don’t model it in their own behaviors are likely to see their efforts fail.
3. Refreeze Phase
After change has begun to take hold, the third and final stage of transformation involves making sure changes stick by embedding them fully into the culture and practices of the organization.
Transformation is fragile and often takes time to become firmly established.
You must therefore make sure that all the necessary structures, controls, systems, and rewards are installed to prevent backsliding and the return of traditional ways of working.
To that end, this period is typically one of consolidating, institutionalizing, and reviewing.
You should aim to consolidate all changes and institutionalize new ways of working.
It’s also the time for some evaluation.
Begin to review progress and look for additional challenges to tackle going forward in the next wave of the transformation.
If successful, the changes made to organizational process are blended into the fabric of the organization.
So your task at this phase is to:
- Make changes stick by institutionalizing new operations, processes, and behaviors.
- Align incentives to prevent backsliding into traditional (often dysfunctional) routines.
- Review progress and keep looking for additional changes to make.
Caution! Many transformations fail because they never reach this stage. So don’t rush to celebrate victory when you’ve not institutionalized the transformation.
Digital transformation can be chaotic, so it’s helpful to recognize that there are different stages that require different management.
Also, it’s vital to know which stage you are at any given time. If you, as the leader, believe you are in the second stage, but your people are not yet on board with your plan—that is, they’re still in stage one—you have a problem.
And your awareness of the model helps ensure that you do not stop the process too soon, before changes have become embedded.
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