Why Does Digital Transformation Fail?

As a short, shy, sometimes awkward 13-year-old, I participated in a game at a youth activity that left a lasting impression. The instructor divided the group into equal teams of about ten individuals. Each team received a long length of rope and was invited to form the rope in a circle with each team member holding a section of the rope and standing in a circle. Next, we were invited to pass a ball around the circle as rapidly as possible. The team that could do so in the least amount of time would win.  

As our team began to bluster about how we would take down the competition, I made what was probably a barely audible suggestion, “reduce the diameter of the circle.” If we all came close together, we could reduce the time it would take for the ball to travel all the way around the circle. If anyone on my team heard the comment, they chose to disregard it.  

A minute later, the whistle blew and each team hurried to pass the ball from person to person around the large circles we had all created. After the game ended and a winner was declared, the counselor leading the exercise asked me to raise my hand. He had overheard my disregarded suggestion to shrink the circle. As he watched my face go from pink to what must have been bright red, he asked me to share the suggestion I had made to the team and then proceeded to scold my team for failing to listen. I still get sweaty palms as I place myself in that awkward adolescent body and remember what it felt like to be called out in front of the group.

I have reflected on this experience in my work with organizations. Any time that the information needed to address a particular challenge is held by people on the team who lack clout, experience, political savvy or influence, there is a significant risk that vital information never finds its way into the solutions being proposed and implemented.  Disparity between those with key information and those with the power to do something about it creates all kinds of lost opportunities.

There are few circumstances where this disparity is more acute than with digital transformation. In general, younger team members with great tech savvy and more contact with the customer have critical context to inform transformation initiatives. However, the power structure at most organizations leans toward generally older, more experienced members of the team who, as a group, tend to be less tech savvy and more disconnected from the customer. Even in organizations where this disparity has been acknowledged, it can be very difficult to translate context from the more tech savvy group to the less tech savvy one. Too much meaning is lost in the attempt at translation.

Like my awkward teenage self, there are members of your team right now who hold the answers to successful transformation at your organization, but no one can hear or understand them. Or perhaps, no one is listening. What can you do to increase the clarity and amplify the volume of some of those voices?