Seven Steps to Make Change Happen

Leading teams through digital transformations is becoming the norm for managers, but these projects pose significant risks. Lyndsey Jones, business transformation consultant and the lead author of Going Digital, and Balvinder Singh Powar, director of BOOSTER Space Industries and professor at IE University, provide a seven-step guide to making change happen.

Most businesses are likely to be going through continuous change as companies grapple with shifting consumer habits, new technologies, and digital disruption.

As a manager in this environment, you are likely to have to lead your team through digital transformation.

Perhaps you have to change business operations or working practices at a legacy company. Or you may be trying to change customer behavior to embrace digitalization and boost revenue.

While you lead these types of projects, the path you take to delivering change is likely to be up to you and it can be daunting to know where to begin.

Not only that, many of these types of projects fail and can come at a financial, reputational, and human cost if you do not fully prepare.

We spoke to around 50 managers and founders from startups to multinationals, from a range of sectors, including media, utilities, consumer goods, technology, and financial services. They have shared their experiences and examples of best practice of what it is really like to lead and manage change and what it takes to make transformation happen.

Here are seven critical steps you need to take at the start of the process to make change happen:

Planning is crucial

Planning is key to help you deliver change. All the companies we spoke to took a systematic approach to planning, giving them a higher probability of success by thinking ahead, setting objectives, and having a vision of what they would like to achieve.

There are different versions of planning – some are meticulous, while others are fluid, evolving sequentially, especially in a fast-paced digital world.

By using data to back up your way forward, and making a clear roadmap, you will be giving yourself a greater chance of delivering the project than if you left things to chance.

A plan will help you to sell your idea to your colleagues, aiding their understanding of why the project is necessary and what it means for the business – and possibly their roles. A visible timescale of tasks, of what is to be achieved by when, will help to see whether the project is on track or not. Expectations and resources can be adjusted accordingly.

Without a plan, you will not be able to review and you will not know whether you are on track.

Identify your problem

Your first step should be to identify the problem from the customer’s perspective and why solving it would add value to the business. 

This is a standard approach and one that all of the companies we spoke to took on a range of issues, placing the customer at the center of their transformation.

Managers were typically attempting to work out what the problem was, such as CNN’s London news desk devising and delivering a newsletter on the coronavirus pandemic or Spanish utility company Iberdrola switching 11 million people to smart meters, in order to drive change.

Alberto Levy, professor and startup mentor at IE Business School in Madrid, agrees. “Don’t marry the solution, marry the problem,” he says. “And once you marry the problem, you have got to find different solutions in a lot of organizations” because the issues in legacy businesses are unlikely to be solved by a product that was bought “back in the day.”

Use data to back up your plan

You will need to frame your plan with data, which will enable you to sell the vision in presentations in order to get buy-in.

Data is driving decision making, rather than managers acting on gut instinct.

It is prudent to spend time on the data that your plan is based on, even if the board’s strategy is clear. It will give you a firm foundation to build on and enable you and your team to work better, faster, and be more likely to succeed.

Keep it simple too. Do not over-complicate it. Your colleagues need to understand it, see where they fit in, what they will be required to do, and why it is important for the business to change.

Data should be used in your plan to back up your decisions. With all of our interviewees across many sectors, data is driving decision making, rather than managers acting on gut instinct as was more the case in the past.

Map out who will help you

Next, consider all the team dependencies – and who will help you solve the problem. The managers we spoke to collaborated with teams or key stakeholders across their organizations to create products or streamline ways of operating.

They not only considered what they were trying to solve and why but also how quickly they were going to act and who would help them.

You may need to work with your team and discuss what elements need to be included because it is unlikely that you will be able to achieve success on your own.

It is possible you will also need to collaborate with other departments. Make sure you have identified key stakeholders and gained their support because without it, you are more likely to encounter obstacles, rather than having a clear runway.

You may only need one or two people in each department to start building champions for change and they may include people who are new to the role or organization and are keen to progress in their careers. 

Why senior leadership support is vital

As part of your planning process, it is important that you establish your mandate to make change happen.

Even if you have been asked to lead a transformation project, you should be clear about your remit and how far it extends.

This also means that while at the start you may have the support of senior leadership, which is key to your success as a change agent, you will need their backing to be continuous.

You are likely to have to go back to senior champions many times to make your mandate clear because your status to carry out transformation can – and will – be challenged by other colleagues.

Prosci, a change management company, reported that in 2020 change leaders in 11 out of 11 studies identified effective executive sponsorship as the top contributor to success.

Without senior management’s support, there is a risk of failure as you are likely to encounter hurdles and people will ask: why you? They may even fail to make the connection between what you are doing and the strategic vision of the board – i.e. personalize the project rather than seeing it as part of a company-wide initiative to change. 

Keep it flexible

If you are attempting to break down departmental or team silos, bringing in structural change and cultural shifts in your organization, you can edge your way to successful delivery by being flexible.

Innovation does not always run in a linear fashion.

Your plan should not be too rigid. You are likely to have to adapt it as you go because delivering transformation involves forming different habits, changing working practices, and adopting new ways of thinking, sometimes at speed.

Innovation does not always run in a linear fashion, so be prepared for a possibly bumpy road: that may be a good mindset to start with.

Some companies form a skeleton structure in order to adapt it to circumstances and respond to unexpected outcomes, which can prove the most valuable of lessons and may even take the business in a different direction.

Get going

Having a structure can increase the likelihood of being successful because innovation is like an animal. It is organic in the way it moves around all over the place.

“It is all about speed and getting going. You are never going to get perfection. If you seek perfection you will end up doing nothing because you can only do more research, more governance, and more controls,” says Mark Lillie at Deloitte.

Senior executives from sectors ranging from software to law firms agree with him. Michelle Senecal de Fonseca of Citrix says you should be ready to adapt because “the metrics and the market are always constantly changing but then you are going to have to place your big bets – what are the key things you are going to have to get right and then you have to keep adapting underneath.”

Today, innovation cycles are much shorter than in the past and digital transformation is a “continuous lifestyle because just when you think you have gotten through one project you have to start on the next because the technology is escalating all of the time so you never really completely finish it. And that is really a little bit of a different outlook,” says Senecal de Fonseca.

Companies are having to do a lot more of seeing what works, using the “agile” management methodology, where you come up with a hypothesis, you experiment, you go back and you reiterate and you keep trying. Then you get incremental change.

Also, products do not last as long. They used to last a company 10 years so you would not need to change work processes. Now, their lifecycle is much shorter with upgrades needed more frequently which puts pressure on innovation to be fast because you might spend so much time and money on something that is ready in three years only for it to be already obsolete. 

In this environment, it is not uncommon for business plans to emerge, especially where new technologies are being developed.

“The vision about where you are heading is not always precise and not always well understood and the technologies that are emerging continue to do so at pace,” says Phil Neal, digital transformation partner at Deloitte Digital in the UK.

Then you have to “plough that furrow” and take your team with you. It is likely to be tough at times as the path “is not always clear”, he says.

But with your plan in place, you are more prepared for the way ahead and more likely to succeed.


© IE Insights.