Digital transformation is a hot topic these days, but when asked what it is, many people struggle to define it. We know we want and need it, we’re a little afraid of doing it … and we’re not entirely sure what it is. Put simply, a digital transformation is the adoption of a digital technology to improve a process, service or skill. One such example our clients often deal with is implementing a new customer relationship management system (CRM).

CRMs are known far and wide for their ability to offer lots of data, focus sales efforts, improve accountability, help employees become more effective with their time and effort and more. On paper, a new CRM should be great news for everyone. But the leadership’s decision to adopt one could be resting on unstable ground — that is, if they make this move suddenly and unilaterally without laying the proper internal groundwork first.

Digital transformation isn’t as simple as replacing an old system with a newer, better one. Swapping systems and processes is only part of the struggle. But the part that is often the determiner for success is all the initial work of communication, vision and prepping for a culture change that gives most organizations a tough row to hoe. Forgetting these preliminary steps could create tension between employees and decision makers and risk derailing your efforts. Since it comes with so many unknowns, this transformation can and often does sound frightening to many people. That’s because change can be uncomfortable, and many employees often focus on that discomfort and fail to see the benefits. All the “what ifs” cloud their vision of a better future. In short, their negative perspective creates a friction point that absolutely must be handled with care if you want the positive results promised by the digital transformation.

Let’s face it: Digital transformation can be hard. Companies often struggle to actualize the progress of change without losing the confidence of their employees. But it is possible. And while there’s no rushing this process, there are things you can and should consider to help you achieve organizational buy-in and ultimately see the success you’re looking for.

Here are three keys to help you accelerate your digital transformation process.

1. Change Readiness. The most important thing you can do before making any major company-wide transitions is to obtain a bird’s eye view of your organization’s change readiness (using assessment tools can come in handy here). Change readiness refers to your employees’ ability to make adjustments for their own benefit and for that of the company. Oftentimes, well-intentioned leadership will make sweeping changes without getting their team’s buy-in first. In other words, they demand acceptance of new tech in top-down fashion rather than inspire excitement over it. Even when it makes logical sense to do so, if their team ranks low with change readiness, progress will stop in its tracks. This is not unlike taking a road trip. Without a clear understanding of where you’re going, how you’ll get there and why you’re even going, your trip is unlikely to go smoothly. You probably won’t gain your intended benefit either.

Here’s where it gets tricky: Much confusion lies with the distinction between change readiness and change management. The latter term refers to those procedures many companies already have in place that direct the nuts and bolts of any given organizational change. But, change management often only takes care of the “what”— for instance, what needs to be done for the new CRM to be up and running by a specific date? Companies absolutely need these processes in place, but that’s only half of the equation. They must also account for their internal culture. A workplace culture that is change resistant, change reluctant or worse, change exhausted could very well undermine your digital transformation efforts. Bottom line, you’ve got to ensure change readiness before you can begin integrating new digital systems.

2. Deploying your advocates. If your employees score high on change readiness, then they’re more likely to accept the new tech going forward. If not, you’ve got your work cut out for you. This isn’t the time to make a major overhaul of your digital systems. Instead, it’s time to activate your advocates. This is where the popular concept of the first follower comes into play. Simply put, while individual leaders might spark a movement, the followers give it traction and propel it forward. This is especially true of the first follower.

The first follower takes the greatest risk because they must stand alone behind a leader and face potential scrutiny if their choice was poorly made. However, their choice allows others to see that supporting the leader’s direction is a safe path. In short, their bravery makes it easier for others to offer support.

Practically speaking, if your organization wants to implement a new CRM with a steep learning curve, you’d be wise to find key individuals in your organization who can publicly articulate on your behalf why this change needs to happen and even help others see the benefits and get on board. These can be leaders in the organization or important individual contributors. It’s not unheard of for employees to trust their peers’ opinions and insights more than their leaders’, so why not leverage those relationships? You’re much more likely to see a seamless transition when you activate these central people.

3. Time. The final key to a successful digital transformation is rather straightforward but absolutely crucial. Employees need time to mentally prepare for the impending changes and to clearly see their benefits. The more space you can make for this work, the better. Moving too quickly only generates additional, unnecessary friction against your cause. Put another way, when someone pushes or pressures us, our knee-jerk reaction is usually to interpret this behavior as oppositional and to push back.

Giving your teams time to acclimate, to ask questions and offer feedback or insights of their own, ironically, speeds things up. That’s because you’re mitigating resistance. In fact, in the best-case scenarios, employees will begin propelling the transformation forward themselves. They may even have suggestions of additional ways to make the transformation work best. When they contribute to the solution, they have a stake in the matter and become advocates themselves.

The digital transformation process is a considerable undertaking. It requires time and patience to help your workforce not only embrace change but also to become champions of it. Ultimately, you’ve got to keep your eye on your end goals and have clear measures of success along the way. It’s also smart to know what your acceptable level of failure will be, as there’s no success without setbacks. If you’re planning for those eventualities and if you’re constantly exploring feedback, you’ll be much more capable of making adjustments as you go.

In short, planning, patience, ongoing data and agility are the name of the game. Good luck on your next transformation.

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