Key takeaways

  • Many businesses try to innovate, set up incubators or invest in digital technology, but fail to succeed.
  • There are many obstacles that get in the way of transformation, including leadership, capability and underestimating the amount of change to be done.
  • Starting with the customer and avoiding these common pitfalls will help organisations implement digital intelligently.

It’s no longer a question as to whether businesses need to embrace digital. Most companies have dabbled in transformation, be it on a large or small scale, but often with varying or disappointing results.

A lot of this has to do with whether the digital aspects of business are being implemented intelligently or just for the sake of technology. To be intelligent, digital needs to enhance the performance of business, not work against it, when it comes to better servicing customers, enabling teams, or better using resources, customers, staff or vision.

And often, it doesn’t.

In my work with clients I often come across examples of companies who have failed to transform. They have invested time and money towards embracing innovation, but it has fallen flat, dampening the desire to try again.

What follows are five examples of areas that organisations often find problematic when it comes to transformation, and how I’ve seen clients overcome the obstacles.


1. Leading the way

Transformation is often driven from the top down. There’s nothing wrong with that, and of course, senior endorsement is critical. The CEO and other executives should be the ones considering long term prospects of the organisation. Problems occur when employees, those responsible for the execution of the transformation, are not brought on the journey.

The vision of the leadership team needs to be translated into a plan and that plan needs to be simple to understand, clearly explaining how the company intends to go from A to B, and in what timeframe. One big block to transformation is that people don’t necessarily understand what is being asked of them. Has the ‘why’ of the transformation been clearly and succinctly explained to them?  

Teams need to understand why the business is changing, and how that will affect them (positively as well). Knowing what the future will look like, and how they can play their part in executing the transformation is crucial. This will avoid the problem of the frozen middle, one of the biggest transformational failure points, and create buy-in instead of resistance, as well as resilience and forgiveness, for the turbulence or uncertainty that may follow.


2. Capabilities and skills

If you are going to transform, and potentially do things radically differently than they were done before, how will you change the skills of the staff to do those new things?

Say you have fifty people in a particular team, working a particular way, and all of a sudden you ask them to do something differently – what’s the response? Are they capable of doing it differently? Can they be trained or re-skilled, or use new tools? The alternative is to go to market to tap new talent with the skills you currently don’t have. Either way, retooling or re-hiring require a commitment to investment that must be considered as part of the transformation.

When asking staff to do things differently, it’s also worth considering whether you will restructure how teams are put together and realign their responsibilities accordingly. Keep in mind that you are also asking them to keep the business going, and profitable, while they adjust to these changes. It’s a big ask, but potentially important. Similarly, could this also be the right time to align your internal structure with that of the customer journey?


3. Biting off more than can be chewed

Another problem I encounter is organisations trying to change the world within a three month project and working with unrealistic (or undefined) expectations. E.g. ‘Let’s pour in a few thousand dollars, hire a consultant and get it done’. They quite often underestimate the complexity of the change (and therefore also underfund it).

Digital transformation is not the same as old-school tech implementation. We aren’t talking about going from the fax machine to email, but a systemic change in the way an organisation operates. Being unrealistic about what can be achieved in a timeframe is a sure-fire way to frustrate staff and end up no further forward than you started.

Partly this is a cultural problem; the speed of technological change is increasing and keeping up with it is unrealistic. Businesses must adopt a state of continual, incremental change. The task of digital transformation is not a small one, but it is a constant one. In this way, projects can be seen as part of a greater agenda or goal, and completed successfully and on budget.


4. Being comfortable with experimenting

Innovative companies don’t bank on just one or two ideas. They often try a raft of them, see which work and then go with those. Again, it is cultural or behavioural problems that I see getting in the way of this. Throwing out ten ideas and seeing what works and then fully committing is not something a lot of companies are comfortable with.

Businesses need to be comfortable with failing fast and allocating resources to trying something that might not go anywhere. This shouldn’t be confused with a scattergun approach though. By having absolute clarity of vision over where your business is going, experiments and emerging tech can be selected and trialled quickly and those that do not further your goals dismissed just as speedily.


5. Get close to your customers

The most important factor (and reason for transformation) is your customers. If they aren’t at the start, middle and end of your transformation you will certainly fail in one way or another.

I’ve seen quite a few projects where companies have been implementing digital capabilities but not focussing on the values being generated. That’s a problem.

If you aren’t focusing on the value being brought in by customers upon a successful transformation, why are you transforming in the first place?

Where to

Everyone talks about it, so much so it has become almost old hat and too obvious to mention, but if you are unsure where to start, it really does come down to the customer journey.

What is the journey like now? What should it be like in an ideal world? By breaking the journey down into its most valuable steps you will be able to understand what works and what doesn’t work.

What many people miss in this is not understanding where the existing customer journey impacts on existing systems and processes. If you don’t understand what the impact is, by mapping the details of existing systems, then moving to something new you will produce nothing but problems.

This is especially important for leadership to understand, as from their position it is easy to assume they know how things work in an organisation only to find out there are many more steps involved than suspected.


Manipulating the levers associated with the problem areas above, and ensuring that things are in order before a change is made, businesses will stand a much better chance of success.

In my experience, it has been organisations that tackle the above areas effectively, while always focusing on the customer, that have been successful over those that haven’t.

By using transformation as a catalyst for change – of internal cultures, thinking, and ways of working – businesses will ensure they will be the winners of tomorrow.



Berry Driessen

Berry Driessen is the national lead for experience strategy and the lead for digital education in Australia in PwC’s Experience Centre.

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