As  the 4th Industrial Revolution heats up,  leaders are being called on to do more than just promote innovation – they need to get their workforce to a point where they move faster than the pace of change, or risk getting left behind.

While organizations are beginning to take seriously the importance of the people factor in successful technological transformation, the stats still show that 79% of technology initiatives fail. Attempts at keeping up with the evolving landscape are, in most cases, simply not working. For example, in Building the AI-Powered Organization, the authors suggest that only 8% of organizations are engaging in core practices that support AI’s adoption. The authors attribute this to a failure to “rewire the organization” at the highest level.

At Vantage, we’ve found that a focus on leadership aspects such as vision, culture, and helping teams to gauge their progress can be essential in setting the foundation for this “rewiring.”

It starts with culture

Rewiring an organization takes much more than developing talent. Behaviors and actions can’t be changed without taking culture into consideration.

We worked with a global technology company who had formed a culture of “Ready, Fire, Aim,” when it came to getting results. Behaviorally, this translated to taking minimal time to establish project goals in favor of jumping quickly to execution. Although they tagged their approach as “Agile,” customer expectations consistently went unmet, which resulted in serious consequences, such as a loss of trust among its customer base and demotivated, burnt-out employees.

After identifying the cultural elements that were holding them back from making the needed operational and leadership improvements, we were able to help them determine shifts they could make in their culture, as well as the leadership success factors that would support their new direction. With this, they saw a much greater impact with their leadership development and were able to begin to rebuild trust and engagement with their customers and employees.

The first step in rewiring involves gathering insight around the cultural factors that help or hinder the organization’s progress. With this knowledge in hand, one can then determine the behaviors and actions that leaders need to possess to drive the right culture and the right results. Pushing forward without addressing these aspects has been shown to hinder progress again and again.

Help people visualize the future – see the possibilities and work towards it

The future of this digital world is a scary frontier to many.  “What does this mean for me?” and “Will I have a job in five years?” are questions plaguing many individuals.

In a recent conversation, Michael Lenox, a professor and the Sr. Associate Dean and CSO of the Darden Business School, said, “There needs to be a vision set and individuals need to see themselves in that transformed organization.” And he made a great point: “What made people successful is under threat.”

To illustrate this, we spoke about the example of Kodak, who recognized the shift towards digital in the market, but ultimately failed to transform. There were several reasons for this, including that their success had been achieved through their experts, who were primarily chemists –not technology experts. Rather than transform and build capability, the company’s blind faith in the strength of its brand stalled their efforts to evolve.

The Kodak example also shows that employees can prevent a change from occurring, even without overtly stating their disagreement. The danger of resistance is that it tends to occur in subtle ways – disengagement from work, not making initiatives a priority and not actively working to overcome challenges related to implementation. Even more troubling is when companies fail to proactively attune to these signs and, instead, look to lagging indicators, such as lower profitability and retention.  At that point, the damage has already been done.

The key is to lead the transformation proactively; be deliberate in identifying indicators that can initiate action in time to manage emerging issues. Set a clear vision for the future and help people see themselves in it.

Create clarity in direction, alignment, and indicators of positive movement

Looking for ways to create clarity and direction can also aid organizations in fostering speed and cohesion.

First, leaders must establish clear, visible dashboards that help employees gauge how well they are progressing towards the organization’s vision (check out The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney if you need some inspiration).

Secondly, create a common language for how work gets done and identify clear responsibilities on and across teams.  Forget about buzzwords and instead focus on understanding the key components of successful implementations.  For example, there’s a trend of slapping terms like “scrum” on existing processes without a true understanding of what a  scrum is or how people should apply it; this only results in confusion. Instead, help people gain clarity on the definition to create alignment and improve speed.

Individuals also need clarity around their own progress, best achieved through clear goals and insight into how they are progressing.  I spoke recently with a colleague who is a CIO for one of the top private equity firms. He shared that when his experts assess teams that are under-performing, it is fairly common for there to be a lack of goals and feedback. This is one of the first things they ensure organizations establish; as he put it, “People cannot meet expectations when they don’t understand what they are.”

A lack of feedback tends to pervade organizations. Although traditional, structured feedback may not be the answer, there needs to be something that lets individuals know how successfully they are meeting expectations. Some would argue that people should be able to determine how they are progressing on their own. However, studies like the one from Dunning and Kruger point out “people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognize their own incompetence.” If companies are to move faster than the pace of change, then withholding feedback is no longer an option – competence is essential, and providing people with both feedback and related support to improve is a step closer to achieving this.

To move faster and move forward, people need a clear understanding of where they’re going –and how they’ll get there as well as the means to track their progress. Taking the time to create clarity on expectations and provide feedback is key to aiding people’s success during transformation.

Don’t wait until there are signs of trouble – be proactive

As for the leadership skills and behaviors required for technological transformation, leaders must be proactive in how they manage the needs of their teams. The most important component of this is “proactive,” since the time to develop leaders and manage culture is before there are signs of trouble.  It’s important for leaders to have the strategic orientation and commitment to determine how the organization needs to be performing 2-3 years out and put the organization on track to get there. Overall, it’s key  to lead others in a way that promotes collaboration, engagement and innovation.

Good, engaging and empathetic leadership is something experts say machines will never be able to achieve.  Looking across the current research on leading in this digital age, in combination to what we’ve seen work in organizations, here are the top leadership capabilities to build and demonstrate now:

  1. Demonstrating Agility: Learning and adapting to new challenges and customer needs, openness to new ideas and approaches, helping others to navigate ambiguity and bring clarity to the grey (e.g. explaining the ‘whys’ for decisions, defining roles and responsibilities when there are potential overlaps)
  2. Influencing and Connecting with Others: Building relationships, attuning to others’ priorities and motivations, demonstrating humility and understanding
  3. Fostering Emotional Intelligence: Increasing awareness of our emotional state and managing our reactions to fit the situation
  4. Building a High-Performance Culture: Promote collaboration and continuous feedback, demonstrate a commitment to developing and managing talent, break down barriers in ways such as sharing information and ideas across boundaries, promoting accountability while minimizing unproductive behaviors (e.g. blaming other departments)
  5. Judgement and Maintaining a Strategic Focus: Getting up out of the weeds of execution to ensure the broad and forward-looking landscape is considered periodically, making decisions that consider different perspectives and the long-term implications

Lastly, most leaders report an ever-increasing feeling of pressure at work. During these times, each of us have derailers that, if not managed, can undo the positive changes we have made to our leadership and business results. We’ve all seen the engaging leader who turns into a directive, demanding dictator when the heat is on. It’s important that we manage our derailers, for they can easily undo any progress an organization has made in its efforts in managing technological transformation.

George Westerman of the MIT Sloan Initiative says it best: “When digital transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly,” but when done wrong, “all you have is a really fast caterpillar.” Achieving transformation takes the right environment, leadership direction, skills, and behaviors to succeed.  May you go forth, find these tips useful, and become a butterfly!