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Navigating the new landscape of digital transformation

Digital 3D landscape formed of columns of data in the shape of mountains

75% of leaders surveyed for Kin + Carta’s 2024 Leadership Priorities in Tech report believe investment in digital transformation initiatives is necessary within the next 12 months. But it's a process that's raising stress levels; 94% of organizations report tech anxiety among senior leaders

Rising anxiety is linked to the changing face of digital transformation. It's no longer about flipping a switch from analog to digital. Or a journey with a clear start and end point. It's about refining and evolving existing processes, focusing on key areas, and creating a unique transformation pathway (or pathways) that adapts to meet organizational challenges or technology opportunities.

Businesses can't afford to stop transforming. It's a constant, iterative process. As Josh McNally, FinServ Portfolio Delivery Partner at Kin + Carta explains,

"There’s no three-year transformation program—you're either continuously transforming and evolving, or you've lost."

In the new age of digital transformation, change is a constant, and leaders have to think differently about everything‌—fueling measurable, meaningful transformation that's flexible enough to move with shifting market conditions or evolving organizational needs.

Heading toward your North Star

Perhaps the biggest shift for many organizations is from thinking of digital transformation projects as rigid programs with a start and end date. Instead, businesses must orient toward practical, experimental models that allow for constant exploration and adaptation so they can stay ahead of changing markets and technologies.

Ruth Wooderson, CIO Fraud, Santander UK, echoed that sentiment and noted that the bank aims to balance longer-term planning with flexibility to adapt to changing customer demands and market conditions. “I don't think there will be an end state for Santander. We've created a strategic blueprint, and within that three- to five-year plan, we've got some iconic deliveries that we need to do. But I very much think that will then ebb and flow into another digital transformation, because the demands of the world will need us to do so.”

A slow-and-steady approach to innovation comes with an additional benefit for large, established brands, Wooderson notes. It helps maintain customer trust and keeps you from straying too far from your brand promise:

“You have to know where your North Star is, and you need to remain on track of what your values are, and what your mission statement is."

Another upside to a continuous innovation model? It can help reduce the temptation to fixate on a single transformation initiative. “The danger is that organizations will optimize for a very specific thing that becomes quickly out of date,” notes Ben Pitman, Director of Engineering Consultancy at Kin + Carta. “And the business will be so optimized and tied to that way of working, it becomes calcified and unable to further adapt to the next change.”

While ongoing digital transformation might lack a clear end date, organizations must still define metrics and targets that align with overall business objectives. You still need a compass to guide your efforts, measure progress, and communicate what you’re doing—and what you hope to achieve—to stakeholders inside and outside the organization.

Digital 3D landscape formed of columns of data in the shape of mountains

Embarking toward new destinations

Old-style digital transformation could be laborious, lengthy, and costly, but it often had a clear need—digitizing the business. As nearly every business becomes digital-first and adopts a continuous improvement model of digital transformation, companies need a new way to prioritize digital efforts. They need to be specific about what business problems they’re solving.

The challenge here is that the problems are much smaller—or at least, they feel smaller. Drumming up enthusiasm for digital change can be difficult when it’s always happening and the stakes are lower.

This is where the legacy of the term “digital transformation” can help, says Stephanie Shine, Strategy Principal at Kin + Carta. The term itself “gives a shared signal to all of those involved that there is an urgency and opportunity to fundamentally change—not necessarily the way that you do business altogether, but to improve what might not be working.”

Shine advises companies to go beyond a specific project, such as building an app, to investigate the problem and proposed solution. “By talking to some key stakeholders who are involved in the adjacent departments’ processes, you can get deeper into what's really broken or has friction that needs to be addressed as a part of whatever this theoretical technological build will be,” she says.

The key is to define what digital transformation means in your organization at that particular moment, says Virginia Venable, Client Partner at Kin + Carta. “This helps demystify it and determine what specific problems and opportunities exist.”

Who leads the way?

While digital transformation is clearly a priority, who owns this process isn’t always defined.

And while executives might be tempted to make this an entirely top-down exercise, it’s clear that modern digital transformation shouldn’t be confined to a department or role, but rather integrated into the organizational fabric. Every department and employee is responsible for digital transformation as an ongoing practice of continuous improvement.

This type of collaborative, all-hands approach is what Katie Franzen, VP of Financial Services at Kin + Carta, has in mind. She believes digital transformation isn’t just about tech; it’s a broader transformation that requires strategic alignment.

“I think that digital transformation really is just a transformation, and it’s a combination of leaders within an organization agreeing on what the value is that they’re trying to generate.”

Both top-down leadership and bottom-up participation are needed for successful digital transformation, Pitman says. Leaders need to provide vision and goals while also understanding the pain points of the people implementing changes. “A lot of failures in transformation result when people who don't understand how the work gets done start telling people how to do the work better. When that happens, the good part of what comes down from leadership is lost because it's shrouded in this autocratic point of view.”

Digital 3D landscape formed of columns of data in the shape of mountains

Embracing a wider perspective

“You’ve got to have the imagination to envision a better future for your business,” says David Maren, Head of New Business, Americas at Kin + Carta. “You have to have the empathy to make sure that you're building the right thing, and doing it the right way. And then the engineering to build the thing. If you have those things together, you can achieve successful outcomes.”

Digital transformation is often associated with adopting new technologies, but it’s really about driving behavior change to create new mindsets and culture, says Dan Riley, co-founder at RADICL, an employee experience platform. The focus must be on "building human-centric workplaces and solving for what we want to become."

Changing mindsets and behaviors isn’t easy, and any leader that thinks otherwise will struggle.

“Humility is recognizing that you don’t always have to have all the answers, that you don’t have to be right the first time,”

says Dave Clark, VP of Experience Design at Kin + Carta.

Another practical component of change is getting your people to take a wider perspective and “become more and more cross-functional,” says Çelik Nimani, Managing Director for Southeast Europe at Kin + Carta. “That person doesn't necessarily need to have a deep understanding of a specific area, but they at least should be knowledgeable across different areas.” This breadth of knowledge can help them see multi-directionally—forward into the future, as well as all around them.

Santander’s Ruth Wooderson emphasized the importance of gaining input from the broader team and bringing them into decision-making as part of any digital innovation effort. "By bringing the team into the planning, we're bringing the team into the decision making so that it's not given to them."

For Riley, companies that excel in transformation "keep it simple, focused, intentional." They ensure "alignment and consistency" across functions so the effort is coherent. Most importantly, they "celebrate the small successes" to inspire continued progress.

A look toward the horizon

People don’t have to be afraid of change when they understand what it looks like, why it’s happening, and what their role is—and can be. When you help your people reimagine digital transformation, you can win the kind of buy-in that leads to innovation, growth, and better experiences for employees and customers.

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