Building arguments for change

Paul Boag

Creating a business case for digital change is about more than outlining requirements. We need to consider the readers perspective and tailor our arguments accordingly.

When I speak about digital transformation I always get asked the same question — how do I convince my boss?

Understanding the need for business change or even having a plan for achieving it is not enough. You must convince colleagues and management too.

If you are one of the millions of web professionals who find this challenge frustrating, then I think I can help. It starts by helping colleagues make connections in their minds.

Make the connections

I was recently reading a business case for investment in digital at a higher education institution. It contained solid arguments that made a lot of sense to me. It focused on users needs and the growth of mobile. As a web professional I couldn’t fault it. The problem was it didn’t need to convince web professionals.

For me the business benefits of providing a consistent, high quality user experience was obvious. I understood that users had a low patience threshold and that the smallest thing could alienate them. The problem was this wasn’t made clear. To the reader it just came across as nit picking. The site worked didn’t it? All the information was there? What was the problem?

What may seem obvious to us as web professionals isn’t to others. It is pointless to talk about responsive design, user needs or any other pet peeve we have, if we don’t explain its impact on the business.

I do that in one of two ways. I refer either to it as a threat or an opportunity. Which approach you take depends on the organisation.


Convincing younger, less well established businesses to adopt new practices is not too challenging. Young businesses have less ingrained behaviour and are more open to new ideas. Yet even they need some convincing.

If you work for an organisation like this then you should focus on the opportunities that your changes offer. Younger companies are always hungry to gain market share. They are keen to expand and better establish themselves. If you can show how digital helps achieve this management will be open to hear what you have to say.

Working with larger, more established businesses takes a different approach.

Threats to the business

Some organisations have been around hundreds of years. They have established business practices that have served them well. They have a strong market position with a suite of mature offerings. Why would they want to change that winning formula?

Such organisations perceive digital as a bolt on. Something that sits alongside their existing processes and offerings. If you need it to be something more, you have to prove that the model which has served them well for hundreds of years is under threat.

Digital has changed our world in profound ways, but few realise just how deep the changes go. Organisations carry on with business as usual, despite the changes in consumer behaviour. It falls to you to show how it has changed and how that is threatening the company.

Fear is a powerful motivator in even the most well established organisation, but even that is not always enough. This is especially true when dealing with middle management.

Appealing to the selfish gene

The biggest problem with encouraging change in large organisations is middle management. Senior management see the big picture. They care about the long term health of the company. If you present them with a compelling argument that outlines tangible threats they are open to change.

Middle management are more challenging. This is because they have a narrow remit and are not required to worry about the bigger picture or long term health of the organisation.

Middle managers are under enormous pressure. They have targets to meet on which their job relies and they are almost always over worked. Getting their attention is hard enough, let alone getting them to change direction.

When talking to this audience you will only have limited success talking about business benefits. Their focus is too narrow for that. You will also find them resistant to change, because they will not be fired for doing the same thing they have always done.

With middle managers you need to appeal to their self interest. You need to prove that the changes you are proposing benefit them and their department. How will it enable them to get their next promotion? How will it help them meet their targets? How will it ensure they get next years budget?

It may seem cynical to talk in this way, but it is not a criticism of middle management. It is a reality of business in many organisations. Being a middle manager is often a precarious position and so they are wary of any form of change.

You also find that some middle managers are slow to adopt the ideas of subordinates. They feel it undermines their leadership. This is of course an absurdity, but considering the position they are in it is not surprising. In such situations using the credibility of others comes into play.

Using repetition and authority

One of the most common responses I get when talking to web professionals about change is — It’s okay for you. You are an outside expert. Management listen to you.

This is without a doubt true. Why this is the case I cannot tell you. All I know is that I can say exactly the same thing as an internal digital team and get a completely different response.

I imagine this must be frustrating, but moaning about it will not make things better. What we need to do is learn from this fact and turn it to our advantage.

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If you are struggling to bring about change in your organisation consider getting an outside expert in. Last week I spoke to a group of marketers in a large publishing house about the need to change. Next week I am helping a higher education institution form their business plan for digital change. I often provide an outside, independent perspective on digital adaptation. I have the credibility that comes with writing a book on the subject. But, I also can say things that an internal member of staff could never get away with. Because I sit outside of the hierarchical structure, I can challenge perceived wisdom.

I say this not to advertise my services. It is to show the power of an outside expert. But, you don’t have to hire that outside expert to get the benefits they can bring. You can quote them in your business case and get much the same effect.

Better still you can quote many experts all saying the same thing. The more experts are making the same recommendations, the harder it is to ignore them. But remember, if you are going to quote an expert, you need to explain why they are an expert. You cannot expect your manager to know who Paul Boag is even if you do!

As I wrap up this long post (thanks for sticking with it!) I want to leave you with a word of warning — don’t ask for too much.

Don’t ask for too much

The scope of change required in many organisations can be intimidating. Often it requires changes in culture, structure and offerings to adapt to the new digital reality. This can be a scary prospect for even the most enthusiastic manager.

We wade in as web professionals, listing all the things that need doing. Rarely do we think about the feelings this stirs up in our colleagues. For them this is an alien world, a new and intimidating reality.

I am all in favour of outlining the big picture. Even scaring colleagues doesn’t hurt (see my comments above about threats). But, once you have done that you need to give them a small, achievable first step. Don’t expect them to sign off on transforming the whole business. Instead, ask them to fund a prototype, map customer journeys or something equally achievable. As I said in a previous post Think Big, Act Small.