How to solve the 4 factors stopping digital change management

Paul Boag

Digital adoption means change, and people don’t like change. But why don’t they like change and what can we do about it if we need to change company culture?

Many of us still dream about getting management support for greater digital adoption. That management will make budgets available and start a program of change. But even if they do, there is no guarantee your organisation will become a beacon of ‘digital transformation’.

I have worked with senior management teams who have announced a digital transformation program. But before long any kind of significant change comes to a grinding halt.

Why does this happen when there is the money and a directive to change? Why does digital transformation so often stall?

The four factors

Since writing Digital Adaptation I have seen a lot of organisations attempt digital transformation. But many fail to gain any traction.

There are lots of reasons for this, most of which are to do with a lack of commitment from board level. That said, there are 4 factors that even management support and investment struggle to overcome.


Fear is a deep-rooted, primeval driver that dictates many of our actions. Even those within a business environment.

One of the things that creates a sense of fear is the unknown, and for many digital is a big unknown. What will it mean to my job? Will it make my role redundant? Will I have to learn new skills and do I have the capacity to do that?

Digital Change Management Image representing fear
People fear the unknown and for many digital is an unknown.

Also, digital requires people to show initiative to put in place changes. But again this creates fear. Will I get criticised for doing things in a different way? What if management don’t like my approach?

If you want to bring about digital change, addressing peoples fears (even if they are not justified) is crucial.


But fear is not the only barrier to change. Cynicism is a huge issue especially among existing digital staff.

You would think that digital staff would be the first to embrace organisational change. But often that is not the case, especially if they have worked at the organisation for sometime.

Often these staff have seen the seeds of change before. Some consultant swoop in and management get all excited. But then it dies out and nothing lasting comes from it. It doesn’t take many of these disappointments to leave once enthusiastic staff cynical. They have seen this before and in the end it comes to nothing. Why bother?

Established culture

Of course this assessment is often justified. They have seen this before and it did fail. An outside consultant can create excitement and enthusiasm. But once they leave the building the status quo reasserts itself.

Organisations that have been around for years have their own culture. They have specific ways they do things. Unwritten rules that nobody is consciously aware of, but dictate many decisions.

Digital Change Management Image representing self censorship
Often we censor ourselves without even realising it. We are subconsciously constrained by company culture.

Whatever that culture, it will have to change if digital transformation is going to take hold over the long term. But overcoming those unwritten rules is not easy. Much of the time it comes down to employees censoring themselves without even realising it. Comments like “people wouldn’t like that” or “we tried that before and it didn’t work”.

Personal priorities

As well as the influence of organisational culture, there is also personal agendas. Digital transformation maybe good for an organisation. But people will not embrace it, if it goes against their personal priorities.

If management assess staff on meeting a certain target, that target will be more important than anything else. If digital reduces the influence of a department, the head of that department will resist it. If transformation means a person has to do more work, they will be harder to convince.

But it goes deeper than selfish desire. How an employee or manager feels about digital will impact how they respond to it. If they don’t value digital tools then they will resist investment in it.

This is especially an issue with older members of staff who are not as digitally literate. Digital tools aren’t embedded into their lives in the same way as their younger counterparts. As a result they don’t value it as much.

The secret to effective digital change management

There is no magic bullet to overcome these barriers. In fact it requires a complex mix of solutions. Solutions from realigning how management assess staff and departments to providing adequate training.

That said, there is one tool in your arsenal that can help address all the above. For digital transformation to have a chance at success you need a well designed and long term internal comms strategy.

You cannot hope to overcome people’s fears if you don’t communicate often with them. If fear is born out of the unknown, you need to make the unknown, known. That requires a great deal of regular and consistent communication.

If you want to overcome people’s cynicism you need a long term comms strategy. One that doesn’t disappear after the initial excitement. You need to prove that this is not a flash in the pan and that this time things are going to be different.

You also need a comms strategy that gets people excited. That sweeps people along with the potential. Only then will you start to chip away at the cynicism, while also beginning to reshape the culture.

Change is only possible by management exemplifying and communicating a new reality over the long term. They cannot just set a new direction and step back. They need to remain engaged with the process. They must constantly communicate and show the way forward.

Finally, good communication should show how digital transformation is in everybody’s benefit. How the extra work is worth the effort. But also how inaction is not an option. We need to show people what will happen if the organisation does not change. How the impact of failing to embrace digital could have profound effects on people’s jobs. This will help move it up people’s priorities and speed up change.

Don’t start what you aren’t willing to finish

I see many start down the road of digital transformation without thinking through what that will involve. This isn’t some 6 month project. This is something that will take years of consistent effort to overcome organisational inertia. If they start this process but don’t follow through the resulting disarray will leave them weaker than if they do nothing.