We’re used to hearing about failed digital transformations, but stuck or struggling transformations are just as common. This IDG research finds that 51 percent of organizations have stalled or even abandoned parts of their transformation initiatives because of challenges they faced.

Encountering obstacles doesn’t have to mean the end. Here are three key areas leaders should focus on in order to get their digital transformation back on track.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

1. Don’t get hung up on the word digital

People often see digital transformation as different from business transformation. It’s “digital” so it’s an IT thing, right?

We have this discussion with our clients time and time again. When we frame it as ”business transformation” we naturally focus on the transformation aspect. Digital transformation should be no different.

You can deploy a bunch of tools to allow you to do what you do cheaper or faster, but this isn’t digital transformation.

You can easily ask your CTO to deploy a bunch of tools to allow you to do what you do today cheaper or faster, but this isn’t digital transformation. When leaders get stuck, it is often because the transformation is being driven purely by technology and the organization has lost sight of what it wanted to achieve in the first place. Constantly reminding yourself, and your organization, of your original business objectives is vital.

[ Some people despise the term “digital transformation.” Here’s how to speak to it without getting burned. ]

Another issue is that there are lots of great tools on the market today – perhaps too many. These technologies open up almost infinite possibilities, which can be game changing but also counter-productive. If you lose focus and purpose around your transformation vision, and more importantly your roadmap, you can tie yourself in knots trying to do too much without making any tangible difference to your business.

That is another reason why revisiting your business objectives is so important. And regardless of what you’re trying to achieve, recognize that this remains, at its core, a business change program.

2. Communicate, engage, and listen – more

A transformation program I recently worked on demonstrated what can go wrong if a business operates in a vacuum. The company had introduced a new self-service model but couldn’t understand why its employees were doing everything they could to avoid using it. Turns out the business hadn’t involved its people in any aspect of the transformation, simply presenting it as a “fait accompli.”

Your entire organization needs to understand the journey you are taking, what it means for them, and for the customers they interact with. Failure to do so not only puts your vision at risk, it could also jeopardize how customers receive your transformation. Unhappy employees usually lead to unhappy customers.

[ Read also: Change management: A better way to explain the “why” ]

People are naturally suspicious, and when you start introducing digital enablers, particularly automation, the natural assumption is that their jobs are at risk. You may not need your people to do exactly what they do now in the future. However, understanding the value of their knowledge and how this supports your digital future and their future opportunities is central to your transformation journey.

If you haven’t engaged your people, it’s not too late. Develop your change program, undertake impact assessments to understand how the transformation will affect your employees, and establish an engagement model to support its roll-out.

Of course, external users (i.e., your customers) are equally important. Whatever your objectives, transformation will in some way impact the delivery of services to your customers. So, have you communicated with them?

Customer-first must be a mantra within your digital transformation.

I’ve seen digital transformation projects fall flat because the business has made assumptions about what the customer wants. They’ve designed new services around back-end processes – not around how the customer actually wants to use their services. Customer-first must be a mantra within your digital transformation. If it’s something you’ve neglected up until now, pause, reflect, and consider how you can design your new service with your customers. Engaging specialist skills in user experience and interaction design is recommended.

3. Answer big data questions early and often

Holding data, collecting data, and being able to manipulate data in new and interesting ways can fuel your digital transformation. However, starting out without a clear understanding of the data you have, the data you need, and how it will be used, both now and in the future, could stall your progress and leave you with a problem that is both costly and time-consuming to fix.

If you run into difficulty exploiting your data assets to support your transformation objectives, you will almost certainly require some form of intervention. Exactly what form that intervention will take depends on the business you are in and the type of transformation you are trying to achieve, but some common steps apply: 

  • Clearly distinguish between your data model and your data content,
  • Stay focused, and balance short-term improvements with longer-term data modeling (don’t get bogged down!), 
  • Combine the expertise of people in your business who know your data inside-out with experts in data architecture and design.


Don’t let these common problems trip you up. Keep in mind that digital transformation isn’t simply about the smart selection and configuration of new technologies.

First and foremost, you should approach this journey as a business transformation and recognize the importance of investing the time, capital, and emotional energy you would in any other business change program. Get this right and you will avoid pain along the way.

[ Struggling to attract and retain digital transformation talent? Get the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: IT talent strategy: New tactics for a new era. ]