How to manage unprecedented digital transformation projects with no blueprints to follow

By Chris Taylor | February 11, 2020

While more companies are coming around to the idea of digital solutions that can improve productivity and reduce costs, some are not prepared to navigate uncharted waters, nor willing to embrace the scope of change necessary to get there.

Those that do dare to be innovators recognize that tomorrow’s industry leaders are companies that demand transformative ways of working with collaborative partners to achieve unprecedented outcomes. They’re willing to be the ones that write their own blueprints.

So how do such projects succeed? How do you know how to get to where you want to be when nobody’s done it before?

In my experience, one of the most pivotal factors that affects the success of all others is knowing how to work with the right people and building the best possible teams to steer you safely and resoundingly over the finish line. 

Working with the right people to get you through disruptive digital transformation

I recently assembled a team to manage the development of an award-winning digital transformation project for a multinational client.

They had lofty goals. The company wanted to structure their operation in a totally new way: a fundamental departure from the industry norm. They had two digital goals: integrating product delivery and improving construction productivity. How we arrived at those given the scale and level of complexity was an open question. As a team we had to trail blaze to the answer.

From beginning to end, the driving force of this project’s success was its people and the ways in which they worked together to achieve what had never been done before.

1. Start looking for the right people early

Extraordinary goals require extraordinary people, and they don’t come a dime a dozen. It took a long time to find the right people and to assemble the kind of teams that could handle the project I worked on. Get started on your search as early as possible in the project planning phase. I met with a lot of people and different organizations seeking feedback on the objective and the expertise that was needed. 

A good technique I developed for finding the right people involved getting them to verbalize in their own words the project’s requirements: what is it that we’re doing, why are we doing it, and how are we going to do it? 

At the end of the day you need to find people that are capable and committed to your objectives. They need to have the right skill-sets and above all, they need to demonstrate a level of adaptability and commitment that can carry you through the toughest unexpected challenges.

2. Embrace team fluidity

Understand that on big projects that have many unknowns, the team that you start out with is not the team you’re going to end up with, and sometimes you don’t know who you might need to get you over the hill until you’ve arrived at the bottom of that hill. Be prepared to leverage different skill sets at different stages of the project and to rethink your team building approach if something isn’t working. 

Agile work environments aren’t just for developers. A flexible, evolving approach should also be applied to finding the right people and engaging them in the right ways, not just at the beginning but throughout the project. Focus on finding the best business stakeholders, the subject matter experts who will represent the business and sell the benefits of a digital world.

Some of the most productive forms of collaboration are enabled when individuals are allowed to self-organize according to functional relevance rather than traditional hierarchies or divisions. On our project, members of multiple organizations involved wore the same lanyard. After some time, it wasn’t possible to tell who was from which company, individuals just worked together to get the job done.

3. Prepare for resistance and amplify visionary voices

“In today’s world, betting on chaos is the safest bet of all.” (Seth Godin, author of Survival Is Not Enough). Major upheavals of the status quo are understandably uncomfortable for many people. You should be prepared to face a good deal of resistance, even from people who may initially seem on board. Build in time and resources to address people’s concerns and invest in proper change management strategies targeted towards empowering people to feel ownership of the project and to know that they’re in control.

Taking on unprecedented projects requires courage and confidence that you can pull it off no matter what challenges you may face. Amplify the visionary voices within your organization, especially those at the senior management level, to increase buy-in and support from key stakeholders and boost the confidence of your skilled experts.

The more people you have who believe you can get the job done, the more likely you are to succeed.

4. Make strong communication paramount

A big part of rallying your organization’s people to support and shepherd projects that bring major upheaval to well-established routines is fully opening the lines of communication cross-functionally and from top to bottom. The easier it is for your teams to communicate openly, frequently, and fully, the less chance there is of something going wrong than when operations become too siloed. Good communication also involves presenting key milestones to senior management to maintain their buy-in and support and encouraging them to exercise their visionary voices to keep teams motivated.

Additionally, communicative initiatives like town halls and technology demonstrations help to keep everyone informed and excited about the progress, to ensure momentum is maintained.

5. Establish steering committees to focus work

On big projects with many unknowns, it can be difficult to maintain focus and momentum, especially when novel challenges arise. Establish steering committees to prioritize work and keep your teams on track. This is especially important on complex projects with many stakeholders and many moving parts. Steering committees can help to keep workflows and communication channels simple. They can help enforce an outcomes-oriented approach to every stage of the project to ensure teams are working towards clearly articulated common goals. 

6. Invest in training

One thing that’s unique about embarking on digital transformation in industries like engineering, procurement, construction, and management is that many contractors still work in a completely analog fashion with paper-based drawings and handwritten information. Unlike industries that have a greater penetration of digital tools, new processes and more extensive training are often required to bridge the gap.

It’s important to ensure everyone has a tangible understanding of what’s expected of them and how things are going to work. On our recent project, after a failed attempt to allow people to learn the new software on their own, we established thirty-minute digital training sessions on the key business functions that would be performed most often. Remember that digital tools are only as effective as their users.

Why you should be thinking like an innovator 

The world is changing. How you’re working today is not how you’re going to be working tomorrow, so you can’t expect to come to the office, do the same thing, and move forward.

I’m an avid skier and it turns out that that sport has taught me a lot about the way progress and innovation works. The only way for you to ski properly is to lean forward. If you lean back, resisting the change, you’re going to fall backwards and crash. 

Sometimes you must take a leap of faith to embrace the opportunities you’re afforded, and recognize that you won’t always have a set of blueprints to guide you. The right path through any digital transformation can be found through the people you work with and how you work with them. Naysayers motivate me to prove them wrong while those that rally to work with me again prove that with the right people, anything is possible. Even if it’s never been done before.