As we explore the idea of “making a digital shift,” it’s important to examine the ways to keep up the momentum and stay on track in managerial, not technical, terms. The premise is that, as with a paint job, meticulous preparation is essential to success.
From the earliest days, partial successes and outright failures litter the history of digital shifts, with write-offs running into 10 figures on some government projects. Typical reasons include:
Unclear objectives. These can result in miscommunication, unmanaged expectations, work at cross-purposes, and ill-feeling. There’s no substitute for hammering objectives out to the point of broad understanding and consensus up front.1
Scope. The scope may simply be too ambitious for available resources, human and/or financial. This often results from groupthink where the cautious have learned to keep quiet.
Loss of focus. Loss of sustained commitment and focus at the C-level can result from poor upward communication regarding status from project management; accomplishments and good news should be celebrated, but the inevitable bad news must be dealt with candidly. No cover-ups!
Mission creep. Some mission creep is inevitable as the project team and its beneficiaries learn more and develop better ideas about the intended digital shift, so project management must be reasonably flexible. However, a combination of common sense, tactfulness, and C-level backing should help control it.
Poor project design. Many methodologies and tools are available to help set priorities and ensure a steady flow of intermediate deliverables that lend credence to progress reports. If a tool or methodology already in use performs satisfactorily, it’s probably better to use it than to search for an unfamiliar alternative.
Ineffective project management. Managing projects well requires a combination of art and science, as anybody with more than brief experience with IT projects knows. Again, familiar and good-enough tools and methodologies are likely better to use than something new. As with project design, changes not driven by clear need add risk, which is the last thing a digital shift needs.
Never stop communicating! Broad-based employee understanding and commitment are critical. It is a near certainty that a digital shift will affect what many do and how they do it. People can too easily lose track of higher-level messages when they are consumed by day-to-day stuff, so they need constant reminders about the what and, even more, the why of the shift. They need and deserve straight answers about what will change for them. The more specifically the changes are described, the better — although descriptions should not gloss over possible initial challenges.
As a general rule, no job should get worse in terms of becoming more stressful, frustrating, or boring but rather should improve in these respects. New, redesigned jobs will likely demand more cognitive and/or social skills, but, in my observation, most employees have more of these skills than their current jobs require. That’s the good news for people whose lower-skill, lower-value jobs will disappear; a significant portion of them may be upgradable to higher-value (and better-paid) work in, for example, customer service. Wouldn’t customer experience be improved by fewer long waits listening to insipid music because “call volume is exceptionally high”? This is particularly important in periods after implementing a new interface, and it would be great experience for interface designers to sit with project managers then to see how well customers do with their designs, because design quality matters.
A digital shift that doesn’t improve the customer experience is a bad idea. At the very minimum, the digital shift must not negatively affect the customer experience. Even if the design quality is good, it is not the customers’ fault if they do not perceive improvement or if they sense deterioration when this occurs. The change and its rationale must not have been well communicated. Employees who interact with customers can help the design team, and their frustrations with current processes can provide valuable insights into what to do better.
1Having a clear objective was US General Colin Powell’s first “law” when contemplating a military intervention; he followed this law successfully during the first Gulf War in 1990-1991. Subsequent engagements, for which he was not responsible, have suffered from nonadherence.
[For more from the author on this topic, see “Making a Digital Shift (Without Grinding Gears).”]