Starting with purpose (why) in the digital transformation journey

A year ago, I participated in a IT management meeting/workshop where the new IT organization and change program was launched. The CIO took the stage and described the future vision, organization and actions going forward with a proud and focused voice. The room was filled with energy and excitement as Power Point slides visualized the change journey. But by the end of the presentation, one of the IT managers raised his hand and stated that he did not fully believe in the change journey. The fact was that the organization had attempted change numerous times during the last five years – and all attempts resulted in failure. What was different now? The CIO lost his momentum and a feeling of disbelief spread in the room. After the meeting, I approached the hesitant IT manager and ask why previous change programs had failed. What was his views? The answer was short and precise – “they never explained why we needed to change – only what we should do and our responsibilities”.

The described scenario is not uncommon for companies and organizations leading change. Often CIO or other business executive drive change in solo and expecting managers and employees to immediately commit to the journey. What we need to understand that change is a mental journey and it takes time to understand and commit to the new challenges. Research shows that the same kind of stress hormones are released in our brains when confronted by organizational change and a bear in the forest. Our instincts tell us to fight, flee or freeze (play dead). The challenges for leaders is to de-dramatize change and remove the bear from the situation. It is done with carefully explaining the purpose and meaning (why) of the change journey and coaching. By directly going into actions and responsibilities will most certainty paralyze the organization – and nothing will happen!

The digital transformation is often triggered by managers based on a fear of losing market position and a need to be on the “digitalization train”. The focus is on the future and forcing change to sustain competitiveness and market shares. But most employees live in a different situation – best represented by organizational fatigue after endless re-organizations, command and control leadership, and unclear communication. Recent surveys show a 14% motivation of company staff (Harvey Nash, 2015) uncommitted to change and creativity. The resisting force to digital transformation (culture and employees) is the key challenge of future digital competitiveness and need to be resolved quickly.

“People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe”

- Simon Sinek (Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action)

There are examples in Sweden of companies that are progressing well with their digital transformation. When we talked to the IT and Business executives, they highlight the need to listen to the organization (care: people focus) and understanding their needs in change. Also, to take the first uncomfortable step (dare: create momentum) into the unknown, and lead and inspire employees to follow. People want change but do not want to be changed, and leave their comfort zones. A common denominator for these two approaches can be found in trust, purpose and communication. To be honest, these capabilities have traditionally been neglected by management in the ambition to show quick results. Digital Transformation is primarily a leadership and management journey where digital competitiveness comes from its change and motivation skills. Employees believing in the values and purpose of change will support the digital journey with all its passion. Others will quit when the comfort zone is moved.


  • Listen to the signals and messages from your organization – and understand their receptiveness to change. Is the organization motivated and understand the meaning and purpose of change? If not, take time to prepare the organization for the future journey.
  • Do you have the right culture and leadership in the organization based on trust? How does managers react to employees taking own initiatives? If culture and leadership is a bottleneck for digital transformation, bring in experts to set the right conditions for digital transformation.

It is easy to talk about digital transformation and another thing to actually drive the change journey. A journey with many traps and challenges that must be overcome. But recognizing that digitalization goes beyond technology and is all about people, purpose and change will support the journey. The valuable insight is a key capability for all business and IT executives driving digital transformation. Explaining why we need to change.

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