More than 60 percent of respondents who report stalled digital transformations attribute the problem to factors that—with the right discipline and focus—organizations can control in the near term to medium term. 2 2. “Near term” refers to factors that can usually be overcome within one year, and “medium term” refers to factors that can typically be overcome within three years. This finding runs counter to widespread assumptions that external pressures, such as market disruptions or regulatory changes, pose the biggest threats to digital initiatives. 3 3. Jacques Bughin and Nicolas van Zeebroeck, “The best response to digital disruption,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2017, Volume 58, Number 4, sloanreview.mit.edu. More commonly reported sources of derailed progress include resourcing issues, lack of clarity or alignment on a company’s digital strategy, and poor quality of the digital strategy to begin with.
If a digital transformation stalls, the results suggest that organizations can regain momentum by implementing rigorous change-management and internal-communications programs and clarifying the transformation’s projected impact, which can help build alignment and commitment. For scaling digital programs beyond the pilot phase—the first stumbling block in a transformation’s execution—clarity on the time frame and expected economic impact is important, as is partnering with operations. Should an intervention be needed to reenergize a transformation, having the CEO step in appears to be advantageous. Further lessons come from respondents at companies that avoid stalling in the first place. They often say their organizations maintain momentum by obtaining strong alignment and strategic clarity before a transformation gets under way.
Overall, nearly nine in ten respondents say their organizations have pursued a major digital initiative or transformation in the past three years (Exhibit 1). Of the respondents who say their organizations have undertaken such an effort, more than 70 percent say the effort, which may be ongoing, has lost momentum at some point: either it hasn’t reached its full scale, or it scaled but has stalled before achieving its expected impact. A solid majority of these respondents—more than 60 percent—say their companies’ digital transformations have stalled for reasons that, in our experience, an organization can reasonably control in the near term to medium term.
Smaller shares of respondents cite near- or medium-term factors related to the quality and execution of the transformation strategy: its clarity, its effectiveness, the extent of alignment and commitment throughout the organization, and the organization’s ability to translate its strategy into an effective transformation design.
Other factors, in our experience, typically take longer to address. Among these, misalignment of culture and ways of working is the most commonly cited cause of digital burnout. As previous research has noted, adapting the organizational culture to accelerate innovation is, for many organizations, a struggle that takes time to address. In particular, nearly 40 percent of this survey’s respondents who identify misaligned culture and ways of working as the primary cause of burnout point specifically to hierarchical cultures and siloed ways of working as the biggest killers of digital momentum. Overall, internal challenges pose more problems than external ones do: only 6 percent of respondents attribute the derailed momentum to a major disruption in the market or business landscape.
We also looked at how these challenges vary according to when a transformation stalls. Responses indicate that the factors causing transformations to stall in the pilot stage differ from the factors that keep scaled-up transformations from achieving their expected impact. For example, the findings suggest that strategic clarity—the primary differentiating root cause between stalls in these two stages—is important for moving past the pilot phase. Lack of clarity was stated as the main obstacle by 17 percent of respondents reporting a stall at the pilot phase, compared with 9 percent of those who say their transformation reached full scale but didn’t meet expectations.
To understand how organizations can restart digital efforts that have stalled, we asked the 36 percent of respondents who say their organizations have regained momentum what steps were taken. Respondents most often identified resourcing issues—the overall most cited reason that digital transformations stall—as the challenge these organizations addressed successfully. External disruption, the least cited reason that transformations stall, has the second-highest rate of being solved successfully. This suggests that while companies might not be able to avoid disruption, they often can find a path through it.
Responses also point to two challenges that may be the most difficult to overcome; these center on the clarity and quality of a transformation’s strategy (Exhibit 2). The findings suggest that a lack of strategic clarity is particularly problematic. Nearly 40 percent of respondents at organizations experiencing clarity issues say they hit fewer than one-quarter of the transformation’s overall targets, compared with 27 percent of all respondents whose companies have experienced a stall.
To understand which tactics may be useful for getting a stalled digital program past the pilot phase, we compared the answers from respondents whose transformations have begun to scale with those whose transformations have stalled in the pilot stage. 4 4. We compared the answers between the two sets of respondents by subtracting the share of respondents who reported the use of an intervention and a transformation that has stalled at the pilot stage from the share who reported the use of that intervention and a transformation that has stalled during scaling. Two interventions are much more likely to be reported at organizations with transformations that have cleared the pilot phase: one is building a more rigorous model for the transformation’s timing and impact, and the other is partnering with the operations function to redesign the transformation.
Finally, our findings suggest that it also matters who initiates the intervention (Exhibit 5). CEOs—who initiate more interventions than any other leader—have the best record of resuscitating stalled digital efforts: they initiate nearly half of successful interventions. But intervention by a CEO isn’t a sure fix. When CEOs step in, the reported success rate is still only 40 percent.
How can organizations avoid getting stuck in the middle of a digital transformation in the first place, rather than spending time and resources to dig themselves out of a rut? When we asked the quarter of respondents who did not report a slowdown to identify the most important factors for keeping their efforts going, they most often credit strong commitment to the transformation and clarity on the transformation’s strategy
We also asked these respondents what enabled those factors at their organizations. Respondents who say strong commitment kept their transformation on track most often point to having the entire C-suite fully aligned and committed to the transformation. Those who say clarity on the transformation strategy was critical to their digital momentum most often state that translating the strategy into clear, actionable initiatives was the key to providing that clarity.
Notwithstanding the possibility of external disruption, three actions may help organizations overcome, or even avoid, a stalling of their digital momentum:
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