The Three Silent Killers of Digital Transformations

November 15, 2021
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Very seldom do you find the informed and the empowered in the same room. Is this why less than 30 percent of digital transformations succeed?

The informed have the information that constitutes the lifeblood of your digital transformation. The empowered make the decisions that guide it. Without the informed, the empowered cannot lead effectively. Without the empowered, the informed lack authority and often decisiveness. 

To succeed in digital transformation, the empowered must be informed and the informed must be empowered. They have to be brought together.

What kills digital transformations?

With more than 70 percent of digital transformations failing, there has to be some reason, some endemic underlying factor or factors, some silent killers of these initiatives. What happens when the informed and the empowered do not connect? 

Silent Killer #1: Internal misalignment of people

People inside leadership and their priorities matter. People outside of leadership and their needs matter. These groups, along with their priorities and needs, must be aligned to create results that matter to the organization – results that enable transformation. Without this alignment between people inside and outside of leadership, those within your organization will not share a common understanding of the transformation initiative: its mission, goals, and execution. This includes people who lead (the empowered) and those who provide the technical execution (the informed). This shared understanding is cultivated when you invest the time to create and obtain buy-in and proactively engage with people both inside and outside of leadership to drive transformational outcomes. You manage expectations and ensure that the priorities of leadership align with the aggregated needs of non-leaders. Only then can alignment grow and survive.   

Silent Killer #2: Hidden roadblocks to execution 

Hidden roadblocks to execution threaten and degrade digital transformations. When the empowered and the informed do not connect, we fail to uncover our blind spots and our unknown unknowns (i.e. things that we are neither aware of nor understand – things that have an outsized impact on initiatives and cannot be handled through a checklist). When you get the right people in the right room at the right time to discuss the right questions, create new value, and resolve issues, you can examine your assumptions, uncover blind spots, and prepare to take on your unknown unknowns.

Silent Killer #3: Insufficient touchpoints of reference and correction

We have to connect with each other, especially at key moments and with the right structure. During a digital transformation, adequate touchpoints of reference and correction mean we ensure that the aggregated and reconciled stakeholder needs discovered at the beginning of the transformation effort are satisfied. If we find that these needs have not been satisfied, we can course-correct before we veer too far off course and the intended results of the transformation fail to materialize. 

That goes beyond just checking off requirements. Having adequate touchpoints means that we work to ensure the satisfaction of the underlying needs of an initiative’s stakeholders. These needs must be connected directly to the requirements. As business conditions change and needs shift, we need to understand which requirements are impacted. We can only do this if stakeholder needs can be traced to requirements and, ultimately, strategy. When this happens, we do not lose ourselves in the individual trees of the requirements. We prioritize the overall health of the forest of needs. 

It sounds simple. So, why are the global experts missing it?

In a 2018 study, “Unlocking Success in Digital Transformations,” McKinsey set out to determine the 21 keys to success that best explain why organizations succeed in digital transformations. The list includes important considerations like getting executive support for the transformation, adding digital transformation SMEs to the project steering committee, and reminding executives to foster an environment that welcomes new ideas. 

Not once do any of these three silent killers appear within those 21 keys to success. 

For the study, McKinsey tested 83 practices and identified the 21 most important when achieving success in digital transformations. And they never chose alignment, roadblocks to execution, or touchpoints of reference or correction. 

The word alignment does not even appear in the report. 

Perhaps this is the real reason why digital transformation efforts have a success rate of less than 30 percent. 

It is not just McKinsey. Other experts in strategy, technology, and project management miss it too. In software development, Agile prioritizes delivering tech solutions—not the creation of alignment inside and outside of leadership that is tangentially connected to the development effort. Agile does not directly take on the responsibility of uncovering and removing the hidden roadblocks to execution, including diffusing blind spots and ensuring the right people are in the right room at the right time to discuss the issue at hand. 

The traditional Iron Triangle of project management, in use since the 1960s, posits that the components of project success lie in time, cost, and scope—and that “quality” results when these three legs of the triangle are achieved. How customer satisfaction (the only acceptable definition of quality) results from delivering projects on time, within budget and fulfilling requirements is not clear. No one takes responsibility for ensuring that the client’s needs are met through those requirements. 

Why 70 percent of digital transformations fail

In digital transformations, alignment is critical and resolving roadblocks to execution goes hand-in-hand with that alignment. Having points of reference and correction throughout the initiative is critical too—or roadblocks will emerge and the empowered will not know of them until it is too late to save the initiative.  

These three silent killers are interrelated and holistic—and they are often forgotten because no one has been directly assigned these responsibilities. When requirements are signed off, projects are marked as completed, and invoices get paid, it is the informed end-users and customers (internal or external) who are often left holding the bag. The empowered go on believing the dashboards and status reports, but they are rarely informed of the reality from the trenches: 84 percent of digital transformation participants report that their organizations’ digital transformations have failed to improve performance or equip them to navigate change in the future, according to McKinsey

This is a stark reality to encounter after we have poured all that time, energy, and money into trying to do just that. McKinsey’s research extends into the abysmal success rates of individual industries too. In brick-and-mortar industries such as oil and gas, infrastructure, and automotive, transformation success rates rarely leave the single digits and range between 4 and 11 percent. Even among “digitally savvy” industries like telecoms and high tech, success rates do not exceed 26 percent, according to McKinsey.    

When the empowered are not informed and the informed are not empowered, digital transformations fail, en masse, and we may not even know until something breaks down later, leaving us to wonder which of our initiatives did not truly succeed. This is why it is so critical to tackle the three silent killers of digital transformations as part of the planning and execution stages of any initiative. 


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