Engaging your people in digital transformation

Woman smiling at laptop

Written by Pete Cohen, International Keynote Speaker, petecohen.com

“What organisations are not addressing is the simple fact that of all the initiatives they launch, 70% don’t work”

That rather stark statistic was shared with me by Professor Chris Roebuck when I was interviewing him for my recent book Inspirators – Leading the way in Leadership. According to his research, only around 30% of business transformations ever deliver the benefits they promised at the outset or even get close to completion.

And yet, I’m sure we are all familiar with that sense of ‘here we go again’ that so many of us feel when a new initiative is launched, following the same principles and with the same rhetoric that preceded all the previous (failed) projects.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
(Anon. though commonly misattributed to Albert Einstein)

So, for digital transformation to be effective, it will take a leader who manages differently despite being faced by the challenge most common to all business change:

How do we build engagement in the new technology?

How come nobody gets it?

Have you started an initiative with lots of commitment and energy within the team, only to see them fizzle out often a few months?

Do you find yourself wondering why no one else ‘gets it’?

Engagement means different things to different people. Some are unsure what it means and even the name causes controversy. I’ve even known projects were they started with a lengthy debate about what to call the engagement workstream.

Should it be ‘Staff Engagement’ (no one likes it because it makes it sound like it only applies to subordinates) or ‘Employee Engagement’ (what, then, of the growing number of people on contracts or outsourced but still vital to the business and its customers?).

And if the name is that hard to define, being clear about the what and why of engagement is even harder.

Should engagement mean that there should be no challenge to what leaders require of the business?

Should it mean that everyone loves their job and comes to work with a happy smile on their face?

Should it be about the scores in external assessments and ‘Top 100’ lists?

The holy grail of engagement

Engagement in business is like the holy grail. Everyone is searching for it but no one knows what it looks like. We end up feeling that it is probably a myth and an unattainable goal.

That is partly because, for so many people, engagement is seen as a ‘thing.’ Flip the switch and the staff will engage. I also come across so many situations where Engagement is ‘an HR thing’ (or an ‘engagement team thing’ or even a ‘consultant thing’) – making it somebody else’s problem and thus nothing to do with them!

Sadly, in this world of quick-fixes and instant results, everyone wants an answer to the engagement question.

For me, engagement is not a ‘thing’ nor a short term project you can tick off your list. Engagement:

  • goes beyond motivation and job satisfaction
  • is not voluntary and cannot be requested or demanded
  • happens through peoples’ own desire to act in the best interests of the business and colleagues
  • happens when all members of a team understand and make good on their commitments to one another
  • exists where organisations do the right thing to engage all their people, even if they’ve never heard of the term ‘employee engagement’

Just like the Holy Grail, however, Engagement is not about a single result – it is about the journey.

It isn’t simple or straightforward and the challenges along the way will be many.

And, in the end, the rewards come from the inner journey of each individual as they understand their own position in the organisation and the part they have to play.

Engagement is a virtuous circle, you see. The people who engage – who go above and beyond, step up with new ideas, take the initiative – get more satisfaction from what they are doing and, as a result, engage even more.

But there is also a vicious circle in play.

If someone is disinterested, disengaged or ‘difficult’ – coming into every task and project with an air of cynicism, ready to see what can’t be done – their own attitude makes others want to step away and work with someone else, fuelling their pessimistic attitude.

But engagement is infectious. Be more, do more, engage more and others will engage back and that means:

  • You must be the example. Work on yourself and improve yourself every day and show that you know engagement starts with you.
  • You need to take the bold step of absolute honesty, which means admitting when you don’t have a clue what you are doing (it happens to everyone, by the way) and seeking their help in finding a path through.
  • You need to recognise and appreciate the role everyone around you plays in growing the business and tapping in to what inspires them to bring out their best

So, rather than looking at how engaged others around you might be, start by asking yourself:

How engaged am I?


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