Why digital transformations fail

Black and white dandelion with most of its fluff gone.

There’s a startling statistic about digital transformations: 70% of them fail. 

As a business whose business is in digital transformation, that statistic doesn’t sound great. In fact, it doesn’t sound like a very good business to be in. Thankfully, as Tony Saldanha, the man who literally wrote the book on digital transformations, puts it: “The reason 70% of digital transformations fail is an issue of clarity. Clarity of intent, clarity of direction, and basic clarity of language.”

That’s the good news: digital transformations aren’t set up to fail. The bad news: transformation in general is hard to pull off. At Bilberrry, we’re optimists (and have a really great success rate to bolster us even further) — and we believe that going into a project with eyes wide open helps everyone prepare for a successful project. That’s the reason our first question for a project is, why, not what.   

So, let’s look at why digital transformations fail, and therefore, how to succeed.

Digital transformations are a process, not a purchase

First off, there’s nothing magical about digital transformations.

That’s not to say they aren’t exciting. There’s so much latent potential you can unlock by going digital. A quick tour of our work page can tell you as much: We’ve transformed a massive content library into a highly usable, scalable database. We’ve given nonprofits that had outgrown their websites digital overhauls and seen huge growth. We’ve built a mobile-driven local marketplace for 42 million users, and moved teams off of Post-It notes and whiteboards onto transformational digital processes. It can certainly feel magical. 

But, a digital transformation isn’t a thing you can buy and simply install — it’s a ongoing process that requires changing the way you do business. It’s an investment, not just in technology, but in people, training, and infrastructure, with all of the intricacies involved. When a team thinks it’ll be as simple as a plug-and-play quick fix, their project is at risk for failure.

How to prepare for success:

  • Get top-to-bottom buy in from everyone
  • Know that it’s going to take investment — and not just monetary
  • Remember that change, even good change, is challenging!

The initial excitement wears off

We hope you get to experience the initial excitement of embarking on a digital transformation — it really is thrilling. But, know this: like any new and exciting thing, the initial glitz does wear off. Somewhere in the middle of a project, there’s often a dip. Know this going in, prepare for it, and outlast it. If you do, then your reward as a team is that the excitement returns when the project launches and you get to realize all its awesome benefits.

The worst thing you can do is stop in the middle. It’s where a lot of projects fail. At Google’s X, the moonshot factory, they have a mantra for this: Fall in love with the problem, not the technology. If you love the problem, and solving it, you’ll outlast the diminishing sparkle when the technology is no longer new to you. 

How to prepare for success:

  • Ensure your team is dynamic and includes digital champions who’re excited, as well as excellent executors who can see a project through to the finish line
  • Keep your team as rational as possible in the early stages — excitement’s great, but level-headed decision-making is also necessary
  • Use metrics like Cost of Quality and Conjunctive Events Bias to build your project plans

You have to be ready, and so do your customers

Technology is empowering — especially in a world that’s lived through a work-from-home digital-is-so-necessary pandemic. That said, if your business is making a radical transformation, think about the timing and the context that’ll work for your customers. An example of this: the US Navy spent nearly a billion dollars on an enterprise resource planning software project that was ultimately cancelled completely. The problem? It’s internal customers, nearly 90,000 employees, didn’t find it added any value. Early adoption is totally feasible, as long as your customers are ready to take the leap with you. 

How to prepare for success: 

  • Invest heartily in discovery, exploration, and due diligence
  • Consider the context of your change, including the industry climate and your competitors. It’s perfectly fine to ask, “If not now, when?” and mean it. Delaying can be the right move. 
  • Simply ask your customers if they’re ready.

Sometimes, there’s already failure brewing

Some teams turn to digital transformations as a last-ditch hope to revive the ship before it sinks. It’s not a bad plan, necessarily, but it’s worth pointing out that the failures those teams face may have been the kind that were already in the works. If there’s something in the core business that’s not working, there’s no sure salvation in adding a big digital transformation project on top. If your house is built on a cliff that’s about to erode into the ocean, remodeling may not be the right move…

How to prepare for success: 

Get honest about any cracks in your business — and prioritize solving the essential ones with fundamental fixes first.

Our POV: It’s not the technology, it’s the clarity that can fail

When a digital transformation fails, it’s not often a failure of the technology. It’s the clarity around the project. Every transformation — digital or not — requires great leadership, team buy-in, will to do the work beyond the initial excitement, and readiness on the part of the customer. Most of all, it requires knowing not just what you’re doing, but why. When we embark on a project, we become not just technical partners, but actual partners. The first step in our process is doing that deep discovery to make sure the project should exist and can succeed. We don’t see how it could work well any other way.