Four tips to make the most of your people during a digital migration.

As a business leader, you may have been told that “digital migration” means new organizational structures, new enterprise software, new business models, and new partnerships. You may have discussed it with your peers in board meetings, and then revealed your grand plans to your team in highly anticipated town halls. But what many forget is that those rapt listeners are more than an audience — they are the people who will be driving those changes on a daily basis. And you need them to be fully on board.

Change at scale is complex and full of friction. There’s simply no way to get your people to just “go along for the ride.” So how do you make sure that you take the right people, and shape the right culture, to drive change from within? What does it take to put people at the heart of your digital migration?

If you’re the one tasked to lead this journey, it’s important to make sure you appeal to the heart as well as the head — to find the power within your people.

Value those who’re already loyal

During times of change and an influx of new people, it’s natural for your dedicated veterans to feel deeply insecure. Contrary to common belief, most people welcome positive change, but they fear and resist the threat of loss. We’ve seen organizations replace “traditional staff” with “digital people,” thus accentuating this divide even more. Shifts to digital, as exciting as they may be, can also be perceived as a loss of stability, status, and certainty for your current employees.

The most thoughtful way to retain your people is to leverage and champion the skills they have for a successful march forward. A client we worked with began their digital migration with a newly hired CDO and two long-serving senior project managers from the “traditional” IT group in the organization. These project managers were learning digital on the job, but they also had superpowers that can’t be learned: they were resilient and relentless. They were accustomed to being thrown in the deep end. They were able to navigate a new landscape through a mix of love for where they worked, deft negotiating skills, and a dogged desire to learn something new.

These project managers were learning digital on the job, but they also had superpowers that can’t be learned: they were resilient and relentless.

Motivate with the missions, not the structures

Digital migration efforts often begin with new team structures like “change units,” “centers of excellence,” or “innovation labs.” This approach might work in some instances, but more often it creates resentment. To stave off silos, identify a few critical missions that bring together a diverse set of people from operations to engineering, from product to design. Use them to construct new standards and new ways of working. Building common motivations, rather than lines on an org chart, is key. How your people are engaged is just as important as who is.

And your people may surprise you. During the COVID-19 pandemic, all sorts of organizations, from botanical garden shops to toy stores, have experimented with digital as a means of keeping customers and reaching people at home. Many of these transformations began as ideas from entrepreneurial employees. One of the best examples of this kind of employee-centered digital migration is the Government Digital Services unit within the Cabinet Office of Government in the UK. Their mantra is “delivery over strategy,” and this means bringing along the right people who can achieve meaningful change — the loyal veterans alongside the newer, “digital” people.

Hire with your eyes open

While a sense of belonging and shared purpose within your organization is more important than your org chart, you do need to hire in new capabilities. Understanding the digital talent market, and how to hire for it, is critical to setting up the journey with the right talent. A big challenge is that the internal recruitment team is typically ill-equipped to hire for these new roles since digital jobs are often sourced from a completely different talent pool. Digital recruiting can quickly become a counterproductive numbers game of roles to be filled each quarter.

To solve this, job descriptions should extend beyond the role’s responsibilities to the archetype of the people you’re looking for. What will it take for this person to navigate within your organization successfully? Do they need to be a storyteller, a negotiator, a teacher? You know what your organization needs, and more importantly, what your people respect. You need to understand a potential hire’s primary intent: are they looking at your organization as a LinkedIn stepping stone to the next opportunity? You need individuals who are driven by the potential of your organization and inspired by your value system. If not, your current employees will see through them immediately — to quote the franchise owner at a Fortune 500 company we’ve worked with, in response to a senior leader pitching a centralized digital initiative: “I’ll still be here in ten years, you will be long gone, why should I listen to you?”

Learn to unlearn

To harness the power within both your veterans and your new hires, you need to embrace learning, and equally importantly, unlearning. This means creating a culture where the dissonance that change brings is understood. Patience is needed on the emotional rollercoaster of letting go of doing things the way they were always done. When we ask people to learn at work, what we are really asking of them is to have the dedication to stay the course, a willingness to objectively share work, put it in the hands of others, and respond in kind.

A trap many organizations fall into is an overemphasis on formulaic training handed over to “experts.” Your digital migration is unique to your company and off-the-shelf training is generic. Sure, agile processes and design thinking methodologies are helpful in building better products and services. Creating a culture where your team openly talks about lessons learned from failures will do more than any prescriptive training ever could. The point isn’t to intentionally fail, but to determine what actually works rapidly. It’s difficult in practice but doing it repeatedly till it becomes a habit. Break failures down into their smallest elements to allow for appropriate recalibration the next time around.

Creating a culture where your team openly talks about lessons learned from failures will do more than any prescriptive training ever could.

What all this means for you

If you’re the one tasked to lead this journey, remember to take heart in the unique human you are, and in the power within the people around you. Driving digital change in an organization can feel thankless and lonely, like Sisyphus rolling the proverbial boulder up the hill, only to watch it roll back down. But digital migration is not a one-act play. It is an epic, complex journey that unleashes the inner potential of your people in pursuit of a goal greater than themselves. By embracing and taking ownership of the human attributes around you, your digital moves will set up your organization for so much more than a quarter’s financial successes.

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Illustrations in this article are by Carol Liao (Method). Contributions from Brett MacFarlan and John Oswald (Method). Edited by Erin Peace (Method). The piece was written by Reema Pinto, who leads the team of smart, kind & brave humans at Method New York.