Technology is changing at an exponential pace, and so are consumers’ expectations of having products and services that come with a digital experience. Perfect example: Our Benekiva team recently rented office space and were shocked by the request of our future landlord to mail two signed copies of the contract. As we were discussing this crazy request and wondering why technology wasn’t used to solve this simple problem, another startup complained to me about the same issue. Did we get the space? Yes. Did we have a bad taste in our mouth about the process? Yes.
One of the most memorable projects that I led earlier in my career was when I automated cash processing. Previously, a team of 15 took turns printing mainframe screens. Afterward, they had a searchable database with the data at their fingertips.
Before I started digging into this issue, I was advised: “You are working with legacy technology; data is not accessible.” and, “The mainframe replacement project is almost approved. Wait another year.” (Yeah, right. ?)
If I hadn’t rolled up my sleeves to dig into available data feeds, this problem would have continued until the mainframe replacement project was finished, which actually occurred 3 1/2 years later. This project yielded immediate benefits of one full-time employee, not including the money and trees we saved by not printing paper every morning.
Years later, when I came across the Center for Creative Leadership’s direction, alignment, commitment (DAC) model, the reasons for the project’s success became clear.
Here is a synopsis of the organization I was working for at the time:
- Innovation was encouraged at the very top of the organization, and it didn’t stay at the senior level. Employees across all salary grades were invited to participate.
- There was a culture of celebration. If employees found a better way of work, they won awards and were recognized.
- Technologists were embedded throughout the business. I was one of the first hires of this kind, and we paved the way for others. My role was to learn the business and find ways to improve processes and automation.
- Data drove decisions. Tasks, people, managers, etc. were measured, which allowed bottlenecks to be seen quickly and a course of action determined.
- Most importantly, there was a strong sense of DAC. Direction was articulated and communicated to ALL levels of the organization by the senior-most person. This individual would make his mission to get out of his office and walk the floors – get to know people and share the vision. There was clear alignment of goals and initiatives. If something didn’t meet our key objectives or targets, it wasn’t a priority. No sneaking in projects. Finally, there was a strong sense of commitment at all levels of the organization.
Here is how the DAC approach turned into success at that organization:
- Relationships. You don’t have to be best friends or go out for drinks, but having a good working relationship can make or break initiatives. I was new in the organization but already had started to form a peer group. I was also involved at all levels of the organization – from the cash processor to leadership. After discussing the manual processing with my IT peers, I was introduced to a mainframe analyst who started looking through data feeds that were already being created. She eventually found one that I could use to build a tool that made the data accessible to the cash processing team. Whether you are a startup working with an organization or an employee, learning the organization and the key players (not every key player is a C-Suite executive) is critical to your success. Don’t get fooled into thinking that, if you have upper-level buy-in, you get the golden ticket. Success is involving essential stakeholders at all levels of the organization.
- Culture. This organization took risks, tried new things and explored possibilities. Technology is often the easy part. Where most failures occur is on the “soft” side of project management. Is your team equipped with the right people to navigate beyond the tech? Digital transformation initiatives are hard. If you are a tech startup working with organizations on their digital transformation initiatives, ensure you have people on the team who can handle the change management side of the house.
- Questions. When you hear a no, take the attitude that the “yes” is around the corner. Ask questions various ways to collect data and information. Don’t be afraid to poke around – what is the worst that can happen? I’ve never seen anyone get fired for asking questions. If you have, then you were working for the wrong organization.
- Collaboration. I involved various teams and departments to solve the cash problem. Soup to nuts, we implemented this solution in less than two months – from discovery to implementation. We had so much buy-in and excitement that we won a teamwork award for this project. It was fun to get to know others, and collaboration allowed other problems to surface that some of this team solved quickly.
If you are an employee of an organization managing digital transformation initiatives or a startup going in as a vendor, don’t ignore the culture side of your projects. Go in with an open and collaborative mind. As Covey states, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Keep building relationships and asking questions. Finally, seek to build DAC. Without direction, alignment and commitment, no matter how much money or resources you throw at the problem, your car is stuck in mud. The wheels are turning, but you aren’t going forward.