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Cultural change for digital success

Guy Carberry, 12 July 2021

Digital transformation is as much about changes to ways of working as it is about changes to technology. If you don’t bring people along for the ride or put them in the front seat, you are doomed to failure.

‘Digital Transformation’ is a somewhat amorphous term for modernisation and organisational change harnessing new technologies to improve systems, services and products. Often overlooked is the reason why you are doing this and the vital human factors that will drive your vision forward.

What is organisational culture?

Organisational culture is the shared values and ways of working held by the majority of the employees in your organisation. It’s the ‘norm’. Ideally, it will exemplify positive traits and behaviours. People talk of a ‘toxic culture’ when negativity prevails and the organisation is sliding toward oblivion.

Get aligned

Having vision and values comb-bound, stuck on walls and printed on mouse-mats is one thing, but do people believe in them, live and breathe them? You’re going to need to do some work to assess the disconnect between the ‘as is’ and the ‘to be’. You’ll need to invest time in talking to the people that ‘do the do’. Listen to grievances, blockers in aligning to the values, vision and strategy and demonstrate that you are listening by playing back what you hear.

Expect it to be hard

Good organisational culture doesn’t just happen. There is no silver bullet, no sleight of hand. An army of management consultants bunking in with senior management isn’t going to deal with deep seated turmoil! This is going to take time and perseverance. Get your supplies, you’re here for the long haul. You will face opposition from people who are resistant to change and policies, processes and procedures that make sure things stay just the way they are. Your entire recruitment process and organisational structure is probably going to need an overhaul. That doesn’t happen overnight and certainly not without allies!

Be one of the 15%

Unsurprisingly, most organisations fail to change their culture. In fact, only 15% of companies who attempt to change actually succeed. Take that rather depressing statistic and aim to be one of the 15% who succeeds! Take heart in the fact that the UK Government Digital Services can be counted in that number! Possibly the most highly bureaucratic organisation is now held up as the gold standard for digital transformation.

Remember why you are doing this

Aside from the overriding need to stay relevant, you have fierce competition. The talent you want to recruit are going to expect a progressive and exciting culture they can believe in. The employees you already have will be casting their eyes to the horizon and making plans. Partner organisations are evolving their own criteria for a successful relationship.

Start ASAP!

You don’t bolt on company culture at the end of organisational change! Your visioning and strategic planning needs to have the culture called out and prioritised as a significant goal. People need to be brought along for the journey from the start. The culture will evolve as a part of the change process.

How to make it happen

Form multidisciplinary teams

A multidisciplinary team is made up of people with expertise in different specialisms. Don’t group people with the same specialism together. Mix designers with developers, researchers and analysts. This will allow for cross-pollination, empathy, and respect for each other's disciplines.

As a team working toward a common goal, you will learn and grow together. You will celebrate success and gain a deeper understanding of how to best serve user needs.

Take an informal route if it is not possible to formally reorganise around multidisciplinary teams. Start by connecting with people across different teams over coffee and watch how communities of practice emerge!

Be careful, be inclusive and build trust

To get the best out of your teams, you need to ensure that they feel safe and secure. As a digital leader your role is as much about looking after your people as it is in leading the vision. Establishing trust and a safe place is essential to deliver long-term success. Get to know your team and what motivates them. Show them that you care and that you have their backs. Make sure they can play to their strengths, recognising that not everybody is like you. Make it clear that it’s ok to make mistakes and that no single person is to blame.

Get smart

A team needs to understand its mission. Motivate your team by clearly establishing SMART objectives that work toward an inspirational vision. Align objectives to your company strategy so the team can see how they are contributing value and know their worth.

Clarify roles and responsibilities

People in the team need to understand where they fit in. Make sure everybody knows what they are going to bring to the table. Remove any ambiguity and make sure they are proud of their job descriptions. Work with them as individuals and collectively as a team to flesh out the boundaries of responsibility. Similarly, before getting to work with meetings and workshops, make sure everybody knows what role they will be playing for the duration. If everybody thinks they are leading a workshop, you’ll get chaos!

Design a clear and achievable career path

Help your team understand where the possibilities lie. Spend time understanding their ambitions. Design achievable career paths with clear and realistic competencies. Provide training and development opportunities to help them grow. Seek out useful conferences to attend and, better still, run a session. Get your team out there and build their reputation! Pay attention to what your staff tell you about their hopes for the future and do your best to help support their goals.

Celebrate success, learn from mistakes

No project will be a complete failure. We learn and grow by our mistakes. It’s rare that a digital team is saving lives but if you are, put as many quality assurance measures and fail-safes into the service as you can. When things don’t go to plan, objectives aren’t met and a vision is not achieved, don’t beat yourselves up. Don’t look for somebody to blame. Take collective responsibility and learn the lessons that have revealed themselves to you. Share your findings so others can understand why it went wrong. Celebrate successes. Even in failing projects, there will be small wins. Acknowledge them and do something fun.


Organisational change is hard. It takes perseverance and constant effort. It needs to become a habit. Make sure you involve your people across all levels of the organisation, give them a voice and ensure they are heard. Allow people to play to their strengths and you’ll be well on your way to shifting the culture in the right direction!

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