The Atom of Digital Transformation is the Team

When an organization takes on the immense, complicated project of digital transformation, the goal is generally to implement new digital tools and business processes to help make the organization more flexible and productive. 

However, like all problems in organizations, digital transformation is almost always a human problem rather than a machine problem. 

New technology can certainly help make your organization more effective. But as you’re thinking about digital transformation, the first step is to look at how you’re fundamentally assigning work.

How can you structure your teams to more efficiently tackle the complicated project of transformation, and improve how your organization works into the future?

By thinking of teams as the atomic unit of the organization, rather than individual contributors.

Historically, organizations were siloed and hierarchical, with the manager at the top of each silo handing down work to the individuals below them. The problem is that information then gets locked into silos, keeping the organization from adapting quickly when it needs to. 

One way of trying to break down silos is to create cross-functional teams where the disciplines of individual contributors cross-cut the silo they’re in. That’s a good way to help the organization become more productive, but it’s not enough when approaching something as volatile and complex as digital transformation. 

Here’s why. 

We tend to think of the individual contributor as the atomic unit of the organization, a resource that can be moved around as needed. Individuals are assigned to work on a project-based team — either serially or on multiple projects at once. 

That approach may seem like it’s working during times of relative stability within the organization, but it’s actually creating blocks to productivity.

First, it disperses the attention of the individual worker. Workers on multiple teams have to prioritize which ones get their most attention. They may become a gating factor on teams that aren’t as important to them for whatever reason.

The other issue is that every team goes through developmental phases, which psychologist Bruce Tuckman famously named “forming”, “storming”, “norming”, “performing”. Every time an individual is assigned to a new team, they must get to know their team members and learn how best to work together by going through a state of friction, or storming.

If you’re constantly creating new teams within the organization, you create a situation where teams that are storming are the standard. As soon as a team gets functional, they’re dispersed, and the individuals move on to new projects.

When things become more complicated — like when an organization is taking on the project of digital transformation — you need a more productive approach to how you manage the flow of work. 

What I’m proposing is that instead of assigning individuals to projects, we assign projects to teams. In other words, rather than moving people around the organization to where the work is, create effective teams and then funnel the work to them. 

This way of assigning work eliminates the problems of dispersed attention, and of teams being constantly in the state of forming and storming. Instead, you have highly-efficient teams of individuals who can capably and productively tackle projects as they’re brought to the team. 

Fundamentally, digital transformation is about helping an organization work more efficiently. Implementing new tools can help. But if we’re only focusing on the digital part of the digital transformation, rather than on the behavior change of the people, we’ve missed an opportunity. 

Bob Gower

Co-Founder of The Alignment Company

PS: I’ve held a variety of leadership positions and advisory roles over the years including design director of a major newspaper and consultant to leaders of organizations (multinationals, local nonprofits, and everything in between).

These days I coach and advise leadership teams to get everyone aligned and pulling in the same direction. 

I also work as a dedicated in-house facilitator and fixer for organizations going through deep transformation.  

People usually find me when they have high-stakes projects that need to go well. It may be that their team feels out of sync, decision making is (needlessly) difficult, or that there’s confusion about who owns what and why. 

My work helps improve culture and operations — aligning teams on all levels so they can be their best. 

If you think a conversation might be helpful, you should reach out.

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