Beyond buzzwords: The realities of sustainable digitalisation

Sustainable digitalisation for any organisation is not a one-off project, and this constant change puts new demands on the leadership of any company. The need to adapt strategy, processes, and technologies raises long-term challenges that can jeopardise the success of any project.

In this environment, we can observe three things that are crucial to the success of any project, and their absence can lead to failure:

  • Total commitment.
  • Bold decision-making.
  • Clear responsibility for actions.

If attention is not paid to these crucial areas, many organisations will struggle to achieve the results they want.

1. Commitment

Everyone talks about the need for commitment, but a true commitment is more than just words. It needs to be demonstrated and openly communicated.

The transformational change now being applied to many news organisations can be disruptive and dramatic. This process is not some kind of homeopathic therapy; it is more akin to surgery. Everyone in the leadership team needs to be aware of it.

Many news organisations face resistance to change because it is difficult to abandon comfortable ways of working and familiar structures. People get upset and uneasy when things change, so this commitment is hugely important.

In any news organisation, you have two players in the game. The first is management and the second is whatever part of the organisation is undergoing change, whether it is editorial or advertising or marketing. Without commitment on both sides, change will not occur.

Sometimes, management is committed. But, for instance, editorial may be resistant because, historically and culturally, they see — rightly or wrongly — any management initiative as interfering with editorial independence.

Or the opposite occurs: The editorial side really wants to change, but management doesn’t believe in it, doesn’t understand it, or doesn’t want to fund it. For whatever reason, management is not willing to make the commitment and take the risk.

The worst case is both don’t really want it and take a half-committed “OK, let’s try it and see what happens” approach. They are lost before they even start.

Ideally, editorial and the business management are aligned and have the same vision, goals, and commitment. This also entails actively demonstrating this commitment to staff, by talking with one voice and speaking about it often.

2. Decision-making

In every transformation project, there comes a point where hard decisions need to be made. This is when it becomes obvious how much needs to change, how many people and functions will be disrupted, and how difficult implementation will be. So, people may tend to hesitate.

The plan might look great on paper, but then someone points out that a key function is in the hands of someone who has been with the company for 25 years and doesn’t want to change, and the decision is deferred. Or you are struggling with two or more options for a particular process and can’t decide which will be better, so again you wait.

Waiting is the worst thing that can happen in any transformation project because it takes away the momentum. Making decisions that are less than ideal is much better than making no decisions. It is better to be 80% right than do nothing at all.

You can make the decision and see how it works and make corrections if the decision was based on an incorrect assumption or unforeseen occurrences. But just waiting for divine intervention and delaying everything is frustrating for everyone working on the project. It is very difficult to do the groundwork, only to find the decision makers are not willing or able to decide.

It is better to make a decision based on the suggestions, recommendations, and research of the project team, which will give you the best decision based on what is known at the time. You can always change direction once you get moving. Transformational change is never a straight line, but making decisions is crucial.

3. Responsibility and consequences

After the decision is made and implementation begins, it is important for everyone to fulfil the requirements of the plan. If an assignment is given and not fulfilled — or even worse, actively sabotaged or ignored — there needs to be clear consequences.

An organisation needs a structure and consequences so people will do what they’re supposed to do, not what they want to do or like to do. Otherwise, people get away with murder. Not only do the tasks remain undone, but others see this behaviour and say, “OK, if others don’t need to do it, why should I?”

This is what makes leadership so difficult. It can create conflict, and most people don’t like conflict. But new concepts and new structures will never be implemented if people don’t do what they agreed to do.

There are leadership tools available to ensure that staff sticks to the plan and to remind them when they do not. Written warnings, for example, can be used to reinforce boundaries, but often are not, since reprimanding someone is unpleasant.

But it doesn’t need to be nasty or cruel. It is simply a matter of clearly stating that if tasks are not fulfilled, there will be consequences. You could be reassigned or even lose your job. If someone isn’t willing to do a job, then sometimes the only thing to do is to show them there are other people who are happy to do it.

Any transformation project has many variables and many moving parts. You need commitment, you need to confidently make decisions, and you need to impose consequences for inaction. Those factors are essential to the success of any project.

This article was also published on the INMA Media Leaders blog.