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Brain Trust: What I wish I’d known before leading my first digital change program

Change Makers

Brain Trust: What I wish I’d known before leading my first digital change program


This Brain Trust asks three marketing leaders to answer: What’s one thing you wish you’d known before leading your first digital change program?

Alicia Mack, associate director of visual experience, Virgin Mobile

Alicia Mack 180First, on the team front, never underestimate the extremely personal reactions people have to change of any kind. I had naively assumed that a digital change program would be different because people who work in digital know more than most that rapid change is an absolute constant.

I presumed that the opportunities that were being afforded would override any worries or concerns. I presumed that everyone would be as excited about the changes as I was.

I was unequivocally wrong.

Regardless of the industry or the nature of the program, people will always revert to type in the face of change and, as the leader of that change, you need to put that at the top of your priorities. If I had realised this I would have approached the beginning of the program differently. I would have spent more time understanding the personal impact and less time celebrating the opportunity.

Lead issue article badgeOnce you understand where the team is at, then you can tailor the ‘sell’ in a much more effective and considerate way – which benefits the program immeasurably.

Second, on the business front: spend less time celebrating the technology and more time celebrating the business benefit. There’s a good chance your stakeholders – colleagues, manager etc – are less excited (and informed) about the digital technology than you are!

You will get more support and buy-in if you focus on the vision and the outcome, and what it means for them.

So stay out of the (albeit exciting) digital detail when you’re seeking wider business support. Not everyone loves talking about APIs or native app benefits as much as you do. Weird, I know. But everyone loves seeing an exciting vision communication clearly, and they love understanding what it means for the business and for them. And that can only help your digital change program to become the big success that you want it to be.


Andy Lark, CMO, Xero

Andy LarkDon’t confuse enthusiasm with momentum – that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned over the years. People attend training sessions, get enthusiastic about the programs and ideas, but then get straight back into their regular swim lanes and start doing the laps they were doing yesterday.

Inertia is a powerful force in any organisation, and the biggest thing required for any change program – digital or otherwise – is to first overcomethat inertia.

I’ve seen a lot of digital change over the years, from roles at Dell where the personal computer has undergone massive change, to Commonwealth Bank, where the face of banking and customer service has been fundamentally changed by technology such as smartphones and the internet.

At Xero too, we’re at the forefront of change in the accounting industry, and actually driving a lot of change that requires our customers to rethink how they do what they’ve done for years, thanks to efficiencies and the automation of some key aspects of their role.

But you get what you expect, so never assume that enthusiasm equals effort. It’s not always for lack of trying – people are often enthused by the prospect of change and the idea of taking on new challenges and new ways of tackling their industry, but that doesn’t automatically translate to carrying out that change.

To create momentum, you need to get to grips with adjusting your workload and the workloads of those around you, reappraising calendars and ensuring that the effort that needs to be applied is actually being applied across the organisation.

Without it, change programs are doomed to fail.


Jenny Williams, CMO, HCF

Jenny WiIliams 180The main thing I wish I understood better is how long it takes people to ‘get’ what you are doing. Change management programs often focus on after the system is built, but confusion or lack of buy-in along the way is probably the single greatest cause of delay.

Resolving this confusion is also the most time consuming aspect of any project. You can build an amazing PowerPoint, create an inspirational video, build a compelling business case and employ the most articulate project team to present it, but people won’t all ‘get it’ at the same time and that’s going to create additional work.

It’s easy to recognise when someone is overtly confused and you can take steps to remedy the situation. It’s the false positive signals that tend to cause the most problems:

  • nodding heads in a presentation doesn’t mean they get it,
  • enthusiastic support doesn’t mean they get it, and
  • financial sign-off doesn’t mean they get it.

The only way to ensure success is to put the time and energy into communications from beginning to end, regardless of how positive the feedback appears to be. A few lessons I have had to learn the hard way are:

  • communication is a delicate balance of enough information to inform and empower, not so much that they switch off,
  • everyone takes in information in different ways – visual, verbal, experiential etc – it may seem obvious and it’s time consuming to create multiple versions of the same message, but it saves time in the long run,
  • one-on-one is always best, particularly with key stakeholders, as people say more and are more willing to admit what they don’t get,
  • there is only so much people can take in before they glaze over, so spreading messaging out over time requires careful planning,
  • never ever use acronyms – people don’t even tell you that they don’t know what you mean until you are way past the point of being able to gather their valuable input,
  • WIIFM (oops, that’s another acronym – ‘what’s in it for me’) – naturally, people care about how the change will affect them, so filter all comms through this perspective and break up the audiences to allow this lens to be different for different groups,
  • don’t hog people’s diaries with an endless stream of workshops, steering groups and showcases – people will drop off and not attend at critical junctures if you have not appropriately planned their participation well in advance and with respect for their other commitments, and
  • repeat, repeat, repeat – saying something once, no matter how  well, will never be enough.

Planning the communications strategy from the start may not seem as important as planning the design and development, but is probably the single most important task of any project sponsor. Change management should be the first and last thing on every project agenda.


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