In the 2018 Digital Business Report, MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte Digital have discovered that 55 percent of the digitally maturing companies feel that they need a new leaders for the success of their digital transformation efforts. The number is 80 percent for early stage businesses!

This is a stark reminder to all the business leaders that business-as-usual is definitely not the right approach for the success of digital transformation. Although these numbers are shocking, they are hardly surprising. There has been some consistent evidence that most business leaders are ill-equipped to handle the challenges posed by digital disruption, and thereby, unable to reap its benefits. The most recent such confirmation comes from the Asia-Pacific, where Microsoft commissioned IDC to conduct a survey on Digital Transformation journeys. In the survey of 1560 responding organizations, 85 percent had embarked on a digital transformation journey. However, among them only 7 percent of the organizations were leaders in embracing the digital transformation (DT), while the rest 93 percent were followers.

Clearly, a brand new approach, thinking, and mind-set is expected from the business leaders to ensure the success of digital transformation initiatives. If the status quo continues, then even large, established organizations are priming themselves to be disrupted and run aground. Not so surprisingly, the key lessons for the success of DT efforts are to be found among the businesses that are traditionally better at implementing new changes – startups.

Here are some powerful lessons from startups to established businesses for ensuring the greater success of their DT journeys.

A Culture of Change

Startups are agile. They are never averse to change, risk-taking, and experimentation. In fact, they thrive on them. There is always a clear sense of urgency whenever a new project is launched. There is never a question of whether any new set of changes can be implemented. If those changes have potential benefits to the organization, then they will be readily adopted, across the organization. Those projects face minimal resistance within the organization, because a pervasive culture of constant change and continuous improvement is ingrained into the minds of the employees across all echelons of the organization. In fact, risk-taking, go-getter attitude, and fresh approaches are rewarded, if not with money, then with clear expressions of appreciation.

Large enterprises can adopt some of these lessons. Firstly, they have to establish a clear sense of urgency with digital transformation. The workforce must be apprised of the fact that digital transformation is happening and it must happen quickly for the sake of the very survival of the company. In fact, organizations can go one step ahead and reward the change champions. The star performers who are spearheading the adoption of digital transformation should be rewarded with tangible or intangible expressions of appreciation.

A strong culture of change must be inculcated across the organization, so that employees get accustomed to change, if not seek it.

Cross-Functional Collaboration

Startups do not have the functional barriers that plague large enterprises. For this reason, highly focused teams form organically within them to tackle any new change or challenge. They find the right resources, talent, and the information necessary for execution of a project within the organization. Such a bottom-to-top approach is unthinkable in most established organizations. That doesn’t mean that such functional barriers cannot be penetrated in enterprises.

When an organization-wide change, such as digital transformation, is in order, the top management must bring together their star performers from each department and create a high-functioning team. Members of this team will be the early adopters of the changes being implemented and spearhead the adoption of those changes with their own department. The team must meet regularly, perhaps on a weekly basis, to discuss the status of the initiative, strategies, and then fine tune their approach to ensure better success of the change. The top management can add more weight to their efforts by sending a clear message across the organization that these change champions have their complete support in their efforts.

Digital Transformation Approach

As discussed before, digital transformation is less of an operational or business change, and more of a cultural change within the organization. Therefore, it is not something that can be implemented in 1 or 2 years, and requires about 3 to 7 years, depending on the organization.

The fact that most CEOs and business leaders fail to understand this is the No.1 cause of the failure of digital transformation efforts in most enterprises. This is astounding, considering that as much as 84 percent of all organizations that embark on a digital transformation journey end up failing at it.

Furthermore, industry experts call it a digital transformation journey and not a digital transformation project, because DT is a journey. The most effective DT strategy is to find a practical case of digital transformation. Business leaders must ask how a particular technology can be used to deliver their products or services better, improve them, decrease the costs, increase customer satisfaction, and so on. Only when the ROIs are justifiable, a technology solution must be embraced. Of course, as new technologies emerge, the same set of questions must be asked about those solutions and appropriate decisions must be taken. The key here is to look at ROIs over the course of the medium term, which is 3 to 7 years, as DT initiatives tend to take that much time to deliver meaningful returns.


Too many DT initiatives have failed only because they have to be dropped on account of burgeoning costs. Indeed, underestimation of the costs of digital transformation initiatives on part of the CIOs and CEOs continues to be one of the major causes of their failure.

Business leaders must plan, strategize, and meticulously establish the costs at each step. With a multi-step approach, business leaders will know when a particular technology, solution, or approach is costing them more than what they had anticipated, and take necessary action to address it. If the cost is justifying the potential returns and they have the wherewithal to bear them, then they can proceed with the implementation. If not, then they can move on to another aspect of their DT journey.

In essence, business leaders must take a multi-step approach to digital transformation, and regularly take a hard look at the initiatives to ensure that they do not drive the organization into a financial crisis.