Change Management: 10+ Ways to Ease Adoption in Digital Transformation

I invited several experts to my weekly Coffee with Digital Trailblazers to discuss change management, easing adoptions, and minimizing the productivity dip. Participants heard a change management playbook.

We used the productivity dip (illustrated below) as a reference model as it’s a useful tool to illustrate desirable versus problematic change management programs.

Change Management Productivity Dip

The dip in productivity occurs after the change event as people learn to adapt to new strategies, priorities, processes, practices, and technologies. Digital Trailblazers minimize the impact of change by reducing its impact (the dip in productivity shown on the y-axis) and the time required to meet end-state performance objectives.

My experts included Martin Davis, Joanne Friedman, Joe Puglisi, and John Patrick Luethe. Others joining the conversation included Elizabeth Moran, Tyler Johnson, and Roman Dumiak. Thank you for your contributions and insights!

I will summarize six recommendations in this post and share another seven in the full white paper, which you can download here.

Digital transformation requires strong change management practices

We focused on change management in digital transformation because of the magnitude and frequency of changes they drive across the organization. Digital transformation initiatives often have several change factors happening in parallel, so Digital Trailblazers need a game plan to ease and accelerate adoption.

In my recent post on 24 ways to avoid painful digital transformation failures, several issues point to underinvesting in change management. As I said in my book, Digital Trailblazer, “You will always be transforming,” and change management is one of the key digital transformation competencies required by all organizations.

StarCIO White Paper - Change Management and Digital Transformation

Below are some notes before we dive into the ten recommendations.

  • My list isn’t exhaustive – just what came up during our Coffee Hour. I’m sharing six of the recommendations in this post and the full list is available for download here.
  • Check out the Driving Digital Standup videos from Joanne Friedman, Martin Davis, Joe Puglisi, and Tyler Johnson to learn how being a change agent and change management are key Digital Trailblazer Attributes.
  • Those participating in StarCIO’s transformation programs and long-time readers of my blog know I prefer using the term transformation management, which breaks people away from any preconceived notions about when to plan for change and what framework to use. For this article, I elected to stay with mainstream terminology. 

The C-level executives’ roles in change management

Several recommendations focused on the top-down responsibilities executives must play in change management. Below are four recommendations for Digital Trailblazers on how to involve executives.

Urge investment by articulating change management in business terms – In the book Rewired, authors from McKinsey suggest that for every dollar invested in a transformation program’s implementation, expect to invest at least another dollar in change management programs. You’re unlikely to get execs on board with this investment by selling them the need for change management programs or how the investment will fund training, consultants, documentation, and other change programs. Instead, Digital Trailblazers explain the case for investment in terms of cost, risk, and reputation. For example, how will a longer productivity dip impact costs or revenue? What’s the brand impact of downtime, poor customer service, or lower employee retention if there’s a poorly executed (or no) change management plan?  

Confront exaggerated projections and forecasts – Joanne Friedman won quote of the day by stating, “AI is not the Ozempic of your business woes,” a belief some executives will embrace given all the hype around generative AI. Inflated and unrealistic projections trickle into digital transformation visions and plans, often resulting in difficult to nearly impossible change management programs. Nip this in the bud by becoming a pragmatic visioneer, as Joanne suggests in my interview with her on Digital Trailblazer attributes. Digital Trailblazers may need to schedule several learning sessions on the art of the possible, given the organization’s constraints, and not let executive fantasies drive expectations. 

The Digital Trailblazer’s responsibilities in change management

Digital Trailblazers are the people leading digital transformation initiatives and include product managers and delivery leaders. As they are most responsible for defining vision statements, articulating business value, planning roadmaps, developing solutions, and releasing capabilities to end users, they are the most important leaders in overseeing change management efforts.

Set realistic expectations in advance – If your plan calls for sunsetting a legacy technology, taking cost out of a business process, or even reducing the workforce– set these expectations upfront. Joe Puglisi says to be realistic about objectives, their timing, and what’s expected or required from people. When you set expectations, create avenues for people to share feedback and express concerns. Avoid creating detractors, especially when people’s jobs may be at risk, by providing incentives for their contributions and helping them plan for new opportunities at the company.    

Develop plans for the “layer of clay” and detractors – Every major change event has its detractors – those are antagonistic to the change, some passive, and others highly vocal. But what can be more challenging is winning over middle adopters, or what Martin Davis terms the “layer of clay,” who have little interest or incentive to participate. “Digital Trailblazers must get more middle adopters to join the journey if they want their organization to succeed in transformation management,” I wrote in chapter 10 of Digital Trailblazer. Digital Trailblazers should break down the middle adoption challenge into different groups and personas, identify possible incentives, and design activities (see the next point) to drum up engagement.    

The transformation team’s responsibilities

While Digital Trailblazers have the greatest change management responsibilities, the full team working on the transformation doesn’t get a free ride. Below are three ways agile teammates, stakeholders, subject matter experts, and others participating in the transformation initiative can contribute.

Actively listen and participate in agile programs – “The top agile teams turn their demos into theater where the audience can participate with Q&A,” I wrote in a blog post on how feedback loops drive powerful culture change in agile and digital transformation. Agile teams can use sprint reviews to engage everyone, from enthusiastic supporters to the layer of clay, to witness progress and provide feedback. However, product owners and agile team leaders should dial up their active listening skills and follow up after the review to learn where delivered capabilities may need improvements.

Plan for incremental releases – I asked Tyler Johnson, our architect in the group, how teams with a full sweet of DevOps practices should consider change management before accelerating production deployment cycles. Many DevOps teams implement automations, including CI/CD and IaC, which can reduce feature delivery cycle times and increase the frequency of releases. However, by pushing new capabilities too quickly, end-users may be unable to keep up with all the changes. Tyler brought up how advanced DevOps teams utilize feature flags and canary releases to control releasing capabilities to small user group populations. Non-tech teams can use pilots and beta programs as part of an incremental release strategy.

There are seven more recommendations along with some added advice for you by downloading this StarCIO Lifelong Learning white paper.

Isaac Sacolick
Join us for a future session of Coffee with Digital Trailblazers, where we discuss topics for aspiring transformation leaders. If you enjoy my thought leadership, please sign up for the Driving Digital Newsletter and read all about my transformation stories in Digital Trailblazer.

Coffee with Digital Trailblazers hosted by Isaac Sacolick Digital Trailblazers!  Join us Fridays at 11am ET for a live audio discussion on digital transformation topics:  innovation, product management, agile, DevOps, data governance, and more!

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About Isaac Sacolick

Isaac Sacolick is President of StarCIO, a technology leadership company that guides organizations on building digital transformation core competencies. He is the author of Digital Trailblazer and the Amazon bestseller Driving Digital and speaks about agile planning, devops, data science, product management, and other digital transformation best practices. Sacolick is a recognized top social CIO, a digital transformation influencer, and has over 900 articles published at InfoWorld,, his blog Social, Agile, and Transformation, and other sites. You can find him sharing new insights @NYIke on Twitter, his Driving Digital Standup YouTube channel, or during the Coffee with Digital Trailblazers.