Neutralize Internal Politics in Digital Initiatives

What holds many companies back from making progress in digital initiatives has little to do with technology — and a lot to do with human nature.

A global humanitarian organization working on the front lines in life-or-death situations around the world had started a multinational digital initiative. The goal was to get information to its constituents in near real-time while respecting confidentiality, since the group operated in politically sensitive contexts in many countries. The project had stalled because the main stakeholders at headquarters reached a standoff, unable to achieve consensus on some key points. The project paused for 18 months until a new fundamental governance principle was agreed to and implemented: A single senior leader, with the obligation to consult all other senior leaders, would make final decisions. Those 18 months were lost for the frontline people because of organizational politics.

The challenges of progressing toward digital maturity are often more human than technological — and as many examples illustrate, internal politics is a major one. Political struggles for control and decision-making often result in blocking or slowing down progress by causing business or operational difficulties for the organization.

Since 2006, I have conducted annual research with approximately 300 organizations around the world, looking into trends and progress as well as challenges and obstacles as organizations compete in an increasingly digital world. I define digital maturity in three stages: starting, developing, and maturing. Last year, 16% of the organizations surveyed were found to be maturing. Most of them had just crossed the line from developing to maturing; they had mitigated many human challenges frequent in less mature organizations. Interestingly, however, internal politics had decreased less than the other challenges, and 20% still considered the issue to be serious and holding them back.

Looking closely at how digital transformation programs are born across maturity categories provides clues for why politics are still a challenge even for maturing organizations. In the starting stage, digital initiatives tend to be isolated and bottom-up. They expand as the organization goes through the developing stage. At the beginning of the maturing stage, high-level, cross-organizational programs are often created. Managers who previously worked with relative freedom on digital initiatives in their own areas are expected to join forces with the organization-wide program, even if their own specific projects are more advanced. In many cases, they are reluctant to participate, fearing their own projects will disappear or be merged with other projects, thereby diluting their direct control.

Personal uncertainties and overall change of status quo make employees uncomfortable, often defensive, and susceptible to internal political influences as well. Change agents vie for leadership support for their initiatives. Operational leaders may need to realign their work to the global digital strategy. HR managers lose a degree of control over how expertise is defined as people active on the enterprise social network build strong personal brands as experts, thanks to the content they share and the number of followers they have. Few functional areas are immune to internal politics, which can be devastating to digital initiatives.

Most internal political conflicts, however, can be mitigated by a careful, systematic approach to defining, structuring, and deploying large-scale initiatives. The four basic governance guidelines below can be applied in many contexts, but they are especially important when it comes to complex, enterprise-wide digital initiatives.

  1. Involve people at different levels with different roles early in decision-making. From the early planning stages, work across the organization, including with middle management and frontline leaders. In addition to the usual-suspect departments (communications, IT, HR), work with sales and marketing, customer relations, business development, operations, finance, and legal. The process will take longer, but when people are asked for their input and are involved in decision-making early in the game, you are more likely to secure their buy-in during and after rollout. Their support within their own spheres of influence brings “local” credibility, which is essential for organization-wide programs.
  2. Define fundamental principles for your program. Fundamental principles are the strategic, non-negotiable pillars upon which a digital initiative is based. The trick is to define them collaboratively with key players and to focus on what is truly essential. For example, if “people-centric” is a fundamental principle for an employee-facing digital solution, the entry-point page must offer a high degree of customizable options, ensuring that the user has significant control over the content and services available on the page. The “people-centric” principle limits political struggles over space and positions of content that support functions often fight to push to an entry page (such as general policy information) rather than team updates and social feeds that individuals may need even more.

    Having clearly articulated principles will mitigate internal politics because people will be obliged to make decisions based on shared agreements over personal preferences.

  3. Link responsibility to accountability. Ensure that people have decision- and policy-making scopes that correspond to their business responsibilities and are not usurped by global policies that go too deep. For example, if a country manager is responsible for local customer information, they should have decision-making responsibility over the language used and how the information is tagged, organized, stored, and shared. The country manager is accountable for the local customer and is therefore responsible for these decisions.

    However, if a global customer is serviced by different country units, a person on each country team should have the responsibility to ensure that global rules are followed over local rules. Clarifying roles and distinctions up-front — especially in the case of international projects — will avoid confusion and conflict about responsibilities.

  4. Promote the understanding that sharing information is more powerful than owning information. Traditionally, owning information was a sign of power. People’s reputations were tied to the information they owned, and sharing information meant losing power. This resulted in information silos and political games throughout organizations.

Today’s work cultures supported by digital tools are breaking down information silos and improving information flows within organizations. However, this can only work, and thereby reduce political conflicts, if done the right way. Recognize and raise the visibility of information sharers, especially senior leaders who are active on enterprise social networks. Develop success stories around initiatives where information is shared openly and promote them widely across the organization. Work with other senior leaders so that they too share more information.

Abandon two common excuses for not sharing: “People are not interested” or “it’s confidential.” True confidentiality is a valid reason for closing an information space when there is a risk of financial, competitive, reputational, or other damage if information is disclosed. Revealing seemingly nonrelevant information, however, encourages transparency, so these information spaces should be visible and open to many. In one customer service group, representatives were discussing a recurring technical problem with a machine part, and, because the group was open, a purchasing manager (who was not a member of the group) saw the discussion and solved the problem by communicating directly with the supplier. In addition to limiting political struggles over knowledge ownership, sharing information can lead to unexpected collaboration and problem-solving.

Turning a digital strategy into reality requires agreements and energy from many players in the organization, each with their own objectives and perspectives. Internal politics will never disappear completely, but establishing ways to mitigate them will accelerate an organization on the path to digital transformation.