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.