How Product Leaders Accelerate Digital Transformation

Businesses find digital transformation difficult for the same reasons that humans find any shift difficult. Doing things the way we’ve always done them takes a lot less work than changing our processes. It feels less risky, too. As Isaac Newton “summed it up” in his first law of motion: Hey, if nobody pushes you, relax. But if you’re responsible for the success of your company’s products, you can’t just relax. Instead, you want to accelerate digital transformation throughout your organization.

You can’t keep doing things the way you’ve always done them, either. Markets and technologies change. Customers’ needs and expectations change as well. If you haven’t yet had to participate in a digital transformation at your company, you will soon. Better to learn now how influential product leaders do it so that you can make these moves proactively.

What Is Digital Transformation?

Before we jump into best practices for accelerating digital transformation, let’s explain what we mean by the concept. Here’s how we define it in ProductPlan’s eBook, 100+ Product Management Terms You Should Know:

Digital transformation refers to a company’s move to digital solutions to improve its operations or products. A few common examples of digital transformations include:

  • Moving the company’s data storage from on-prem hardware to the cloud.
  • Setting up digital communications tools to enable remote work.
  • Leveraging digital analytics tools—Google Analytics, for example—to gain better insights into customer behavior and product usage.
  • Transforming the company’s software offering from a client-side app downloaded by customers to a SaaS solution that customers access in the cloud.

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What’s Product Management’s Role in Digital Transformation?

To discuss the product team’s role in digital transformation, let’s use that last example in our definition above.

Example: App maker wants to transition its client-side product to SaaS

Imagine a B2B software company selling a downloadable app that enterprises install on their machines. The company’s executive team decides to migrate their software to a web-based SaaS solution.

As the team responsible for developing and overseeing the company’s product strategy, the product department will turn this digital transformation vision into a plan that includes themes such as:

  • Identify development changes needed to convert the app to a SaaS product.
  • Investigate cloud partners (AWS, Google Cloud) to house live environments for apps.
  • Establish a new SaaS pricing model.
  • Determine how to enable and incentivize sales operations.
  • Add these and other strategic priorities to the product roadmap (or create a standalone digital transformation roadmap).
  • Communicate these strategic plans with stakeholders throughout the company.

To sum up, the product team’s role in a digital transformation will be developing, communicating, and driving the strategy. In the example above, they will need to identify and oversee the steps to move the product from a downloadable app to a SaaS tool in the cloud.

But remember, transformation is complex. When you try to enact a significant change at your company, you’ll face resistance. Many people would rather keep things the way they are. Isaac Newton, the most accomplished physicist in history, enshrined that concept as a scientific fact.

So the question is: How do effective product leaders bring about digital transformation successfully?

Let’s review a few best practices.

Note: When we talk about “product leaders” below, we’re not limiting our definition to directors of product management and chief product officers. A product leader can be any product professional who exhibits leadership qualities when it comes to digital transformation.

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3 Ways Product Leaders Can Create Successful Digital Transformation

1. They communicate the “why” behind the plan.

Influential product leaders know that the best way to align a team is to show them how their contribution will create real value.

Simply telling the development team to add more tasks to their workload—with no context—won’t generate any enthusiasm or build any trust with those developers. It will only create frustration and confusion among a team that probably feels overwhelmed already.

So instead, visionary product leaders will explain the big-picture plan—the “why.” They’ll enthusiastically share their vision with the development team. By changing your app to a SaaS solution, you’re going to help give your industry the most convenient, user-friendly tool on the market. Or, when you turn this into a web-based app, your research shows you’ll be helping 10x your company’s revenue.

2. They use evidence to generate buy-in and enthusiasm.

Influential product leaders also know that their optimism for a significant project won’t be enough to persuade stakeholders to jump in with both feet. They need to give everyone a reason to believe their hard work will pay off.

So these product leaders make research and data the backbone of their plan for digital transformation. When they present their product strategy to the teams, they’re asked to participate in the project. These leaders also offer concrete evidence of why and how the plan can succeed.

Doing this also serves another purpose. It shows stakeholders that the product team isn’t asking them to begin a challenging project based on gut instinct alone. It shows the product team respects their coworkers’ time enough to research the project upfront and demonstrate the strategy is worth pursuing.

3. They celebrate their team’s hard work and achievements.

Any digital transformation is going to be a long process. The hypothetical migration we discussed above could take a year or more from client-side software to a web app. Innovative product leaders understand the importance of celebrating the team’s many small milestones along the way.

Honoring the team’s achievements at every step in a digital transformation is essential for a few reasons. First, it gives product leaders a chance to reiterate their gratitude for the team’s commitment and hard work. It’s easy for people to feel forgotten or taken for granted, so this goes a long way.

There’s also a second reason successful product leaders give regular shout-outs to the participants in a digital transformation. It serves as a reminder to everyone about the value of the work they’re doing. Individuals and teams can lose sight of the big picture and focus only on their specific tasks. Celebrating milestones—even small ones—toward a digital transformation can refresh everyone’s memory about why and what they’re doing matters.
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