How to speak to executives and win support for your projects

Your digital transformation projects won’t stand a chance without executive backing. Here’s how to get it.

Executive support is critical for any digital transformation project to succeed. But for engineers and engineering managers, it’s not always easy to obtain.

Too often, these projects are organized in ways executives find exhausting or downright scary.

If you find yourself struggling to build and maintain executive commitment to your digital transformation project, it’s time to start speaking the executive language. Follow these tips to win the support you need.

Release functionality updates often

Executives are demanding and impatient people. Organize your digital transformation project to respond to those high expectations.

Plan to release visible digital transformation improvements for production use about four times per year. Communicate and recommunicate the new functionality you’re delivering to remind your executives of the associated benefits. Always include data visualization among the functionality you’re releasing to illustrate progress unequivocally.

For example, add digital transformation functionality in every release with:

  • A new data source, such as external supply chain information, IIoT data from another manufacturing facility or simulation data.
  • New data visualizations of manufacturing performance against plan, product quality measures or demand forecasting accuracy.
  • Data quality improvements for customer, shipment or materials inventory data.

Never plan a Big Bang project. Never promise to release spectacular results after a year or more of work, during which time executives see nothing they can recognize as progress. This approach will kill executive commitment.

Visualize data

Digital transformation improvements become more visible with engaging data visualizations than boring reports of the same data. Charts deliver value to engineers and build commitment with cautious executives because they’re easier to understand and more engaging.

For example, include powerful data visualizations in every release:

  • Variance analysis of actual production or defects vs. plan.
  • Trend analysis of gross margin or market share vs. competitors.
  • Sales analysis to better understand technology preferences or adoption rate.

Powerful data visualizations exhibit these characteristics:

  • Show trends, key performance indicators or variances rather than point-in-time data.
  • Communicate an immediately clear message while avoiding clutter and ornamentation.
  • Invite end-user engagement by supporting input to change the data visualization.
  • Use animation, typically to illustrate change over time.
  • Minimize legends.
  • Avoid pies, donuts and treemaps because they’re challenging to evaluate visually.

Reports with endless rows and columns of data don’t build commitment with executives or communicate well with engineers.

Start small

Digital transformation is a multi-year journey that consists of many projects. Tackle a small digital transformation project where you can deliver a quick win first. A small project involves only two data sources, helps a single engineering workgroup and requires minor data cleanup.

Afterwards, your executives will support a slightly more ambitious, follow-on digital transformation project based on the initial success. Examples of small digital transformation projects could include:

  • Improve the demand forecast for critical components for one product line.
  • Confirm the accuracy of the physics formulas that drive a critical simulation.
  • Simplify data imports for the CAD system.

Being too ambitious initially and then completing late or over budget because of team or stakeholder exuberance does not build executive commitment for digital transformation. Similarly, initial successes can cause executives to push for a schedule speedup. That push will undermine quality and tarnish your hard-won credibility. Push back diplomatically.

For starting digital transformation ideas, consider 5 technologies to quickly kickstart digital transformation in 2024.

Communicate risks

Almost all digital transformation projects include associated risks that could adversely affect cost and schedule. Executives can’t be aware of risks unless you tell them.   Communicate a summary of risks and your project’s mitigation plan to maintain executives’ commitment, trust and transparency during the project.

These frequent digital transformation risks need to be communicated. For example:

  • Data quality lapses you didn’t plan for that will need to be remediated.
  • Staff turnover will trigger the need to hire replacements.
  • Unexpected data integration complexity will increase software development efforts.

When risks that executives don’t know about explode into reality, it will kill their commitment. Don’t exaggerate risks, because that will cause executives to wonder if your project should have been approved in the first place.

Prioritize tangible benefits

Executives value digital transformation projects that deliver tangible benefits that increase revenue or decrease cost. Tangible benefits are numeric and are not subject to challenge or dismissal.

Engineers can track tangible benefits achieved as digital transformation projects progress and regularly report the dollars on a chart to management. These charts maintain executive commitment. For example, the following tangible benefits can be quantified:

  • Shortened elapsed time for product development.
  • Reduced use of expensive physical prototypes.
  • Reduced scrap rates from product manufacturing.
  • Reduced warranty claim costs from customers.

Avoid exaggerated benefits that are not credible and intangible benefits where achievement is difficult to recognize.

Sell the project business case

Digital transformation projects require an appealing business case to achieve management approval. Management is paid to be skeptical about the supposed benefits of technological advances, including digital transformation. Build support by communicating your business case succinctly and avoiding exaggerations.

For example, if the business case is about:

  • Improving product quality consistency, describe how better IIoT data will narrow variation. Don’t claim you’ll reach close to perfection.
  • Accelerating construction work, describe how daily effort reporting will highlight schedule slippage better for intervention. Don’t suggest you can quickly reduce prior slippage.
  • Reducing design defects, describe how more sophisticated simulations will reduce those before you build a prototype. Don’t claim you’ll eliminate the defects.

Don’t oversell the business case by overstating benefits or understating costs and risks. Don’t sell the value of advanced technology. Management may become skeptical, and you will set yourself up for failure.

Speak in business terms

All digital transformation projects require technical wizardry to integrate incompatible systems, fill in data gaps and produce systems integrations, data visualizations or simulation results. However, executives are not information technologists. Maintain their commitment by speaking in business terms.

For example:

  • Indicate that a new database is improving simulation performance. Don’t discuss how in-memory processing or a graph database produces the improvement.
  • Report that better use of supplier data is shortening the supply chain. Don’t explain that a new network gateway and advanced data transformation software underlie this improvement.
  • Demonstrate how augmented reality headsets help plant maintenance. Don’t elaborate on the software development difficulties of integrating video and plant drawings.

Technical talk about complex hardware and software will scare executives, unreasonably increase their sense of project risk and reduce their commitment to the project.  Technical discussions are better held with the organization’s CTO or enterprise architect.

Manage change

Include addressing people, processes and behavioural change in your project plan to ensure a smooth implementation of digital transformation releases. If executives hear a lot of employees whining about your digital transformation project, their commitment to the project will wane.

For example, engineers will need time and support to build familiarity with new functionality such as:

  • CAD or simulation software.
  • Revised inventory tracking and reporting processes.
  • An upgraded prototype testing facility.

Believing that engineers and others can simply adopt new processes and software on the fly will lead to undesirable outcomes, such as slow adoption, not achieving expected benefits or even active resistance.

Fail fast and learn fast

Set expectations with executives and stakeholders that small failures will occur on the road to digital transformation and that small failures form the basis for meaningful learning. Adopt agile principles. Be willing to shuffle the feature list significantly as you learn and as priorities and benefits come more clearly into focus.

For example:

  • Initial use of data integration and visualization tools reveals serious shortcomings. Select and acquire more suitable tools.
  • Design work reveals gaps in requirements statements. Reprioritize the feature list to design based on solid requirements first.
  • Efforts to build new data visualizations reveal software defects in the current Excel-based charts. Redevelop accurate charts first.

Always prioritize schedule—jettison scope to achieve on-schedule releases. Don’t let others spin failed experiments as digital transformation failures and unnerve executives.

Keep executives committed to digital transformation by delivering frequent, modest advances and avoiding large, risky projects that can easily fail.

Yogi Schulz has over 40 years of Information Technology experience in various industries. He also writes for ITWorldCanada and other trade publications. Yogi works extensively in the petroleum industry to select and implement financial, production revenue accounting, land & contracts, and geotechnical systems. He manages projects that arise from changes in business requirements, from the need to leverage technology opportunities and from mergers. His specialties include IT strategy, web strategy, and systems project management.

Written by

Yogi Schulz

Yogi Schulz has over 40 years of Information Technology experience in various industries. He writes for ITWorldCanada and other trade publications. Yogi works extensively in the petroleum industry to select and implement financial, production revenue accounting, land & contracts, and geotechnical systems. He manages projects that arise from changes in business requirements, from the need to leverage technology opportunities and from mergers. His specialties include IT strategy, web strategy, and systems project management.