Born in the Latin Quarter of Paris just before the legendary May 1968 student unrest, I’ve always loved a bit of disruption and have sought out dissenting voices. Must be the smell of tear gas and the arrhythmic sound of riot police beating their shields, right? I thank my parents.

It’s in this mildly insurrectional mood that I recently came across this article by Dan Hushon, DXC Technology’s chief technology officer, in which he says “today’s digital projects… tend to have one quality that’s really important, and that’s a well-known goal at the end, but very few instructions on how to get there.” What’s critical is a willingness to learn along the way.

A couple of days later, another myth-debunking paper came across my desk, this one by SHL. These guys do competency assessments and performance predictions and kill off some prevailing digital talent myths. Just as Dan puts aside roadmaps in favor of an appetite for experimentation, the SHL team says there is no evidence that technical skills are paramount, or that we need a new type of digital leader.

Work on culture as a priority

All of this crystallized a key point for me: namely, that digital transformations are cultural endeavors first and foremost. The last two transformation programs I’ve been involved in were remarkable in that the strategies for both put the organizational culture front and center.

As a matter of fact, neither included a single mention of any technology, nor of any data point (much to Dan’s point, although leaving me slightly uneasy as to how we could tell we had succeeded).

The implication for chief information officers (CIOs) driving transformations is therefore clear: They need to ally themselves primarily with agents of change, not techies. It’s helpful, in my experience, to consider both internal and external resources.

Internally, the CIO will do well to hunt for colleagues in sales, human resources, marketing and, if that team does not report to the CIO, the innovation or research and development group. These teams are, in most places I have worked, a sure source of mavericks. A mistake that’s made sometimes is to go for the most senior person there. I’d suggest, rather, that you base your selection on attitude. Pick those who both “get” transformation and want to make a positive difference. Think of it as a 2×2 matrix: Colleagues who don’t get transformation and don’t want to make changes should not be near your transformation program.

If you need to inject some formality, how about introducing joint personal scorecards? In one company I know of, the CIO and the chief marketing officer shared some of the same personal, transformation-related objectives for 12 months, ensuring what I call dollar-based alignment. Try 6 months if 12 is too long.

Refresh your vendor list

When it comes to potential external partners, CIOs need to look beyond the usual suspects: those tech vendors that get the next contract because they had the one before. According to a recent global study of more than 400 buyers of digital and tech solutions, 55 percent of the deals are won by the incumbent vendor. That might be okay, but it is worth looking further afield.

My list of selection criteria here is actually quite short, but it calls for a sprinkle of that dissenting feeling revealed from under the cobbles (rounded stones) of Paris:

  • Look for vendors that have profoundly changed, or transformed, their clients, as expressed by these transformed clients.
  • Go for vendors that have transformed themselves. And, because change is achieved by people, not by corporate brands, that means you need to meet their agents of change.

Again, some formality would do no harm. I would include these discovery steps and personal interactions in your RFP. It might make the procurement process longer and “unusual,” but there is, in truth, nothing usual about transformation.

Just as there was nothing usual about May 1968 in Paris.