Having built, led, and supported many digital transformation teams during my career—in-house and as a consultant mostly for healthcare companies— the key question that must be asked is – how is the effort designed to accelerate new thinking?

First off, it must be noted that internal Transformation Teams come and go. I actually think this is a very good thing. The pace of innovation is fast, fluid and happening all around us all the time. Most large companies, however, are built for stability, scale and generally are risk-averse. The two are not natural bedfellows, but must coexist in order for companies to survive and thrive.

Once in a while, however, these Digital Transformation Teams evolve into Digital teams. They drop the Transformation moniker, are given a mandate to service brands, and usually report into Commercial Excellence Teams (or similar) in the hopes that they scale the innovation started by their predecessors.

More often than not, however, these follow-on Digital teams become a hindrance to innovation, and here’s why: many were formed years ago when the innovation environment was very different. It was a time when websites were king, banner ads, search and CRM were the only games in town. Many Digital teams that exist today built up expertise around these old models, are still rooted in old thinking and perpetuate themselves by hiring talent with dated skills. Over time, these teams are unable to integrate innovation and eventually evolve into the exact thing they were meant to shake up – i.e. highly-funded internal functions that protect their budgets, interests and headcount.

While a well-rounded, “change from within” philosophy for companies would be ideal, the reality is that these follow-on Digital Teams face strong headwinds. Their “clients” live in a world of short-cycle promotions, high turnover, overreliance on old models that once drove huge profits (i.e. large sales force), and generally espouse an inherent aversion to risk—this kind of environment makes it is almost impossible to attain meaningful and sustainable change.

Having said that, Digital Transformation Teams—when deployed correctly—should be celebrated because they serve a critical purpose: To catalyze change that simply won’t happen organically.

Here are some lessons learned on how to structure these teams based on my experience:

  • Anchor in business needs: Driving pilots that are directly aligned with BIZ PRIORITIES and every pilot MUST be co-funded by the business partners.
  • Set the timer: Digital Transformation Teams are formed for a set term (i.e. 12-18 months max) to drive change and adoption – a clearly defined time window is critical since it puts pressure on the team to be practical and make change happen quickly.
  • Leverage diversity: It should be cross-functional, hand-picked with up-and-comers that have demonstrated they can drive real change wherever they are – and commitment from each should NOT be more than 20% of their job.
  • Find a powerful captain: The team must be sponsored by member of the C-Suite that has real gravitas and is not just a figurehead.
  • Bring the outside in: The team should constantly rely on external thought-leaders to ensure they diversify thinking.
  • Go deep into the talent pipe: HR should partner with the team to diversify the hiring pipe for key functions (especially in commercial functions).
  • Total Transparency: The team actually shares ALL learnings—good and bad—along the way very transparently.
  • The Rule of Halley’s Comet: Like the famous comet, these Transformation teams must come and go, accelerating change and driving it deeper into the organization with every pass.

The above approach has generated lasting impact at several companies I have worked with, and this can still be seen today:

  • One company shifted its go-to-market brand strategy as a result of digital/social research we spearheaded at a very formative stage pre-launch.
  • In another, Market Research have deeply integrated social analytics as part of brand planning process, resulting in a powerful engine driving marketing and communications programming
  • In yet another, HR recruitment strategy shifted their process and budget away from headhunters to digital recruitment efforts, even for top talent.
  • In most organizations, C-level leaders, and other leaders down the ranks, continue to model the behavior they want the organization to have by engaging directly with more customers via social, and do so more frequently and authentically.
  • Finally, internal social engagement platforms have been woven into the fabric of intranets and key programs to accelerate change management programs, facilitate leadership engagement, and unlock best practice sharing.

But the hard reality is that in most cases these groups become cost centers for the business and end up being cut as soon as the appeal wears off, especially since they don’t sit in the brands. That’s OK, as long as they bring value in the sense that they try to drive change from the inside out, bring in new innovative ideas/agencies/processes/tech, etc. from the outside in, and diligently measure and communicate back everything they learn.

The future? Digital/Social Transformation teams will still be part of the marketing and brand landscape as companies strive to shake-up their thinking amid constant upheaval in the marketplace.  As brand teams become more well-rounded, explore how to use technology more effectively, and embrace digital as a cohesive part of their marketing plans including an omni-channel strategic approach, these digital/social skunk works will become more valued and ultimately, embedded in the marketing function.