In this final installment in the Digital Transformation Failures series, I tackle faith, cliches, and a few other mistakes that organizations make on their way from a traditional IT organization to one that is vibrant and responsive to change.
The following topics offer insight into mistakes that may result in the failure of a transformation initiative.
Some reading this series may argue that digital transformation is itself a cliche. I would agree. I use the term as an entry point for the conversation, a phrase that evokes the essence of the problem—big enough to contain it but not so big that it includes everything. Digital Transformation had issues at its inception because, in many ways, it discounts the investments and changes that organizations adopted since the 1970s. Doing anything with a computer digitally transforms a process from its starting state. All things done with or through computers do those things digitally.
The problem, though, is that pundits, analysts, and marketers need a way to differentiate phases of evolution, a demarcation of a state change that, before a certain point, something is one thing and then it is something else. I am currently reading Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds by Thomas Hallida. He makes the same point about the evolution of animals, most particularly humans. We talk of the “earliest humans” or the “emergence of humans.” There is not there to be had. The populations that became human lived with indistinguishable contemporaries. Isolated populations diverged slightly, but if looked at during that time, scientists would be hard-pressed to find differences, let alone forecast a trajectory for a species.
Digital Transformation attempts to create a vision of a world facilitated by technology as distinguished by a world of manual processes, perhaps captured in computers but not elegantly orchestrated. The difference is subtle. ATMs have been around for a long time, offering digital experiences to customers—workflows and other internal automation makes back offices more efficient.
If Digital Transformation has a real meaning, it is one of a mindset in which the business thinks creatively, perhaps using design thinking, to develop customer-centric solutions—another minor branching of the journey. Customers drive the use of tools for experiences rather than the tools driving changed experiences. Tools in service of what customers want rather than in service to those who package them based on a perceived need.
Regardless of how you arrived at an interest in Digital Transformation, this series has focused on fundamental issues facing those seeking to deliver digital solutions for customers and for the business. They maintain value no matter the name associated with the change. Holding too tightly to plans in a changing world, adopting cliches, and not realizing the value of story in selling an idea can be applied to many aspects of life because, in the end, we are all transforming all of the time, and these lessons can help make transitions from one state to another more enjoyable, more meaningful, and less stressful.
Plan too big or for too long a horizon, and the plan quickly becomes disconnected from the work. Agile approaches offer incremental activities aimed at delivering on near-term expectations (sprint by sprint), but they sacrifice long-term visibility on schedule and communicate a sense of scope.
The truth is long-term project visibility is a false security blanket. Digital transformations based on long horizons will find it challenging to refit should the world change—too many dependencies. The logic requires retooling, not just a rearrangement of tasks. With agile, the backlog and the vision remain. The next increment becomes a choice, not a mandate. Agile only succeeds when it reflects the reality on the ground. Tasks attach with loosely coupled dependencies. Sticking to the plan gives way to moving in the right direction.
A better approach to thinking about the future uses three tiers of planning: agile for execution, frameworks for visibility, and scenarios for monitoring uncertainty.
Agile and its backlog capture vision, context, and the work of the moment. Frameworks offer visibility into what comes next, informing decision-making without being mired in the details. Organizations executing an assessment phase know strategy design follows assessment. They won’t face strategy design without assessment data. If strategy begins without data, the incoming data might force massive changes to the uninformed strategic assumptions. The framework ensures that they won’t be facing the future with a blank sheet either.
Scenario planning expands the horizon for how uncertainties may play out, offering context for vision and ways of testing every design, from assessments to strategies, from user experiences to back-end technology investments.
One of the worst cliches is for businesses to consider emulating the Silicon Valley startup mentality…
– Dan W. Rasmus, Serious Insights