In October 2019, I was part of an Endava group who attended Gartner’s Symposium/ITxpo event, and I gave a talk on common mistakes that people make when running digital transformation programmes. What a lot has changed in a year!
Digital transformation has become so widespread that it is now almost a cliché. This year, it has been boosted by the need for knowledge workers to work from their homes as much as possible, and companies realising that they need to rethink their offerings to stay relevant in a world with less face-to-face contact.
However, while things have changed quite a lot, and yes, everyone is now in the middle of some sort of digital transformation, some things haven’t changed. We are still seeing quite a few common mistakes during digital transformation programmes.
KEEP ON TRANSFORMING
In 2019, we talked about digital transformation not from the perspective of vision, which lots of people talk about, but from our real experience – what goes wrong. We discussed these four common mistakes: treating digital transformation as a technology project rather than as a transformation of the whole organisation; focusing on user interface design rather than actual user experience; running a digital transformation as a series of separate projects – usually for funding reasons – rather than moving to a product-oriented delivery model; and failing to use the rich pools of data within a digital application to learn what your users really use and want rather than what the product owners think they might want.
Honestly, I don’t think that much has changed in terms of the mistakes people make. Granted, more of our clients recognise the benefit of moving from projects to products, which is positive. We also see more use of data and analytics to create world-class user experiences, and there is more awareness that UX is not just graphic design. But you still see a lot of the mistakes we discussed being repeated in different organisations.
There are a few other common mistakes which we have seen though, which I would like to explore, namely isolated digital transformation groups and unsustainable digital transformation delivery.
When organisations first explore digital transformation, they are told that they need to move quickly and explore their options to see what has value and what doesn’t. This often results in the organisation setting up a semi-disconnected group to incubate the digital effort, such as a captive start-up company, an “innovation centre”, a “digital centre of excellence”, or something with a similar name. The reason for this is completely understandable; the organisation doesn’t want to disrupt its day-to-day activity while it learns about digital transformation, and it tries to avoid the risk of introducing experiments into the organisation that may well fail.
As logical and sensible as this sounds, it is actually quite a dangerous strategy.
What often happens is that a self-selecting group of “digital” enthusiasts is gathered, and they set up their open-plan workspace in a post-industrial shared office space, usually alongside genuine start-up companies, consultants, and other digital incubators like themselves. The group gets equipped with all of the Apple hardware they can possibly need, accounts for a couple of cloud providers, and access to some in-vogue SaaS platforms. Then, freed from the constraints of their parent organisation, they start building something. This continues for a while, and they often produce something genuinely interesting, disruptive, and potentially valuable for the organisation.
The problem which they often encounter at this point is that, although imaginative and potentially valuable, their ideas don’t get a lot of traction in the organisation. There are a couple of reasons for this.
Firstly, these groups often don’t work very closely with the rest of the organisation (and, dare I say it, sometimes do not exhibit a lot of humility), and so their new ideas often don’t solve real problems, ignore really important details of the business problem, or simply aren’t accepted because the rest of the organisation don’t feel involved.
Secondly, these groups may struggle to get attention because of the environment they worked in. Part of the reason for creating digital incubator groups is to free people from the constraints implied or enforced in the parent organisation. However, if the new digital ideas are developed without any reference to the parent organisation’s environment, it can be difficult, or even impossible, to use them in practice. If they can’t be integrated into the parent organisation’s environment, or if important constraints or processes have been ignored, then these applications become isolated “digital islands” and are unlikely to be useful.
Thus, a delicate balance needs to be found. New digital projects should be creative and challenge unnecessary constraints and limitations, but they still need to be useful and valuable to the organisation. So, don’t create a “digital bubble” disconnected from reality; have the organisation embrace digital change and look for digital opportunities within the organisation’s core business. This will be much messier than a nice, neat digital incubator, and it may take longer, it might not be quite as radical or feel so liberating, but ultimately it will have a lot more impact.
Another mistake which is common early in digital transformation programmes is trying to maintain an unsustainable pace of delivery and transformation.
During the initial phases of new digital projects like those outlined above, people often work very hard because they are enthusiastic about their goal, enjoy the work, and are probably using modern tools and techniques such as cloud computing and agile and DevOps ways of working. Also, they probably don’t really consider the long-term evolution of their new digital applications – after all they need to get things delivered quickly to validate their ideas.
To people in the parent organisation, this group’s delivery speed can look miraculous – so much faster than they could deliver things using their “old ways of working”.
The problems start emerging after the first couple of delivery cycles, and a couple of things usually happen. Firstly, people get tired, and naturally, their initial, rapid progress slows a little. They probably also start to do more complex things and find that their ways of working need to become more sophisticated, or that they need to learn more about the new technology they are using. And if they have built something useful, then these new applications need to be integrated into the parent organisation’s environment, which can be time-consuming. Additionally, if people are using the applications for real work, then they will probably suggest adjustments, which means a lot of rapid change to the applications, something that they probably weren’t really designed for.
All of this starts slowing down the team dramatically, and it often turns out that what was built in the early stages of the transformation isn’t really suitable or cost-effective to take further. It was built quickly, probably with many compromises to allow rapid delivery, without much thought about its evolution, resilience, security, or general operational characteristics. At this point, the team normally realises that they need to start again and build a flexible, robust application that can be integrated into the parent organisation and used as a core part of the new digital infrastructure.
There is nothing really wrong here. The initial, rapidly developed applications have proved the point that new digital applications show a lot of promise; they just aren’t suitable for long-term use. However, the danger is that reduced speed and increased cost of delivering robust, flexible applications may take the sponsors in the parent organisation by surprise. Suddenly the “digital miracle” doesn’t look like a miracle at all but much more like the traditional application lifecycle, which may lead to disillusionment and the cancellation of a very promising digital transformation project.
The solution, as is so often the case, is early and frequent communication and constant alignment of expectations. We need to make sure that our sponsors understand the trade-offs and short-term nature of the initial, very rapid “dash to digital” to get the first prototype applications built, so that they are ready for a reset back to a more sustainable pace of delivery for the long-term transformation work.
While now a thoroughly mainstream concept, digital transformation is a real and exciting trend in our industry. We have huge opportunities in the coming years to change the way that the world can work through the use of digital channels and platforms.
Digital transformation programmes are quite common in organisations today, in many cases boosted and prioritised as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are many successful digital implementations every year. We still see some problems emerge again and again in large scale digital transformations, but if we become aware of them, then we can deliver valuable digital solutions for an organisation with a high probability of success.