Just to get out of the blocks cleanly, here’s a working definition for an organisation to be described as solidly operating within the digital paradigm: A realised digital organisation is predicated on building business advantage through velocity, scale, and adaptability. Seems sensible enough… at least when delivered in cosy theoretical tones with one elbow-patched arm resting on a lectern. And anyone reading the numerous feeds and threads, populated with headlines that are so hard to look away from, will soon realise that the business editorial space is awash with Top Tips, How-To’s, and general circulatory proselytising about what companies should do to lay claim to the digital space.
You could not step twice into the same river.
—Heraclitus, via Plato’s Cratylus
While the intent here is to express a boiled-down set of characteristics that, striven for, will help produce a realised digital org, the truth is that recipes aren’t enough. The fact is that even if you followed such a recipe to the letter, you may still find yourself reaping less than the desired rewards at the end of it. That is because every time it’s a new version of ‘You’ (an idea/product/feature) stepping into the river (context/standards/content) ever flowing around you. The art and science in a company becoming truly digital takes place in the spaces between enumerated list items, through the human factors flowing amid the technologies.
It is the same reason why two people, a chef and a run-of-the-mill toast-burner, can use the same recipe and produce completely different results. One produces an ethereally delicate and custardy omelette, while the other makes a bloated and rubbery yellow slug. The difference is that by the time the chef gets to the recipe, they’ve already done similar things thousands of times before. They’ve been through countless variations of ingredients and conditions. They can go into virtually anyone’s moderately stocked fridge and make something amazing. They have the power of touch, the intangible; they’re calm under pressure, they know an omelette served onto a warm plate will be better. While useful as a guide for those learning their craft, a master chef rarely relies on a rigid recipe for immaculate results. The same can be said about those working with technology.
In the digital realm, recipes teach us how to repeat knowledge and get heads to nod in group settings, but not so much how to think, sense, interpret, and feel. As such, the reliance on How-To’s from sage personalities achieves a kind of unfortunate leap past the stages of blunder, experiment, and maze-cracking, that having been tried time and again, produce real education and intuition.
We’re in a time when concepts like Design Thinking are ubiquitous in talking about UX process. But most people who’ve worked in UX for a while know that those five hexagons, the recipe, aren’t really for designers. They’re for producing understanding and assent specifically from non-designer stakeholders. They’re there as definable macro-steps in what’s actually a messy, complicated, even chaotic process. They’re more of a rationalisation of how things went.
When process becomes too rigid, or reduced to an overly simple set of steps, danger lies ahead. So much happens in interstices–the moments of close observation and feeling that happen in between the literal lines. Yes, this is a defence of the humans in the process. So, rather than relying on codification, assume you’re always missing something and then find it on behalf of the user. Irrespective of the recipe, the directive is constant: Keep all senses on high alert!
So, getting right into it, an enumerated list. Roughly speaking, the characteristics of a fully realised digital org can fit into four pillars:
- Org & Culture
In this first part of the series, I’ll be examining Organisation & Cultural Awareness and Process Balance. Part two will cover Data-driven Models and User-centrism, providing the final characteristics to paint the whole picture of what it is to be a fully realised digital organisation.
ORGANISATION AND CULTURAL AWARENESS
- Quickness & Dexterity: The organisation can react to shifting risk, markets, standards, and user expectations by configuring/scaling internal resources and teams fluidly.
- Cross-functional & Agile: An agile culture without silos allows business leaders, product owners, operations, IT, and other areas of the organisation to collaborate holistically while innovating and delivering at speed. Teams are grouped together and communicate – everyone knows what their team is doing and why.
- Empowerment & Engagement: Employees take risks and make decisions to drive agility and test ideas. Learning is key, irrespective of outcome. Healthy employee culture is held in the same regard as customer experience. Employees are trusted, equipped, and rewarded for contributing value and are invested in the variety of real-world business results.
Top-down management is a difficult idol to smash in favour of bottom-up and collaborative decision making. Execs need to push, fair enough. But a traditional org might pursue what feels like a ground-breaking idea at the expense of valuable iteration. Looking for a Kuhnian paradigm shift is exciting to theorise about but it isn’t a good way to make everyday progress. It can’t be forced; a variety of theories need to have been in play for a while, a mix of technologies need to coexist, and a set of needs have to be at least tacitly agreed upon by a user base for a revolution to occur. Nursing a BHAG makes a certain sense as a crypto strategy that’s always somewhere in peripheral vision, but only while making solid, common progress with an ‘always be learning’ and ‘always be shipping’ philosophy. It’s important these two convictions exist to feed lots of smaller ideas into the product funnel.
Bottom-up management needs ongoing maintenance and diligence. Making sure that employees feel like they have voices rather than being automatons is a cultural shift that needs evidence in constant support and encouragement. Ideally, an org firing on all cylinders will be somewhat fractal-like – teams share ideas and information and justifications for acting while independent systems more easily share data, components, and experiences so that the technical framework can be used to build multiple products. A healthy digital org will turn Melvin Conway’s eponymous law, ‘Any organisation that designs a system will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organisation's communication structure’ from antipattern into pattern.
It's safe to presume many of us have worked with/for an exec who on whim and with stroke of pen would make decisions counter to team will and counsel. Managers acting as enablers – listening rather than prescribing, empathy over authority – requires a significant shift in mentality. Leadership needs to be comfortable with employees challenging the status quo. The best employees will thrive under such hothouse circumstances and the qualities in existing staff will reveal in short order. A self-aware, un-siloed, active group that sits together and communicates will help a business be more dexterous in reacting to shifting landscapes, whether they be market/business/risk-based or standards/UX/Engineering-based.
- Clear Communication: Value proposition and market differentiation is expressed clearly and honestly. Every level of the company is aware of initiatives – their ideas, justifications, goals, and success metrics. Every tier has the ability to assess and respond to company direction while moving and pivoting rapidly.
- Adaptable Technology: The company has a flexible and extensible technology stack and isn’t afraid to harness new technologies to create compelling customer experiences, drive efficiencies, and satisfy business goals.
- Product-led Methodology: Shipping is based on readiness and quality rather than pushing things out against a timeline. Teams work on delivering value continually via many small projects while considering aggressive ideas in an innovation context.
An informed and motivated crew, Product, UX, and Engineering working together, will let management focus on making fluid moves, configuring and scaling resources in response to need rather than sticking to a stringently configured org and process. This kind of team will actually be more accountable because everyone knows what they’re doing and why. Transparency and honesty are crucial – every level of the company needs to be aware of initiatives and what drives them – that is, the source ideas, justifications, and goals. Success and failure are shared. Yes, there are certain plans and strategies within a company that benefit from some opacity, but in terms of getting maximum energy behind the arrow, a team that knows what they’re doing and why will be more ready to face daily challenges with optimism and creativity.
Balance is a key value within the Process pillar. In the previous section, quickness, dexterity, and agility are ideals to pursue… within human reason, though. In an industry and time where speed is the dominant paradigm, the ‘always be shipping’ mentality doesn’t mean that preparatory work can get reduced into mere slivers of time or become the users’ responsibility to hash through.
Shipping what’s ready is the key to an effective Product-led methodology. Having some time and liberty to think during front loading, sketching, wadding up paper and tossing it at the waste paper basket, tinkering with UI and prototyping – these are realities of the Product and UX process that harden concepts by going a bit more slowly at the beginning in order to go faster at the end. Putting everything in its rightful place speedily requires proper setup procedures first. The goal is ultimately the same velocity of releasing, but at lower cost and higher quality for the users.
Jeff Hunter, CEO of Talentism, put it this way – ‘Don’t confuse time on task with speed to goal.’ In talking about the auto trade wars of the 1980s, he makes the point that extra time discussing what the design really should be, imagining what can go wrong, considering ways to improve design prior to production, examining how a team works together and what kinds of standards it’s accountable to is time spent cleverly as opposed to getting steel in the presses as fast as possible.
No matter how simple a product/feature, it’s hard to predict future complications. In Product and User Experience context, it’s okay to be in a state of indeterminacy and confusion and incomplete ideas as long as the cycles of work are improving and making sense of that confusion. How fully realised must a concept be before earning a unique identity deserving market attention? With any product, the design, the material, and the purpose will all change over time, but sufficient creative cycles will make any car more likely to be roadworthy. Get moving rather than being in the tank but shift mindset enough to let teams think rather than flail and fail fast. The aforementioned habits aren’t evidence of a team being in neutral. They’re first and second gear in a sustainable approach to software development instead of hammering the pedal-to-the-metal.
Adaptable technology in tandem with adaptable minds are crucial drivers of an effective digital org. On the tech side, engineers need to have an open tableau in order to design great experiences. Forward-leaning leaders need to outfit people with tools and not simply rely on them to hack together their own and expect a coherent way of working. Most of us have likely worked in large organisations where different teams were using different design language or frameworks, so even willing entities simply can’t work together without overcoming technical barriers and time lost.
The discipline and patience to ship based on readiness, rather than looking for lightning in bottles, will produce a sense of ground covered and team wins. Nobody remembers young Google’s product problems and unsophisticated design, but it was the spark of revolution, nonetheless. Paradigm shifts take time; there’s much less ‘eureka’ to them than romantically imagined. The people who conceive the early stages might not foresee the impact, their professional contemporaries might be naturally resistant, and the public might be hard to shift. Sometimes one has to bide time until stars align. Apple putting a camera on a phone, aside from the brilliant UX, was two pedestrian technologies combined in the broader context of the connected age. In less than a generation, we went from a few washed out prints behind thermoplastic polymer sheaths to a trillion-plus photos taken annually and needing enough storage to warm an ocean.
Properly understanding Organisation & Culture Awareness and Product Balance is key to ensuring digital prowess as a company. Of course, these two notions and their characteristics are just the beginning. In the second half of ‘The Four Pillars of Truly Digitised Organisations’, I’ll dive into both Data-driven Models and User-centrism, provide a breakdown of their traits, and explain how they operate as the remaining two conceptual pillars businesses must utilise in order to become fully realised digital entities.