Experience Counts: A parable

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.
“A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on
“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole.
Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’
The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing, S:2, E:10

I’ve spent the past decade jumping into deep holes, helping folks find the path out and creating business value along the way. Recently, that work has focused on helping “traditional” businesses make a transition into the digital world. If that sounds like something you need, please contact me. If you want to know more about how I help people and organizations out of tight spots, read on. I promise it’ll be worth it.

Digital transformation remains one of the top priorities for business and technology executives. The focus of every digital effort should be to create an end-to-end, digitally-enabled customer experience. Yet many organizations struggle to realize the value of their efforts, even though they’ve had a Digital Czar working on it for what seems like forever. So what makes it so difficult to transform from the way we used to do things to the digital world? There are a few key questions that puzzle executives.

  • What does digital mean for my business?

    Many organizations still struggle to identify the impact digital technologies will have on the competitive landscape.  Not knowing what the end game looks like, they struggle to define what digital means for their business. The simplest way to think about this is to look at the customer experience (you may have heard of the customer journey or buyer’s journey). Envision a set of processes and technologies that integrate that journey for the customer. That’s your goal. And don’t get carried away. It’s really easy to make this complex. Focus on a few areas where you can differentiate yourself from your competitors.

  • Where is the value?

    The great challenge in any business transformation is defining scope. The reflex that most executives have is to move the entire business from the current state to the desired state. While that can work, it’s particularly risky in a digital transformation because the end-game isn’t always well defined. You can’t ask people, processes and technologies to shift to “somewhere”. Once you have the broad strokes of your end-state, you need to chose a place to build it first. Chose where the opportunity for growth is greatest. Start there. That’ll give you the value.

  • That sounds good, how do I choose?

    You’ve got a big business. All your children are beautiful. They all have growth targets and they all need some of the secret digital sauce to make it happen. How do you choose where to start? You must be ruthless in your prioritization. You need to assess who is ready, committed, and has the resources to make it happen. That’s where a lot of transformations fall apart — leaders say they’re ready, but they’re not. And don’t let the pretenders in once you’ve gotten underway. Focus. Deliver. Rinse. Repeat.

  • Why does the work drag on and on?

    Once you’ve chosen what to do and where to start, you need to decide how to do the work. Here you want to borrow from the methods of lean/agile development. You will use those methods not only on the technology teams, but the business teams as well. Building an application? Use agile. Developing a new contract process? Use agile. Restructuring the organization? Use agile. Everyone uses agile. This forces a mentality where we start thinking about minimum viable products vs the maximum featured product (the death of many a program). If you focus on build and delivery using the methods of agile you’ll get quicker delivery and, most importantly, the ability to course correct as you go.

It’s really, really hard!

Yes, it is.

Here’s where your role as the leader comes in. Your job is to protect the teams from organizational BS. If you protect your teams, they’ll deliver. If you allow them to be distracted, they’ll struggle and you’ll struggle. It will only lead to tears. What do you have to do? There are a couple of things that can derail your efforts. The people who are doing the work have to be dedicated. No part-timers. The executive team must continue to buy into the notion of minimum viable product. Don’t let them bloat the project. The goal is value and speed. Don’t let the teams over commit to delivering. Measure team velocity. Do reasonable amounts of work.

The most difficult thing that you’ll do is defend the team. Do that right, and they’ll deliver what you need.

Will + Means

Before we talk about the “how”, it’s probably worth getting on the same page about your intent. Digital Transformation, heck any transformation, is about change. People, no matter what they might say, generally dislike change. While we could go into the details and methods of organizational change management, suffice to say that any transformation comes down to two important elements: The Will to Change and The Means to Change. It’s easy to fake the first. The second is what separates the dreamers from the doers.

  • Will

    Do you really want to change?
    I know, it sounds like a stupid question, but you need to look in the mirror and be brutally honest with yourself.
    Change is hard. For you. For your organization. For your customers. Don’t embark on something that’s folly.
    If you don’t have the will, if you’re not feeling the passionate commitment, it likely means you’re focusing in areas that aren’t critically important to your results.
    Adjust your focus. Find a place where you and the rest of the team have passion.

  • Means

    Yes, you have to have the budget and, yes, you have to have the business authority. You have an idea about a small, but important, area where you can get started. But that’s not enough. Can you do what needs to done?
    You may not have the skills you need today, will you find them?
    Some of the people on your team won’t be needed on the journey, what will you do about that?
    Powerful forces will align against you, do you have the stomach for the fight?
    Your competitors will respond, will you be tireless, relentless?

Digital Transformation Framework

If you’re ready to get started, if you’re deeply committed to the cause, then you may be wondering how to best move forward. If you’re struggling with work in progress, you may be wondering how to course correct.

The digital transformation of business is a challenging change because it requires us to act across traditional business silos. Everything has to be seen and executed with an eye towards the end-to-end customer journey. In order to do this, you’ll need three things. You’ll need the business to be on board, you’ll have to build and operate a simplified business model, and you will have to create a technology platform to make it all happen.

  • Leadership

    The sun rises and sets on the business objective and that’s what makes active involvement of the leadership team a critical factor. We’re not talking about monthly steering committees. They need to embrace the cause. The customer-focused business objective is the north star of everything you will do. The leadership team will get you the people, budget, and priority necessary to deliver value. Most importantly, they’re going to bust down the silos and eliminate roadblocks.

  • Business Model

    The business model frames how things will get done. It encompasses the policies and processes necessary to get, serve and keep customers. How you do things today was likely made for a world where speed was measured in hours instead of minutes or seconds. That world will need to be refactored. The digital business model will be simple, integrated, and focused on customer value creation. Warning: This is where resistance to change lives. This will be where the immune system will try to kill you.

  • Technology Platform

    Technology is not the source of complexity. Complexity lives in the business model. That said, great business models can be ruined by poor technology implementation. It all starts with talent. Do you have an awesome digital team? Next, you need a delivery method that confers agility. You then have to focus on a platform that is built upon key digital design principles, including: unsiloed data, interconnected components, instrumented from birth, and socially aware. Finally, your architecture has to scale.

Do you have to throw away everything in your legacy business to be “digital”? No. But you have to be willing to reconsider everything. Do the contracts you’ve always used support a digital model? Is the pricing strategy designed for selling a few large products right for selling incremental offerings? Does your “one-size-fits-all” SAP implementation make sense as a back-end foundation?

Vendors, executives, and even customers, are going to tell you to do things that may not make sense if you’re diligent about pursuing a digital program. Be thoughtful. Stay focused. Deliver.


At the top of this page there’s a parable about experience. I understand that parable deeply. Over the past decade, I’ve worked in those dark places where customer critical operations and technologies need to be turned around fast. During the past two years, I’ve focused on the digital transformation of large, complex organizations.

I’m sure you have similar experience. Some of your teams do too. Becoming a more effective digital business (or starting/restarting your digital transformation) in most cases doesn’t require an outside consultant. Much of the fundamental business knowledge and talent required to execute a transformation already exists within your organization. You may have what you need, on board, right now.

But if you haven’t gotten started or you doubt you’re on the right track, then let’s talk. Here’s a few things we could do to get started.

Transformation Assessment

The Digital Transformation Assessment looks at all aspects of your digital journey. Partnering with you and your teams, we’ll rapidly assess your transformation progress against the key elements of the Digital Transformation Framework. The assessment process will include interviews, document review and sitting with your teams (virtually or in-person) to see how the work gets done, to look at interpersonal dynamics and get a sense for team culture. We’ll look at where you have strengths, where there are gaps, and identify actions to close the gaps. The assessment can take anywhere from two to six weeks depending on the size of the program, the commitment of resources, the cadence of your work and our access to people.

Ready to get started? Contact Me.

Transformation Framework Planning

You’ve determined what needs to be done. Now, you need a detailed plan. That reflex was wired into us very early in our careers. What are the tasks? What resources are needed? What is the timeline for achieving “The Goal”? This roadmap will lead us to success.

Or maybe it won’t.

There’s a saying, attributed to Mike Tyson, that everyone who has run a project understands. “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” True in boxing, true when building a digital business. It doesn’t matter whether your selling jet engines, consulting services or the latest cool app, something is going to change and you’re going to have to respond. An eighteen-month plan for success isn’t going to cut it. You need something that provides structure but is more flexible than a traditional plan.

Instead of detailed planning, we borrow methods from agile software development. If your assessment has been well done, you have a list of things in each of the major framework categories — Leadership, Business Model, & Platform — that need to be done. This is the prioritized backlog. We’ll work to define a minimum viable product that can be delivered in a relatively short timeframe and package those into a series of sprints for both the technology and business model teams.

This list of gaps then becomes the master backlog for the project. New gaps (and new user stories) will come into the queue and be prioritized by the business team.

Ready to get started? Contact Me.

Executive Program Management

I assume that you’re going to be able to execute the plans once Transformation Framework Planning delivers a prioritized backlog of user stories/gaps that align with the framework elements. The goal is to deliver working business function for the business and customers. Those valuable outcomes will need to be delivered quickly, so you’ll be working in an agile manner (yes, even the business model teams), and you’ll focus on minimum viable products to help gain momentum and get feedback early.

So if you have project managers/scrum masters/tribe leaders, why is executive program management required? It may not be. The role of the executive program manager is to keep the three components of the framework aligned. The senior executives need to remain “all in” on the goals of the program and play their part as champions and inhibitor eliminators. The business model teams need to simplify their processes and be held accountable for creating valuable outcomes for customers. Finally, the technology teams need to be able to work collaboratively with the business model teams and deliver the platform. If your teams play well together, outside program leadership may not be needed.

However, outsiders can sometimes perform roles that insiders cannot. While we’d all like to think there are open channels of communication up and down the organization, your org culture may not support such behavior. We’ll have to work on that. But in the interim, outside help can provide a bridge.

Do you have a program that needs help? Contact Me.

About Steve

Stephen ZakurI am an experienced business & technology executive who has spent the past decade improving the performance of underperforming business and technology teams. During the past two years, I have successfully focused on the digital transformation of business. You can find the particulars on LinkedIn.

While many companies are working feverishly to become “digital” too often these efforts are either fragmented in the field or over-controlled by some corporate czar. Business needs a framework that can align these efforts but the flexibility to do so in a way that makes sense for them. In the words of the Netflix corporate culture, efforts need to be “highly aligned and loosely coupled”.

My philosophy, shamelessly stolen from others, but foundational long before I read these words, is: Think Big, Start Small, Go Fast.

Think Big: No one ever got to where they’re going without at least an initial view of the goal. What market segments do we want to grow? What products? Who are our competitors? How will we compete? You don’t want a roadmap, something detailed and seemingly definite, you want a framework defining the broad strokes of the end-state. The teams will figure out how to get there.

Start Small: Some people like business cases. I like business results better. Don’t spend time on calculating, strategizing, and planning. Spend time focusing on a modest scope, identifying business leaders who are all-in and getting great talent on the team. Value trumps scope. Focus on something doable and demonstrate value.

Go Fast: Agile practices will help here. Make sure you have a great team. Get to something of value quickly, assess, adjust and go again. Expand as you find success.

If you create cross-discipline teams, put them into an organization model that encourages high alignment and loose coupling, and then provide them with the permission to Think Big, Start Small and Go Fast you’ll be amazed at what can be accomplished in a short amount of time. Let me help you do that. Contact me.

A few words from others

  • Mike Moran Quote
  • Sal Calta Quote
  • Jim Kavanaugh Quote
  • Kevin Eagan Quote
  • Jeff Smith Quote