Digital Transformation Quickstart

In Technology by Stephen Zakur0 Comments


How do you eat an elephant?   One bite at a time.A third grader
Last week I had a conversation with a tech executive about the digital transformation of a large business. We talked about the elements of digital transformation and the methods that could be used to move the ball forward. Given the size of some organizations, figuring out how to get started can be one of the biggest obstacles. So how do you make the entire enterprise “digital”? The answer is: “In small bites”.

Eating the Digital Transformation Elephant

You can’t, you shouldn’t eat the elephant at once. It’s a routine mistake of strategy. Trying to do something big exposes you to several risks:

  1. You’re going to make mistakes. You don’t want to learn when the cost of risk is high. You want to start small, go fast, learn quickly and iterate. Once you have resolved issues, you can scale when risk is lower.
  2. Big projects awaken the corporate immune system. You don’t want to attract attention before you’re able to demonstrate value. Avoid the bureaucracy and the devil’s advocates for as long as possible.
  3. Big projects take too long to deliver value. Get some early results to demonstrate the work is worth doing.
  4. If your scope is “everything we do” you may end up spending time on businesses that have a lower value than your growth businesses. Limit the scope to offerings and products that drive future value.

You have to lay out a strategy that defines a modest scope. You want to define the smallest “elephant” you can.

  • Which customers or stakeholders are most important to growth?
  • What products/offerings are most important to growth?
  • Where is there a business model and/or IT platform that can be isolated to simplify implementation?
  • Who are your friends — where is there both personal and organizational interest and momentum that you can build on?
  • Which senior executive(s) will protect you?

Then you get started.

Start by getting started

That sounds trite but all endeavors start with a first step. If you’ve done a good job at defining the scope, you can put together a small, cross-functional team (or set of teams) to get the ball rolling. This will require brutal prioritization, you’ll have to shift resources off of lower priority work, but I bet you already have the resources you need. The key to progress is to take some lessons from agile development.

Successful digital transformation and agile practices go hand in hand. You’re starting small with an imperfect idea of the end state. You’ll write a few user stories about what that future looks like — the actions that users need to take and the benefits that will be derived. You’ll prioritize those and then get your team building on a two-week tempo. Why so short a time horizon? Because you’ll be learning and you want to do lots of learning.

The build concept is critical to learning. If you don’t build, you’re not learning. Learning is how you keep risk low. Also, build something that can run in production. It doesn’t mean you have to put it into production, but you could. This will give you credibility and confidence further down the road.

Small Bites to Big Bites

Failure will not be your biggest challenge. Success will be your biggest challenge. Success will bring a desire for you to scale quickly. You’ll be asked to include adjacent offerings and then adjacent businesses. Not only will demand outstrip the ability of the teams to deliver new user stories but you risk having your infrastructure challenged by business volumes.

You need to make the right architectural decisions early in the project that will give you flexibility later. Building the components as microservices and connectivity via APIs will make it easier to scale the delivery teams and interconnect new components later. Building on a scalable web hosting platform (e.g. AWS, Azure or Softlayer) will provide flexibility as workloads increase.

Fair warning: You’ll still need to look at businesses through the lens of value. If you have a legacy business that’s in a slow decline, it may make no sense to transform it. Make sure the in-scope businesses have real value to the future of the company. Don’t be bullied into transforming the has-beens.

Resist the resistance

Starting small goes contrary to the business direction given to many CIOs. The past has been all about standardization and consolidation. We’ve been wired to launch large initiatives to consolidate on single platforms. While the economics of such a strategy are compelling many organizations have found themselves frozen in place by lengthy upgrade cycles and limited digital capabilities.

CIOs must demonstrate leadership by rapidly exploring and adopting digital capabilities. That’s going to require investment. Don’t get lured into some big strategic effort that’s going to require dozens of senior people to agree on the least common capabilities. That’s weak tea. Find a friend. Start small. Go fast. Learn and course correct.

About the Author

Stephen Zakur


Steve Zakur is a technology and operations executive who transforms organizations into digital leaders using agile methods for both software development and business execution.

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