Digital transformation is something that is on most companies’ roadmap, either in the short or long term, but is something that can be a very daunting prospect; especially for large and well-established organisations.
I have spoken to many organisations over the years about this and many have been crippled with indecision, and have been unable to ever get the project off the ground. They have spent years in a cycle of strategy meetings and PowerPoint decks with very little progress.
This is not a great surprise as it can appear to be a huge and overwhelming task and can require the entire organisation to put its shoulder to it. To get a digital transformation project off the ground takes a lot of work, a little bit of courage, and a fair amount of determination, but it doesn’t have to be as daunting as you think.
Drive from the top
Something as big as digital transformation needs support from the very top. It is something that is likely to lead to fundamental changes to a business and will also probably cost quite a lot of money. It is going to involve and affect people from all areas of the business and you need to get their buy in.
In my experience, the only way digital transformation will get off the ground, let alone succeed, is if the executive board champions it. A good CEO will motivate their staff, get them to buy into their vision and drive the business forwards. Without executive-level support, a digital transformation project will struggle to ever get off the ground.
It is important to get engagement with the executive board early on in the process to avoid spending time on a project that will never happen or have to be dramatically changed before it will get signed off. I have had personal experience of working with senior managers and ‘heads of’ planning a transformation project for months, only for it to never to get off the ground because the execs were not engaged early on.
Focus on getting started
One of the hardest parts of any project is starting. You can spend months, or even years planning everything to a detailed level, and never actually get started. For an established business, a digital transformation project can seem huge and daunting. It is likely to have multiple phases, spanning multiple years, and is not really feasible to get everything planned to a fine detail before you start.
Therefore, your focus should be on how you get started. You need to have a high-level view of the future, but starting is the key.
Start small with an MVP
A good way to get started is to define your phase 1 minimum viable product (MVP) which should be relatively small. The first phase does not need to completely transform the entire business in one go but can just create the foundations for the rest of the program.
As the MVP often sets the foundations, It is important to have good visibility of all components and phases of the program to ensure that you make the right architectural decisions but only at a high level at this stage.
A good example of an MVP may be a replacement of your PIM or your e-commerce platform. It is often the most urgent issue and the one that is likely to deliver the biggest ROI on day 1 as this will also help with buy-in from the board or investors.
When defining the detail of your MVP, you need to consider what really is the minimum rather than expanding on your requirements to a point where it is no-longer the minimum. Sticking to the minimum can be a very hard thing to do and requires some good discipline during the discovery phase as everyone involved is going to look forwards and come up with great ideas. These should not be dismissed but should put into a backlog that will be looked at after the implementation of the MVP.
Facebook famously have a mantra of ‘Done is better than perfect’. This is a good way of describing an MVP. You can spend ages building the perfect solution, during which time, your users have access to nothing or you get the MVP out there to give users something (which is likely to be better than what you currently have) and improve it after.
Whilst you have been defining your MVP, you will have also been capturing a backlog of features and requirements that are not part of the MVP but are still desired and will need to be implemented as part of your digital transformation. Once you have implemented your MVP, you can now start to look at multiple additional phases, each one making iterative improvements and moving you further on the journey of digital transformation.
This image by Henrik Kniberg illustrates MVP and iterative improvements really well.
It shows that you can make your customers happier early on by getting an MVP out there and then improving it over time. It also shows that, by delivering an MVP early on and improving over time, you can actually end up with a better product as you learn what the customer wants.
Find the right partners
It may sound obvious but having the right partners is essential to implementing a successful digital transformation. There are a lot of moving parts and your partners should not only have the technical skill and experience but also the business and strategy experience of helping a business navigate through a digital transformation process.
Although technology is not yet a simple commodity, it is fair to say that there are many partners out there who can competently implement technology but not so many who can bring the strategic element to the project.
It is also important to have a partner who is confident and strong enough to challenge and question. The process will have a lot of stakeholders, some who are more positive than others and the right partner will help drive the process forward. You should leverage the expertise of your partners, even if it is sometimes a challenge. They are not always going to be right but what you don’t want is someone that just says ‘yes’ all of the time.
Digital transformation is not an IT project. If it is treated as such, it will fail. To be successful, a digital transformation process needs to have input from everyone involved and they all need to brought along on the journey. Knowledge about systems, customers and processes is spread throughout your business and no single person or department will have the breadth of knowledge required.
Digital transformation is also likely to involve change to all areas of the business and will affect everyone’s roles. Although it is ultimately designed to make everyone’s lives better, people are often resistant to change and therefore it is important to get their buy-in as early as possible so they see this as a positive change.
During the discovery phase, it is important to involve key people from all areas of the business. You need to strike a balance between having enough coverage of the business in a session without having too many people and end up designing by committee.
Don’t adapt technology to fit a broken process
Every company will develop its own business processes over time and many of them may be broken. They may have been designed poorly, be out of date, or designed to fit around limitations of existing technology. When implementing new technology, it is often tempting to adapt it to fit existing processes. This is sometimes a mistake. It is important to reverse engineer technology and processes back down to the core requirements that they are attempting to meet. You will sometimes find that you can meet the core requirement much better by adapting the business process as the technology is no longer a limitation.
Overall, transformation is a big and important move for any company, but the scale of the task should not prevent it happening. Stop talking and start doing!