Preventing IT Program Failure, Part 5: Broad & Fast Leads To Fail

“Speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.” Mahatma Gandhi

Try to go too far too fast results and you could crash & burn. But at the same time, if the outside world is moving more quickly than your organization, you better press on the gas. This is a tricky balance.

Companies are racing to “digitally transform,” but how many really know what it means, how to get there (wherever “there” should be) and how fast? There are a lot of misconceptions about digital transformation, ranging from “making all our applications mobile” to “moving everything to the cloud.”

Digital transformation is an over-used and oft misunderstood term. What it means is the design and implementation of new business models and revenue streams, in answer to customer-driven expectations about products and service. Uber, love or hate the company, was a digital transformation of consumer transportation. The iPod was a digital transformation of the music business.

Companies like Uber, AirBNB, Netflix represent threats to existing business models. All existing firms have a threat somewhere. It might be a cocky start-up like Uber, or it may be an existing organization who has figured out digital transformation. It may be the business unit sitting in the floor above you who has figured out how to do your department’s function better than you.

According to McKinsey, 70% of organizational transformations fail. Digital transformation is an organizational transformation. The most common mistake is trying to scale the necessary ingredients too quickly.

In Part 3 of this series, we learned that large projects fail at a higher rate than small ones. So you have to go small to get big, and go slow to go fast. Once you know the right and finite amount of programs to start with, here’s some tips on how to go at the right speed for your organization

  • Assemble the right amount of the right teams: Put together a couple of fully resourced teams, funded and supported by leadership . Assign them to a new product or service associated with a new way of doing business – something that actual customers have indicated they want. These are cross-organizational teams – business subject matter experts, developers, business analysts, cloud experts – anyone who needs to do material work to get it done. There is typically a dedicated core team with other roles that might come in and out.
  • Be agile using the right components of Agile: Companies don’t need to boil the Agile methodology ocean to start being agile. A good Agile coach can support a team, helping to identifying chunks of deliverables in 1-4 week increments rather than via waterfall fashion which is long cycles of analysis, requirements and delivery. (It’s interesting that many people think Agile is new – it actually has its roots going as far back as the 1950s, and was formally introduced in 2001. Being agile is not rocket science, it’s a way of approaching delivery in customer-centric iterations with a fully resourced team.)
  • Get the right help: The teams will need coaching and assistance from people who have done prioritized, Agile-based work before. Good coaches know the roles of the team, the baselines processes, the toolsets. I’ve seen amazing results in all sorts of companies and industries. Recently a company, went from start to comprehensive working software in the cloud in abut three months – and they’d never done cloud-based delivery before.
  • Team empowerment and self-determination needs to be part of the approach. The team gets to decide what they can accomplish in each 1-4 week iteration. Fail fast, learn fast, adjust fast needs to be part of the approach – every week the team needs to identify what they need to start doing, stop doing, and keep doing.
  • Micro-level prioritization needs to be part of the approach – using a software example, everything including data elements, user interface elements, cloud container set up has to be put in a backlog and sequenced.
  • Figure out the right metrics: Just a few metrics! And again the team gets to decide the metrics, within some reasonable guidelines. I stress “few” – such as # of items delivered vs what the team set out to accomplish.
  • Don’t scale until you have something to scale: Only once the 1-2 teams has had a number of iterations with good metrics, then scale. Consider scaling from a couple to five teams, and then 10 – 15. I find it takes around a year, regardless of organizational size, to get around a dozen teams delivering predictably.

Getting faster and better is like training for a sporting event or recovering from an injury. Organizational capability and capacity, like muscles and skills, are built through repetition and persistence. Try to go too fast and you’ll strain the organization and delay or derail the transformation.

Worth considering: 

If manual customer service is lousy, then digital customer service will be lousy also. I’m in the market for a new car, and reached out to the dealership from which I most recently purchased a vehicle. 1) They didn’t know I was an existing customer, 2) When I asked about the differences between one model of the car and another, they just referred me to the brand’s website, which assumes the average consumer knows what terms like “2.4L I4 Zero Evaporation Engine w/ESS” means. That’s akin to a customer asking me about Agile and just referring them to a website filled with techno-jargon and arcane acronyms. I don’t think buying a new car has demonstrably changed since I bought my first car in early 1990s. (I hear Carvana is good, but they aren’t yet in New England.)

Not sure how I am just learning about Mary Kenneth Keller, the first woman in the U.S. to earn a doctorate in computer science and a Catholic nun. She is quoted as saying: “We’re having an information explosion, and it’s certainly obvious that information is of no use unless it’s available.” Still and always relevant. #WomenInTech

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