Burning Gas While Flying Blind

In order to succeed, digital projects have to remain a collaborative endeavor.

By R.M. Bastien

When we look at the process of building a digital solution from the highest possible viewpoint, the amount of business knowledge required to execute is preponderant at the beginning of the development cycle, and diminishes as the endeavor progresses.  Inversely, the amount of technical knowledge required is lower at the onset and augments with time as the implemented solution takes form.  At the very end of a digital transformation, the nature of the work is very technical and most businesspersons wouldn’t understand what has to be done.  In the first stages, often products are imagined, new customer experiences are envisioned, and customer data are analyzed to devise new market insights.  These activities would leave clueless most of the technical staff that get involved later in the sequence of activities.  But in order to succeed, digital projects have to remain a collaborative endeavor.

A Joint Venture with Variable Contribution

I’ve roughly depicted in a very simple graph (see Figure 1a) how the need for business and technology knowledge evolve via-à-vis one another over the course of a digital transformation endeavor.  The involvement level ranges from no in implication at all to maximal involvement relatively to capacity.


At the beginning of the process, most of the knowledge required is purely business.  Technological knowledge is nonetheless required, even at the very beginning, to help identify opportunities that digital platforms can bring.  Business knowledge is required up to the very end to take some key decisions before going live, but diminishes as the tech components are being put in place.  One key element of that graph is that a minimal expert involvement is always required.  This diagram however is theoretical and idealistic.  The real world is otherwise.

Too Early and Too Late

I’ve depicted in figure 1b my view of what reality looks like.  You can see that the demarcation line between when business people lessen their involvement and leave it to IT people is much more abrupt than in the former figure.  Is it is also much more to left.  In other words it means that the involvement of people with thorough business knowledge is not sufficient as the endeavor that creates the new organizational processes and the underlying technology components progresses.


Conversely, it also means that the people in your organization that hold the technical wisdom are left alone in charge of everything, at some point in the process —but they shouldn’t.  The second diagram additionally shows that there is a form of handover between business savvy people and their tech colleagues.  This turn-over of the reigns to the more technical staff has significant impact on the quality of the work performed.  To help you understand, I’ve highlighted the two blind areas where important knowledge is lacking in the execution of the transformation tasks.

The Blinded Experts

The first blind area represents that lack of technical input in the initial steps of identifying the business need or the opportunity to change.  This absence has two types of negative impact.  On the one hand, a lack of support on how digital technology could transform the business and on the other hand insufficient reality checks about the feasibility of innovative business ideas.  In other words the business people are not well guided about what’s possible and what’s reasonably feasible.

In this absence of tech-savvy expertise means that, what I’ve mostly observed is inspiration taken from business articles, books and invited consultants.  There’s nothing wrong about getting stimuli from these sources but relying solely on external inputs has several drawbacks.

Flying Blind in the Digital Skies

Business articles are often written to be read in rapidly in order to not repel busy businesspersons. As such, they often lack much important details, and relying on these readings doesn’t suffice. Additionally, articles are too often a conduit for uplifting the reputation of the cited companies or individuals: articles based on interviews with the executives that lead an endeavor depicted as a huge success are bound to be painted rosier than the reality.  Books are a better strategy, as long as proper time is taken to read them.

As for consultants, relying on external help is a very good idea to squeeze more juicy details about how digital technologies have helped other organizations, but the limitations are obvious: outside consultants know very little about your specific organization, its history, the systems in place, your strategies, your culture.  Furthermore, external advisors are often in conflict of interest, especially when being employed by large firms that would make much more revenue by being ahead of the competition on the lucrative contracts of defining, designing, implementing or running for you the new innovative processes that they suggest you adopt.

Flying blind at these early stages is not that shocking, knowing that innovating or adapting to sudden external changes has always been done with incomplete information at hand.  It is customary to take important decisions with information that may later be incomplete or false.  But this blind spot prevents these decisions being taken with additional information that sit in your own organization.

And then there is a reality check issue. The absence of the very same people that are going to implement the working solution has huge impact on the cost-effective feasibility.  As discussed many times in my first book, in the wonderful virtual world of programs and computers, many roads can be taken to get to the same result.  Each path doesn’t have the same cost however. The absence of the people that know very well the systems in place, the digital technologies implemented and the skill sets available impose a huge risk on the cost-effective feasibility of a given endeavor.

As depicted in Figure 1b, there is another blind angle, this time rooted in a lack of usable business knowledge during technical implementation.

Flying Blind in the Business Skies

The second blind area materializes after IT teams are being passed the baton and then run as fast as they can with insufficient support from business knowledgeable persons.   On a daily basis, I witness organizations with dozens of teams, quickly summing to hundreds of IT busy bees, taking smaller scale decisions that nonetheless add up to substantial impact.  These decisions are too often not supported adequately from those that really know the business.  The missing business wisdom ranges from nitty gritty details about processes, applications, or data items and goes up to providing a clear vision about the expected outcomes of the change being elaborated.  Business acumen also means knowing the right person to call to get a reliable answer.

Remember that the teams of busy bees are primarily measured on schedule attainment.  Finding the right business expert and consulting them takes time.  As such, they will often make assumptions about a strictly business concept in order to not delay their project.  The effects of a wrong decision are always nefarious, ranging from inadequacy of the resulting system, to delays due to rework.

Governance Won’t Help

This is all about close collaboration and we should not confuse availability of business knowledgeable persons with governance.  I am a big fan of rigorously applied governance.   But when the involvement of business people is limited to monthly steering committees, these smaller decisions are already things of the past.  Even if it happens on a weekly basis, it’s usually too late to backtrack. And when a decision is reverted, the net result is that it costs more and creates delays.

The Single-Desk Root Cause

The Single-Desk IT is the prominent organizational model for the delivery of digital capabilities.  It can be summarizing as the corralling of all digital-related tasks, responsibilities and talents into one department, usually headed by a C-level executive.  It was a reasonable thing to do 40 years ago, but has nowadays become an impediment to business agility[1].  Having a single desk IT function strengthens the structural, process and cultural drivers that hamper the timely availability of business knowledge to the technical teams.   The impact is not insignificant.  I personally have found myself hundreds of times in situations where I was literally flying blind, rather than co-creating a new business solution with the help of business cognizant partners.  I’ve seen entire teams running blindfold —and burning a lot of gas on your dime—making assumptions about subjects for which they had insufficient knowledge and no legitimate decision power.

The single-desk IT shields business people from learning opportunities about digital.  Most importantly, it perpetuates this perception about the IT function being a huge and opaque machine that nobody really understands, everyone needs to work with and most would rather do without.  The absence of the technology focused colleagues in the early steps shields them from acquiring valuable business acumen.  Conversely, IT people that have the right profile to build a stronger business awareness are too far from the sources of knowledge and are slowly but surely nudged into more technical roles. This creates a vicious circle where business people aren’t keen inviting colleagues that are too technical to provide value —so they stay that way.

[1] This article provides more details about the misalignment of the Single-Desk IT : https://rmbastien.com/the-thread-of-your-organization/