Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize – Considering Digital Transformation

By Jonathan Whelan

The benefits of digital transformation make it a very enticing proposition: improved efficiency, better customer experience, greater agility, competitive advantage, … the list goes on.  Transformation may be desirable, or even necessary, but one thing is for sure: it takes time, costs money and carries risk. And for large-scale transformations, the time can be lengthy, the costs high and the risks significant. Unfortunately, as with so many change initiatives, too often expectations are not met. It doesn’t happen overnight; it happens over weeks, months or even years.

Transformation may be reflected as a theme of the organization’s strategy or a specific initiative. Whatever the approach it needs to be driven by, and traceable to, a well-defined set of goals and associated (and measurable!) objectives if desired outcomes are to be achieved. Execution is usually (or at least should be) manifested as a portfolio of change projects, each representing an investment that is proposed to specifically contribute to those goals and objectives. This echoes the strategy maps that originate from the work of Kaplan and Norton which model ‘cause and effect’ in reverse. By starting with the desired outcome (from a financial perspective in the case of Kaplan and Norton), and working back through the (customer, internal business process, and learning and growth) perspectives, it is possible to identify what needs to change to achieve the desired outcome. Conversely, strategy maps provide line-of-sight from a change initiative back to the intended outcome to which the change initiative should be a positive contributor. For example, linking from the change to a business process to a positive customer outcome (in the customer perspective) to a financial outcome (in the financial perspective).

The theory is straightforward, but of course in reality the execution is a bit more challenging. Projects do not exist in a vacuum, they form part of the organization’s ecosystem which is constantly evolving; organizational structures, complex business interactions, cost pressures, ever-increasing regulations and personal agendas make the execution that much harder. These days most change initiatives rely on a transient workforce – a team brought together specifically for the purpose of delivering change, and that workforce often comprises contract staff who are motivated (contracted) to deliver that change; the focus is the specific needs of the project; they are usually highly motivated to deliver, there is little opportunity, encouragement or even budget to consider a holistic view of the transformation. And everyone likes the feeling that they have delivered something.

So, unsurprisingly, projects don’t always deliver the intended outcomes, and of the time, cost and quality parameters that constrain projects, it is the quality parameter which is the easiest to manipulate to bring projects in under the radar without impacting the time and cost parameters (of that project!) – “we can cut back on the functionality and include it in the next iteration”. Time and cost are easy to measure but quality/outcome is a bit more tricky, more subjective and harder to scrutinize. That quality parameter relates directly to the intended outcome(s) of the project and therefore to the broader initiative of which it forms a part.  The change in quality (outcome) may also result in a ‘tactical’ solution which introduces technical debt which needs to be addressed in subsequent iterations (at an additional cost) or, if not addressed, left to fester over time (at an even higher additional cost).

And whilst that change to the outcome many be manageable for one project, scale it up to tens or even hundreds of projects and the result is an overall outcome that is some distance from that which was originally attended.  On the surface it seems like the overall transformation is delivering, which it may well be. The trouble is that there is not sufficient scrutiny of what is being delivered holistically. There is plenty of activity, and stuff is getting done, but that may be confusing motion with action.  The key is to keep in focus the overall goals and objectives.

So how can that be achieved? Architects can contribute to the optimization of the change portfolio by developing a strategic-level architecture and maintaining capability models and inter-dependencies matrices between projects and capabilities and outcomes. Maintaining views of evolving business capability, and how project outputs (and changes to them) affect changes in that capability, create cohesion in the change portfolio that would not otherwise exist. The gradual evolution of the organization can be illustrated in roadmaps that show how individually and, more importantly, collectively, the business capabilities that are planned to change over time. Classifying change proposals consistently enables the change management to undertake objective and transparent comparative analysis. This in turn allows the organization to cut through the natural but local bias, prejudices and politics and changes to project outcomes to prioritise with impartiality and deliver the best results for the organization. Architecture Review Boards or Design Authorities or other internal (and sometimes external) bodies can provide the mechanism by which to govern change in relation to the ‘big picture’. And of course, a robust and transparent investment governance process is pivotal, not just in terms of achieving the intended outcomes but also the management of technical debt beyond the lifespan of individual projects.

Ultimately success needs to be measurable and objective, and each individual project should be assessed in terms of its’ contribution – traceable back to the goals and objectives of the transformation – not just the fact that it completed on time and to budget. Change is inevitable, and therefore it is paramount to keep your eyes on the prize and adapt accordingly.

Jonathan is an established business transformation specialist who has over 37 years’ experience in change-related roles. His commonsense approach to addressing complex business problems and shaping practical, sustainable solutions has been fundamental to the success of many transformation programs.

In his spare time, Jonathan writes about business transformation, especially in relation to the issues and opportunities associated with information technology. His latest book, co-authored with Stephen Whitla and published by Routledge, is titled Visualising Business Transformation – Pictures, Diagrams and the Pursuit of Shared Meaning.

Visualising Business Transformation – Pictures, Diagrams and the Pursuit of Shared Meaning

Jonathan Whelan and Stephen Whitla

Pub: Routledge; 1 edition (6 Feb. 2020)

Hardback, paperback and eBook (Available at Kindle & VitalSource)

ISBN-10: 1138308242

ISBN-13: 978-1138308244