Digital Transformation. Who should lead it?
John Goode

Hello John, thanks for the article. Please let me throw in my two penny’s worth.

You are certain that “The Digital Transformation agenda will not survive an Old Normal management approach”. I say Yes, however find it hard to agree with the following words: “consensus has to give way to vision, which requires turf to be surrendered, co-operation with rivals, and realising seniority doesn’t entitle one to trump subject matter specialists”. Consensus IS the new model. The lack of leadership that you accurately highlight is precisely the problem. Today we pretend that “agility” is nobody being in charge. The empowered, multi-disciplined, agile team is expecetd to make all the important decisions. But that’s impossible of course. Plus there’s very little in human nature that allows us to “cooperate with rivals”. We are all learning how. Further, seniority does trump “subject matter” authority (claimed on the basis of youthful exuberance and inexperience). The seniors exist for many reasons and one is to trump. Their futures should be on the line, else they will shirk their leadership responsibilities to the maximum degree possible. They have to have skin in the game.

If, as you say, “The Digital Transformation agenda requires … deep understanding of technology” we are in trouble immediately. The only people who are “comfortable talking to technologists — natively” are technologists. Anyone else is faking it. There’s been quite a strong trend of late, toward people from non-technical fields feeling free to talk loudly, and expect to be influencers. That’s a big mistake: empowering ignorance. Yes to “business insight and leadership”. Most of all: leadership, and not of the technical type. The vexed absence of effective non-tech leadership has been with us since the dawn of the IT Era.

Hank Blank’s opinion that “digital talent lives in the social media world not in the past” is patently incorrect. I say Yes! to delivering Business Benefits and the organisation’s promise. But sorry, if your projects fail (as they do 70% of the time) you will fail. Someone capable of delivering a Digital Vision will simply have to deliver successful projects. Most organisations are not what @cagan calls Digital product organisations. The largest majority of enterprises use IT rather than develop tech. And when did IT become Digital anyway. What, IT isn’t digital? Of course changing the name changes nothing. It’s IT kids, since the 1960s.

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1. Purpose — Yes John, “In a Digital Organisation, the staff exists to service the needs of your customers, within the constraints of the business”. In every organisation the staff exist to serve customers (excluding banks of course). There’s nothing novel here at all. Hairdressers cut your hair and the Chef at your local eatery exists to make your meal a success. Somehow the purpose of business changed recently? No, I think it has not. It was ever thus.
2. Passion — “In a Digital Organisation, product and tech are missionaries. They have joined the organisation because they care about the mission and helping customers solve real problems.” John, the IT department has been in missionary mode since the microprocessor came to the fore. Those people from “pre-Internet organisations …people of a very different generation and mind-set” changed the universe as it was known. In our national economy businesses are rarely about “customers solving real problems” in any case. In today’s service economy business is mostly about selling a service for profit and getting the service at an affordable price.
3. Requirements — A vast majority of Digital Organisations will not build products. They will use tech to deliver their core services. A small minority of organisations create the technologies. The remainder implement.
4. Staffing — John, the operational side of the organisation provides product managers: to manage products that are sold at profit. They design customer interactions and inform business analysts. It is only the professional technologists who provide project management (agile does not fit into that category). Only engineers can be familiar with the demands of “scale and performance”. The heavy use of outsourcing was forced upon them in the 90s be accountants (you were rather repetitive with the term “old-style” here, as though only the new is good; a fatal misconception).
5. Funding — All of us in IT have struggled for decades to be measured by business results (outcomes) John. The accountants can’t be expected to measure business outcomes. They only view tech as a Cost Centre, not a Profit Centre. Just ask them. They measure financial results, not business outcomes: whatever that might be.
6. Process — Waterfall processes have never been “slow or heavy” John. Waterfall assures a beginning, middle and an end. There is simply no substitute for the disciplines of design, development and deployment. Only finite activities can be cost estimated, budgeted and controlled. The trend to agile will stop as soon as the free money runs out.
7. Silos — Yes, a Digital Organisation may depend on collaboration between product, user experience, technology and the business units. However the suggestion that we “optimise for product teams, not for the individual functions” cannot stand. Teams are by their nature temporary, ephemeral, revolving doors. Functions are long-lived with future function. Only in a world of endless temporary reactions will we “optimise for product teams”. Functional silos will remain features of organisations in any imaginable future. Management rather than elimination od silos is warranted.
8. Organisation — Yes, we all recognise that the way we must manage “True IT” is very different than how we manage Digital Transformation. And obviously IT can only be managed by the suitably qualified. That’s an elite group. If you don’t know what you are talking about, please be polite. Therefore if you don’t know about IT, or business operations, you can’t “manage Digital Transformation”. It’s essential really that you understand both, but if it has to be one and not the other: it has to be the business. Which makes it Business Transformation rather than Digital Transformation. 
9. Accountability — We can all readily agree that “A Digital Organisation measures its Digital Transformation agenda by results.” Obviously our colleagues with accounting qualifications are paid to define the organisation’s metrics of results. While these metrics remain absent (or simplistic) nobody knows what the required “results” are. Without them we are blind.
10. Leadership — This fell in a giant hole when the accountants won the outsourcing debate in 1995. In a Digital Organisation, technology enables and powers the business: and the business doesn’t outsource its source of empowerment. It is embraced and valued. The people that understand technology are respected as the key contributors they are. “Leadership in a Digital Organisation understands that it’s their job to create the culture and environment necessary to nurture continuous innovation — and I add here: within the business.” Hear! Hear!

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John wonders “Would you rather suffer than change?” and thinks that “Well, you have little choice if your organisation is to survive. You will probably have to change the way you hire. Change the way you organise — at board level. Perhaps, toughest of all, join your Business and Digital Transformation plans at the highest level in your organisation.”

Then, in order to end your “suffering” you must stop “your” accountants outsourcing, stop the HR people from hiring the wrong people the wrong way, and stop the C-Suite breaking the org chart up for career progression and personal enrichment. That’s pretty radical sure, but worse is to come. Then you have to morph what you thought was a Digital Transformation run by agile hipsters into a Business Transformation run by suits. That is no easy job and John leaves you hanging without an answer as to how you might go about this daunting task.

So, good luck! I for one am IN immediately. Just give me the chance to create business transformation with digital tech. Interestingly however, that will be decided by those with the most to lose: the sociopaths in the C-Suite (yes, we have all understood the personal qualities needed to get those jobs for many years; but politely avoid mentioning them).

Regards, Stephen