Having spent over ten years in the digital trenches of corporate multinationals, and most of those in positions with copious opportunities for having to live with my own decisions, I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons.
The first and most important one is that there are no cookie-cutter solutions. It may seem enticingly simple at that first presentation where the sparkly-eyed consultant shares his sense-of-urgency and resolution slides. Get a digital team together, drive a startup culture, be agile, start a few Tribes or Circles. Before you know it, you’ll be plowing full steam ahead on awesome transformative ideas with the wind in your hair and competitors at your back.
The truth is not as simple. Most companies of 40.000+ employees don’t work like startups. They have the inertia of seemingly endless dependencies, legacy-systems, opinions, and legal obligations, that drive most digital VP’s to isolate Digital. Build a separate new culture, jerry-rig it on top of the old, and see what rubs off.
The problem is that this approach doesn’t leverage the existing organization at all. The outcomes are often generic ideas that any outside consultants could have come up with. Maybe a product or two will take off, but unless you’re fortunate and they make more money than your core business, it will be a short-term and isolated success that doesn’t lift the end-to-end value chain much.
For real company-spanning digital transformation, you need to combine the two. Create the necessary space for agility and innovation to grow, in a way that incorporates and leverages the hard-earned skills and experience of the employees.
In the following, I will delineate a few of the core actions needed to make that happen.
Agility at scale
Being agile at scale is hard. SAFe does wonders if your primary purpose in life is building the one software suite to rule them all, but not all enterprises are that lucky. Most of them are in the aging, and decidedly uncool business of selling physical products, having legacy technology they can’t get rid of, and so anti-hipster that they insist on keeping their less-than-carbon-neutral production sites running.
Hiring a digital VP and bringing on a slew of digital initiatives, while building a new and agile organization on top of the old, may excite investors, but it isn’t a solution. Enterprise IT feels cumbersome because, on a certain level, it needs to be. Building something new on top without incorporating that need, just delays the problem.
It leaves IT between the rock of executives wanting digital to happen quickly, and the hard place of bearded youths excitedly throwing half-done products “over the wall.” It leaves organizations dichotic, spending too much effort on internal pressures to react to the external dynamics that they are there to address.
Rebuilding a train while running it at full speed is no simple task, but you can be smart about it. Agility isn’t about how fast you can develop something, but about how soon you can get new ideas into people’s hands. The value of agility doesn’t come from being able to say “pretotyping a UX” quickly or being able to deliver a one-weekend hackathon, but from how fast you can have a working solution in the hands of everybody.
Agility is built from the ground up. It comes from thinking ahead. From carefully stacking the cards in favour of responsiveness. Not everywhere, but where it is needed. It sounds counterintuitive, it is definitely not cool or hipster, but it’s the truth and everybody knows it.
Take that same AI solution and put it in the hands of ten of your friends, and it may work fine. But reach twenty (or annoying uncle Ben with the big thumbs), and your developer will give you that dreaded “but it works on MY computer,” someone will point out that the data you’re using is violating GDPR legislation, or you’ll hit a new requirement that forces you to start over.
The inevitable party-pooper moment. We’ve all been there. You need to stack those cards towards agility.
The first and classic step is layering. Frank Duffy introduced shearing layers in the ’90s as a way to think about buildings aging at multiple speeds, and Gartner reintroduced it as PACE to address how different layers of technology should be able to evolve at different speeds and still work together.
Thinking of your enterprise application stack as layers working together at different speeds, with your innovative platforms at the top, is a significant first step, but it will only give you flexibility. It will not make you agile.
I’ll never forget the launch of one particular “innovation enterprise framework” built on these principles. There were so many hoops to jump through to get a simple server running, that I wouldn’t wish it on circus animals, but it did get us to where we could at least get data safely out of the back-end. As a first step, that is quite significant.
The second step is a proactive service design. You won’t find this in theory books, but most CIOs will have some version of it in their playbook.
Predict what technologies will be essential to innovation in 1–2 years and build up the capabilities to deliver on them before anyone knows they need them. That may sound far fetched, but it’s not rocket science.
I just spent three months of my spare time working with one of the leading enterprise AI companies in Denmark. I helped them build their new go-to-market and communication strategy, and they showed me all about the opportunities and governance pitfalls of enterprise AI.
Why? Because it’s been fairly obvious for a long time that AI will play a key role in future digital transformation, and I didn’t want to get stuck delivering data-lakes, AI scaling, and other things requested right now.
I wanted to get ahead of that curve. I wanted to understand how to build AI service layers with native data compliance at scale. I wanted to start preparing automated product-recognition, customer purpose analysis, and other core services of the future before I’m asked for it.
This is the first real step towards true enterprise agility, set yourself up to be able to deliver 80% of a solution in 1% of the time and cost by looking at where the ball will be instead of where it is.
For inspiration, take a look at how Amazon built up hosting and data capabilities to be modular while they were still only an online bookstore. From a strictly “get the books out there quickly”-perspective, it didn’t make a lot of sense, but from a “prepare to add services once we get new ideas,” it was the difference between Netflix and Pets.com.
The third and most crucial step is to stop looking at hammers and start looking at nails. Some years ago, our Communications VP got involved in building a new “social intranet” with our Digital team. They spent a year, two-digit million, and I don’t know how many worn-down developer keyboards creating the “next big thing.”
She wasn’t impressed. Even less so when I had the head of my SharePoint Online team build her the same solution using standard components, migrate all of their content, and make it look a lot better in the meeting while we were still discussing the solution she had received.
There is no guarantee that SharePoint was the right solution, but it was 80% of the solution, in less 1% of the time and cost, and on a platform that could scale. Starting there would have given them back 99% of their budget and time to built something genuinely innovative rather than just replicating what already existed.
The challenge here is that most digital departments come from startup culture. They’re used to grabbing a few cloud-servers and code away. They’re not used to an enterprise environment that already has tons of capabilities and opportunities to help them move faster or more quickly than any startup ever could.
To avoid missing those opportunities, you need to bridge Digital and IT. You need to get all your brains in the room and not just the ones with beards and sneakers. Sure, you can have separate innovation floors with lounge-chairs, whiteboard walls, and baristas, but don’t have them be where Digital sits. Have them be shared floors, where you get everybody together, and work out what to do about each nail. Maybe you don’t even need nails?
I know that having the guys stomping on the speeder in the same room as the people camping on the brakes is a tough sell. But do the effort to bridge the gap, prepare the technologies you need in advance and you’ll find that enterprise agility can be a lot faster and more effective than even your most impatient sales exec expects.
Enterprise agility may sound far-fetched, but it is not. Build your application stack to be flexible, invest in the technologies you’ll need early, and don’t isolate digital activities in one department. You’ll find that agility at scale isn’t just possible. It is also a lot more fun and effective than what you do today.