The Digital Transformation Mindset: Less Process, More Inquiry.

Digital transformation. As I type those two words, I find myself having a mixed reaction towards the term. On one level, it has already become overused, widely misunderstood, and a catch-all for the challenges inherent in moving organizations towards a more digitally savvy, customer-centric model. I fully support the endeavor to create shared terminology we can all point to, yet I also struggle with the existing language around digital transformation. It’s currently difficult for leaders to comprehend what the term encompasses and to formulate a set of strategies that can be applied and tested.

Recently, I’ve spoken with several clients and listened to the complexity of their challenges. I am keenly interested in the new methods and models that must evolve to solve those challenges. Are these new challenges part of “digital transformation”? Hasn’t digital transformation been happening within organizations for the past 10+ years? Why is the term increasingly being thrown about with articles that list “5 steps” to make a digital transformation successful?

Today’s discussions around digital transformation are broad and often nebulous, yet I believe we’ve recently hit a tipping point in organizational awareness and its interdependence on creating great customer-centric digital products. Simply put, many organizations are finding that their structures, skills, and processes are breaking under the weight of what it means to embrace digital as part of their core DNA.

The positive news is that we are shifting from conversations regarding how to best make digital things (Agile, Lean UX, etc.) inside an organization to how we can actively curate an environment that best supports the creation of great digital products.

Despite my skepticism for the term “digital transformation,” I am incredibly optimistic and curious about the types of conversations organizational leaders in all verticals are having. It’s not uncommon to hear questions that get at the heart of what it means to transform. For example, the conversation has shifted from, “What flavor of Agile methodology do you practice?” to “How can I shift my culture so that my organization can execute well on digital products and services?” For all of you within the digital space (and those impacted by digital transformation), you likely already know your jobs will be increasingly focused on organizational health and change management. Moving forward, old methodologies that you have previously employed may not work, and new, unforeseen solutions will likely need to be devised. To address new problem areas that do not have a clear path forward, a beginner’s mind (Shoshin) is critical to generating multiple solutions. In a similar manner, I believe the desire to increase organizational health is the reason why we’ve seen such an appetite for design thinking in recent years.

I’ve recently enjoyed a number of conversations with leaders across a broad spectrum of disciplines where I’ve specifically asked each of them, “What does digital transformation mean to you?” Unsurprisingly, I received an incredibly broad array of answers, all of which shifted based on that individual’s area of focus. Digital transformation, I found, is a placeholder for any organization struggling with the following areas:

  • Becoming more customer-centric
  • Rapidly deploying new digital products
  • Shifting towards an increasingly nimble organization that can pivot as new business needs arise
  • Looking more holistically at how products and services create an integrated experience, rather than “one off” applications that live in a vacuum
  • Creating a culture of learning, challenge, curiosity, and growth

For several individuals with whom I spoke, organizational restructures simply aren’t cutting it. Far deeper issues exist regarding culture, decision making, hierarchies and organizational alignment. While you can shift people around on an org chart, how you communicate change, how you empower teams to embrace change, and how you articulate the reasons for change are all important factors in facilitating meaningful organizational progress. I heard another common theme: All too often, organizations have a myopic focus on the digital products themselves and not the cultural context in which those products are being developed.

The term “transformation” is a funny beast. When something is in the midst of being transformed, how do you know when it is going well? Or when things are going poorly? How do you know when you have shifted from a state of “transforming” to being “fully transformed”? While I believe these are slippery questions to wrestle with, I did ask many of my interviewees what social markers they’ve witnessed that indicate transformation efforts are headed in a positive direction. Indicators I heard (perhaps some of them will resonate with you):

  • Customer and employee satisfaction KPIs are headed in an upward trajectory
  • Meetings contain balanced, healthy debate
  • Visible and regular involvement from leadership
  • Proper training and education to get skills up to an appropriate level
  • Trying small experiments and permitting failures to be an acceptable marker of progress
  • Clear examples of strong cross-disciplinary collaboration
  • Structures and processes in place that allow teams to learn from failures, and methods to transfer that knowledge into the broader organization
  • A vision for the organization has been clearly articulated and repeatedly
    reinforced; if vision pivots, the shift is communicated regularly
  • Ongoing, supportive feedback loops to teams and employees, allowing for open dialogue around what’s going well and what requires improvement

While this isn’t an exhaustive list, perhaps a few of these areas get you thinking about what structural and procedural gaps your organization may need to inspect.

To clarify, my intent is not to start a debate as to whether or not the term “digital transformation” is the right one; however, I do believe the term allows everyone grappling with change to share a common language that often points to a much broader, long-overdue conversation. There needs to be less emphasis on what processes should be followed, and instead looking, listening, and crafting an appropriate set of methods to support an organization’s people. Work to answer the following questions as you formulate your strategy:

  • What does a successful transformation look like? How will we know when we have reached an ideal state?
  • What types of social indicators will be present that show we are headed in the right direction?
  • Do we have the right skills to service our digital vision? If not, how will we need to adjust accordingly?
  • Is the physical environment conducive to creating great digital work?
  • Have we clearly identified how decisions are made? How might that be different in the future versus how decisions are made today?

Without a clear focus on your organizational strategy and how it can support the digital change your business seeks, the digital strategies will inherently continue to struggle. Don’t be fooled into thinking an existing process will serve you in the future. The challenge and beauty of digital is that it has forced all of us to rethink how work gets done. Ask hard questions. Roll up your sleeves. Partner with others. Be mindful of the areas you can influence as a leader. If you remain open to what’s possible amidst change, you may find your “digital transformation” is just a little easier, day by day.