Digital transformation is a leadership problem

By Mike Bracken | @MTBracken

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

So much has been written about the nature of “digital transformation” over the years that the phrase has started to lose all meaning. No wonder people get confused about it. No wonder so many organisations fail to understand it, and ultimately fail to make it happen.

It’s time to cut through the waffle, and set it out clearly: digital transformation is the act of radically changing how your organisation works, so that it can survive and thrive in the internet era.

Mentioning the internet is often the first thing that causes confusion. I’ve met many leaders who assume that digital transformation is the same as building a better website. It’s true that in many cases, better websites can go a long way to meeting the needs of users, citizens or customers. But a shiny new website is not, and can never be, transformation in and of itself. The website is a result of transformation. It’s a product. Not a purpose.

The website isn’t what matters, and the technology that powers it isn’t what matters. Both of those things are components, pieces of the puzzle that you snap together and re-arrange whenever you like. Which is easy to do, because both have been commoditised in recent years.

What matters is the service delivery, and therefore the team culture. Let me explain how those two things interconnect.

Doing service delivery well requires an organisation to develop a good understanding of its users’ needs. It constantly amazes me how many organisations have failed to do that; how many of them have little or no contact with actual users, except via “customer satisfaction surveys”, which are always too little, too late. If you’re asking people what they think of your service or your product after they’ve battled their way through its baffling interface, you’re doing it wrong.

Building that relationship with real users requires two things: time, and a team. Time, because change doesn’t happen overnight, and because the relationship is best expressed by your organisation and understood by users in the form of constantly iterated and improving products. The longer the organisation invests in showing users that it understands their needs, by actually delivering products that meet them, the stronger the relationship becomes.

And as for the team part — the best mechanism for making all this happen is that of an empowered agile multidisciplinary team:

  • Empowered means that the team is not weighed down by governance, finance, HR and interruptions from mid- and senior-level management, looking for ways to justify their own jobs
  • Agile means they break the work down into small pieces, to make it more manageable; that they release small changes, very frequently; that their work is entirely founded upon what they learn from research that involves real users, not on guesswork or worse, on the whims of the leadership
  • Multidisciplinary means all the necessary brains are in the same room, at the same time, constantly working together and focused on just this one problem; it’s easy for a writer to collaborate with a technical architect, or for a user researcher to work with a delivery manager, or for a subject matter expert to correct misleading assumptions during a team stand-up

As with “digital transformation”, much has been written about “innovation”. You know the sort of articles I mean: the stock images that illustrate them inevitably depict streams of zeros and ones flowing around a glowing manga-esque cityscape; or needlessly feminised robots in strangely sterile futuristic settings, like something out of an episode of Doctor Who.

Almost all of them are nonsense, just design fiction cooked up to make executives feel like they’re doing something innovative, when the most innovative thing about them is usually their smart watch.

As my colleague, and editor of the Public Digital newsletter, Emma Gawen once wrote: “If the CEO is talking about blockchain, but at the front line employees are faxing documents around, something has gone a bit wrong.”

Innovation won’t come from labs, it won’t come from offsite away days, or from AI or Blockchain or whatever the next over-hyped technology ends up being. True innovation comes from teams that do. Teams that are allowed to do.

Teams like the one in the Argentinian government that implemented digital driving licences in just 65 days.

Teams like the one in the Mexican government that created the gob.mx single domain website, and built a digital service for issuing birth certificates.

Teams like the one at the Co-operative Group in Manchester, who built a simple app to make it easy for retail staff to know what shifts they’ve been allocated on the rota, and quickly swap shifts with colleagues when they need to.

All of these are teams that do, empowered and enabled by leaders that allowed them to do. They’re the true innovators.

I think the lesson for leaders is much simpler than most of them realise. Too many, for the same reasons I outlined at the start, feel detached from the transformation process because they see it as the realm of the techies and the nerds. It’s an IT problem, they assume. So they leave it to the IT people. Stuff changes, but no actual transformation happens.

I want leaders to understand that transformation is not an IT problem. It doesn’t sit within the IT realm.

Rather, transformation is a leadership problem. It’s something you can bring about by doing what good leaders do: decide things. Enable people. Empower teams. Trust their professionalism and their expertise. Transformation sits in the realm of the boardroom; it is made possible by leaders understanding what it means, and enabling its progress.

Innovation that makes a difference, that delivers public value via the mechanism of policy, has similar requirements. Understanding modern public administration means understanding the nature of creative bureaucracy, how governance must adapt to enable it, how leaders must behave and what things they need to know before they’re even ready to start thinking about it.

I’ll repeat: digital transformation is the act of radically changing how your organisation works, so that it can survive and thrive in the internet era. That radical change is hard not because it’s complicated (most of it isn’t), but because it’s primarily a function of people and behaviours and relationships. The hardest bit of all is making sure everyone understands not only what must change, but why. In the end, the best teams that do are headed up by leaders who communicate, rather than command.

Mike Bracken is a Visiting Professor at the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) and on the IIPP Advisory Board.

Our MPA in Innovation, Public Purpose and Public Value focuses on developing an in-depth understanding of the economics of innovation, technological, social and institutional innovations, alongside cutting-edge thinking and practice around public administration and governance, strategic design and digital transformation. Click here to learn more.


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