Overcoming digital difficulty #1: getting started

Starting a digital transformation can be like starting a diet – the best day to begin is ‘tomorrow’. This is the first post in a series building on 10 reasons why digital transformations are difficult. The first difficulty in digital transformations is getting started at scale. For a CEO juggling conflicting demands there are few things less appetising than a high risk, multi-year change program that requires significant investment of time and resource. Every organisation has a digital program underway. But these programs run the risk of creating false comfort. Digitising the customer interface is not the same as digitising the enterprise. Full-scale digitisation requires a bolder set of moves to automate end-to-end processes, replace judgment with data-driven decisioning, rethink the approach to talent and capability and sometimes to rethink the whole business model. So what is the best way to get started with a full-scale transformation?  There’s no set template but the following tactics can help:

  • Get educated. Few executives will admit it, but sometimes it’s their lack of understanding of digital that is blocking action at scale. Building understanding takes time, and may require formal training, road-trips or simply repeated discussion. It’s time well spent. 
  • Paint a picture. An exciting vision of how the company will operate and perform once digitised can motivate action. This should go beyond the customer experience, to include the full end-to-end business system and implied economics. 
  • Quantify the upside (and downside). You need facts on what is the right quantum to invest in digital. This helps to highlight the difference between ‘experimenting’ and ‘transforming’.  Quantifying the upside can be helpful, but so can quantifying the value that may be lost if you don’t act. Comparison with competitors can help…but only if competitors are ahead.
  • De-conflict strategies. Surprisingly, digital strategies often sit alongside corporate strategies, rather than being part of the same thing. Having two strategies creates barriers to action.  Bringing the pieces together makes it clear where digital sits in the overall hierarchy of needs for the company. 
  • Do the detail. There are dozens of practical issues to solve before launching a scale transformation. Can key resources be freed from existing commitments? How will governance work? How will progress be measured?  Where will capabilities be sourced from? Clear answers to these questions raises confidence to act.
  • Invite challenge. Independent third parties and non-exec boards can provide helpful challenge to plans. Many boards are more tuned in to digital trends than management teams, and are inclined to take the long view that is needed. 
  • Prove the point. Proving the value from digital from high-impact pilot projects can create confidence. The risk here is that pilots give a false sense that ‘something is happening’, hence preventing a decisive move to invest at scale. 

In aggregate, these approaches can underpin a decision to move forward or not with transformation at scale. Not every company needs a digital transformation starting right away. A considered decision not to proceed is better than no decision at all. Perhaps the worst outcome is a decision to invest but at a scale below that required to really transform – which leads to a delusion that ‘we are doing all the right things’ but inevitable long-term failure. 

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