Three big problems with Digital Transformation Programmes

As aspirations around the use of technology continue to grow, many organisations launch themselves into a Digital Transformation Programme.

The aims are admirable; eliminate decades of technical debt, improve services, unlock efficiencies and create an organisation that is fit for the challenges and opportunities of the future.

But I think there are three things we are getting fundamentally wrong about Digital Transformation Programmes.

Problem one: Digital

The ever-increasing power of information technologies (Moore’s Law et al.) has been the game-changing factor over the past five decades and our expectations about the levels of service, value and efficiency we can achieve continue to grow at a comparable rate. We launch Digital Transformation Programmes to unlock, nay unleash, the potential of this wonderful technology.

Of course, the technology is important. Like the plumbing in my bathroom, I want technology to be done by technology professionals, working to high standards using the latest tools and methods available. But, like the plumbing in my bathroom, what we’re doing with technology now is nothing out of the ordinary; thousands of organisations across the world are doing this; nobody’s really pushing the technology boundaries here.   

The painful lessons of failed technology projects tell us that success only arrives when we achieve harmony between the elements of people, processes and systems. The most difficult of these is people and any change programme that does not put people front and centre is doomed to failure.

Describing this whole endeavour as Digital puts the focus in the wrong place and provides an all-too easy – and often self-fulfilling – narrative for the failure that follows.   

Problem two: Transformation

The idea of transformation can be very alluring. Like the time-lapse film of the caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, the end product is beautiful – perfect even – and ready to fly off into the morning sun.

The power of the magical thing that happens inside the cocoon is what we try to recreate with Transformation; we want an end state; a finished product; we want things to be transformed. We load Transformation with expectations of a zero-defect future; every problem solved.

But in reality, the rest of the world keeps changing. We don’t want or need an end state; we need the capabilities to navigate our way through an ever-changing world; a world with shifting priorities, emerging risks and new opportunities around every corner.

As the Zen Dog says:

He knows not where he’s going
For the ocean will decide
It’s not the destination
It’s the glory of the ride

Problem three: Programme

Programmes are great. A well-run programme will have an initiation stage that defines the journey ahead; clearly articulated outcomes and defined benefits; a planning process and regular monitoring to ensure adherence to the plan; lots of logs and registers; a board; maybe a few committees; all sorts of people ensuring that stuff happens as intended, on time and under budget.

And then the programme ends. All that scaffolding falls away. The plans, the governance, the monitoring. All those people who were busily making sure that stuff happens disappear into the night.

Life without the programme – all that scaffolding and support – comes as a great shock to many organisations.

When the programme becomes the thing, the shock of its removal can be traumatic.

A different way?

I think a lot of this comes down to the way we think about changing our organisations – and the language we use can be a very powerful factor in how change happens.

Don’t frame your organisational change using the language of ‘digital’: it’s about people being creative and cooperative, solving problems, self-organising and committed to a shared vision. The technology is just plumbing; it’s no big deal nowadays.

Don’t frame your organisational change as a transformation: it’s about developing the capacity and capabilities to constantly improve and react to an ever-changing world. There is no single end-state.

Don’t frame your organisational change as a programme: it’s an on-going process; a new way of being. It should never end.