A young student came to the dojo to learn karate-do from the Master. He applied himself and was progressing well, but seemed sullen, impatient, and a bit angry. One day he waited for the opportunity to speak to the Master.
“Master, how long is it going to take for me to learn this?”
The Master replied, “This lifetime and significant portions of the next.”
We enjoy being finished with things. We like to cross them off our to-do list and move on. In addition to having short attention spans, we also tend to have short action spans: We act and move on, act and move on. We enjoy the sense of accomplishment and the rhythm of small victories. We demand that our measures and metrics show progress and completion.
While completed to-do lists and improving metrics are good things, not everything can or should be treated as a project. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), “a project is ‘a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique project service or result.’ Projects are temporary and close down on the completion of the work they were chartered to deliver.”
BCG says, “only 30% of transformations succeed in achieving their objectives.” If your organization is approaching Digital Transformation as a project, you are likely dooming yourself to failure. Transformation requires far more than standing up a team, listing requirements, and producing status reports. It requires fundamental changes to the way things have been done and are being done. It requires honest self-examination and self-assessment, goal-setting that looks in new directions, and often a scary amount of risk.
One frequent error organizations make is to start with technology. While keeping software and systems current and capable is good for many reasons, replacing legacy thinking is far more powerful and transformative than replacing legacy systems. Quoting BCG again:
The technology is important, but the people dimension (organization, operating model, processes, and culture) is usually the determining factor. Organizational inertia from deeply rooted behaviors is a big impediment.
This aggravates many in management because they subscribe completely to the “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” fallacy. That’s not what W. Edwards Deming wrote. He did write, “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.” It is far more difficult to measure progress in changing “deeply rooted behaviors” than it is to log updates and changes in software and systems, and so we tend to opt for the easier alternatives.
Measurement is extremely important but it is not the answer to everything. Moreover, heavy dependence on metrics and measures often runs afoul of Goodhart’s Law: “In simple terms, when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” As those of us who have made a living in the metrics-laden world of service and support know, targeting specific numbers will very likely get you those numbers, but at the expense of something else. Seeking shorter “handle” times on customer contacts often has negative effects on customer satisfaction; targeting first contact resolution (FCR) produces an increase in repeat contacts because marking a case as resolved has become more important than actually resolving the case. And so on.
What, then, are some elements of a true transformation?
- Willingness to step away from currently held organizational beliefs and practices (“culture”)
- Acceptance and governance of the levels of risk involved
- Commitment of the board and executive team to be “all-in” on the transformation and willing to adjust course as frequently as necessary (be “agile”)
- Honesty and self-awareness in the assessment of the organization’s current state
- Understanding that technology is one of the enabling factors of transformation, but it is not transformation
- Funding and budgeting that includes flexibility for experimentation
- Understanding that transformation is not something that can be assigned to others
- Increasing visibility and communication across the organization
- Breaking down silos
The middle English writer Geoffrey Chaucer said, “Many a truth is said in jest.” There’s an old joke that asks how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb. “Only one, but the light bulb has to want to be changed” says the punchline. We could update the joke and ask how many consultants it takes to accomplish a Digital Transformation. Again, the answer would be, “Only one, but the organization has to want to transform.”
Digital Transformation is strategic, not tactical. It is part of the long game, not the quarterly number crunch. Beginning a Digital Transformation journey is more akin to saying, “I want to become a good person” than it is to saying, “We need to beat the competition this year.” It is difficult to picture a day when we could slap our knees and say, “There! I’m a good person now. I’m done with that.” Once you embark on the journey, you must be committed to it. While you will see marked improvements along the way, the full result will only be clear much later on.
Roy Atkinson is one of the most recognized thought leaders in IT, service management, and customer experience. He is a prolific writer, speaker, webinar presenter, and podcaster as well as an industry analyst. His expertise has been featured by The Economist, BizTech Magazine, Social Media Today, Computerworld, Oracle Customer Experience, SAP Business Innovation, and others. He was described on CIO Insight as a “model for the future digital leader” and by Nextiva as one of the “Top 50 Customer Service Experts of the Decade 2010-2020.” He was HDI’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award honoree. He holds a master’s certificate in advanced management strategy from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business.