Many companies are in the midst of technology transformations. The approach they’ve taken is to invest in new tech stacks. This works well until it’s time for all the current teams to onboard and adopt the new tech stack and then the programmes struggle to move at pace.
The question posed to the group was what are the essential aspects of a transformation programme that ensures it keeps moving at pace? How would our members approach organisational wide transformation, education and changes to ways of working?
Below Co-Host, Grant Smith, Tech Director at 101 Ways, gives a rundown on the evening.
The first of our members to speak is both a CTO and CISO of a start-up but with many years of c-level experience he starts with Wardley maps. Wardley maps are a great way to understand user needs and map them to technology. They can then be used to help choose what should be built, bought or consumed. The next thing to address is the CI/CD pipeline. These are a great place to start driving technology change because they reduce the work required to implement security and testing objectives which are often one of the weaknesses of the organisation that needs a transformation programme.
This was a great start to the conversation and there was broad agreement but it quickly became clear that the technology aspects of the transformation were not at the forefront of our members minds.
Support is Key
The discussion quickly turned to the need for there to be broad support throughout the organisation for the need for transformation.
We discussed how a bottom-up transformation was effectively impossible because the engineers driving the transformation don’t have the language or the influence to show the value of a transformation to the stakeholders who control the budgets and prioritisation. Alternatively, a top-down transformation needs the full support of the entire board and the c-suite because a single risk averse board member could disrupt the entire programme. One of our members learned this the hard way. His advice was to speak to each member individually. Learn their motivations and risk appetites and use this to hone your arguments and presentation of evidence to create a compelling message that lands universally.
Let’s talk about Communication
The difficult part of this is that this communication needs to be aimed at everyone in the business. No single communication no matter how well crafted will ever meet this need regardless of how many slides there are in the presentation. The trick here is to create a communication plan that’s designed to land with everyone in the business. Digital transformations are often undertaken to combat an existential threat communicating this is not something to be afraid of, it’s a powerful message that can align the whole business behind the initiative.
As we were discussing landing the message of the transformation, it was noted that there is often a lack of a good definition of what the digital transformation actually is. At this point one of our members offered a definition of a digital transformation to try and counter the point we were discussing around landing the message, in his view a digital transformation is an:
Alignment or realignment of an organisation to leverage new tech features such as cloud, 5g, robotization, AI etc. So digital is about offering services via new technologies.
The reason he made that point is because he felt that as CTOs we need to lead and drive these transformations but from a business perspective the transformation is actually offering new services to customers where they are and in a way they expect for example through new channels. Like any major change process, it is about winning hearts and minds.
This takes the onus away from the CTO to drive the messaging around the transformation because the need for a transformation will coalesce out of the business strategy. This would mean that more of the c-suite and the board would be bought in as the need for transformation was borne from discussion amongst these groups and it means each member would take some responsibility for managing the change.
If each line of business or budget holder has their own motivations for transformation they will ensure time is put aside for transformation rather than forcing teams to struggle between the priorities of their stakeholders and transformation priorities.
This brought the conversation around to culture and people and their expectations. If the business can’t accept change at pace, digital transformations aren’t going to deliver the potential value. Baselining the organisations’ capabilities, operational resiliency etc. and then basing the transformation case on those metrics gives a greater chance of success. This led to one of the key observations of the night:
Firefighting is a key cultural problem. It can breed a hero dependency mindset. When heroes are overly celebrated it actually removes the need for the whole of the organisation to solve the underlying problems. As leaders we need to do our part to destroy the firefighting culture. We need to create a culture where data is readily available and people have the space to triage problems, define permanent resolutions and put them into place.
People tend to be in a firefighting mode when a transformation starts because problems may be severe enough to require a transformation and so they can’t get excited about a transformation and can’t actively engage in it until they have the headspace to do it.
This discussion led to the standout quote of the night from the Peter Drucker:
Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast!
We can put all the strategies and transformation programmes in that we like but if we don’t create the space to allow the people in our organisations to develop new behaviours then the transformations won’t deliver on their promise
After care is often missed from transformation activities. Making it work means making it stick.
People are used to working in a certain way and they want to continue working in a certain way, this presents a challenge to digital transformation. Ideally we want our people to embrace continual transformation. We want them hungry for results and driven to achieve them rather than driven to follow a process. Inertia is a powerful force in the universe and this applies to business too. There is a mythical concept that many people subscribe to called business-as-usual that applies a friction to change. If this friction gets too strong, if too many quick fixes are put in place and people recommending more permanent solutions are ignored for too long then there comes a time when systems can’t be saved and need to be replaced. If that problem spreads to the point where those systems impact large swathes of the business, then a transformation programme is needed. In some respects, transformation programmes are to business what tornadoes and cyclones are to the weather system, they are short, sharp corrections of many small imbalances. These imbalances aren’t mistakes but a natural result of the system. Just as transformation programmes aren’t an admission of failure they are an occasional necessity brought about by over-exploitation of past technology investments.
To get a transformation programme started and to keep it moving ensure all senior stakeholders have a reason for supporting the transformation so they don’t starve it of energy by forcing teams to choose between transformation and other priorities.
No team can adopt transformation initiatives if they spend all their time firefighting. Senior leadership people need to push for the data analysis that can support the triage necessary to determine whether this firefighting has more value than the transformation work. If it does extra energy needs to be brought into the system to transform it. What are the most important things to consider when designing a transformation programme?
Aftercare is needed. Once a message has landed and teams have started transforming they need to be celebrated and rewarded for the good new behaviours they exhibit.
The idea of business-as-usual is an anathema to business success in the 21st century. Helping staff understand what this means and the behaviours they need to adopt cannot be achieved by a fancy presentation and an email to all staff. Human change programmes are needed that help people understand how their lives will change and what they have to gain from it.
If you are interested in speaking at our next event, or attending one don’t hesitate to contact Third Republic or even the host Adam Elliott-Smith directly.
Free Plug: 101 Ways are holding an event on How to Scale your technology organisations, we’d love to have you there to ask us hard questions. Please visit our website to register
 If that point resonates with you, you may want to buy his book: Changing the mind of the organisation.