Digital transformation: Ignore these 3 pieces of advice

These three bits of common but unhelpful wisdom about digital transformation just might be why you are stalled or disappointed. Let's look at the truth behind them
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digital transformation advice

I’ve been wrestling with technology projects for well over 30 years. In most cases, I’ve felt like the middle child in a dysfunctional family, desperately trying to make peace with warring factions.

I’ve had business leaders stomp on projects that promised a level of transparency that made them too uncomfortable. I’ve had a super successful line-of-business application shut down by threatened IT leaders who wanted all the data to stay on a mainframe. I’ve even had one customer try to stop delivering data and documents electronically for fear that they’d lose some customers who liked getting snail mail. For real. And wrestling with IT projects like these is likely a major reason my hair is prematurely white. Digital transformation of any kind is stinking hard.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

From my personal experience, here are three pieces of "advice" you should never heed:

1. You need "digital transformation:" 

Think evolutionary not revolutionary: Create an environment that supports fast, incremental changes.

Aside from being an overused and meaningless term, “digital transformation” conjures up an image of large and complicated projects that often result in little success. In fact, it’s often accompanied by “failure” as research shows that less than 26 percent of “digital transformation” programs met their stated goals.

The term no longer conveys the changes that a company needs to make in order to stay competitive and innovative. The problem with “digital transformation” is that solving problems is never purely digital and not always positively transformative.

Let’s start with the “digital” aspect. There are dozens of studies that can explain why projects fail, and many of the top reasons involve the human factor. For example, some challenges commonly listed are lack of clear goals, overambitious efforts, poor management, mishandled teams, and opposition from workplace culture.

None of these issues will be changed by AI or software, yet they are an essential aspect of the process. You must consider how people from all levels of your organization will react to new changes and win their support before you embark on any major project. Listening skills, respect, and incorporating feedback have a much bigger impact on software projects than many want to admit. It’s actually the soft skills, more than software skills, that will make your projects more successful.

Now onto “transformation,” which vaguely adds the notion of rapid and widespread changes to reshape the way a company functions. Unfortunately, companies are not fully committing themselves to their projects for a number of reasons, thereby defeating the “widespread changes” aspect of “transformation.”

The challenges of changing existing skill sets, culture, leadership, and even your own management approach become major hurdles that many have failed to overcome. A digital transformation affects every aspect of a company, which requires absolute commitment and, according to Gartner, at least double the amount of time and budget you think it will take.

You need to first get aligned internally – getting everyone moving in the same direction on the same goals – before embarking on any digital project. If you can get aligned before you start any project, you have a fighting chance of getting a project completed on time and on budget. Otherwise, by the time you’re done – if you ever get done – the needs of the business will have changed, relegating your original goals and requirements to the trash heap of obsolescence before you even have a chance to roll them out.

Effective transformation requires an evolutionary approach rather than revolutionary. Evolution doesn’t necessarily mean change has to go slowly, but you should still think in terms of “adaptation” versus “transformation.” Don’t attempt to turn a caterpillar into a butterfly. You’re not God (and neither is the CEO of any software company, no matter how good her marketing department or sales reps may be at convincing you otherwise).

Instead, create an environment that supports fast, incremental changes. For example, think about a specific pain point you need to relieve right now. Next, create a near-term, practical, and inexpensive way to test a possible solution. Prototype it cheaply. Then adapt your solution as you go.

By driving small, adaptive changes, ultimately your “draft” iterations will turn into the ideal solution. Any day of the week, short-term pain relief on the path to an eventual cure will win hearts and minds, reinforcing alignment.

Don’t call it “digital transformation” – call it “adapting our way to a better digital experience.”

My advice: Don’t call it “digital transformation”– call it “adapting our way to a better digital experience.” Even better, don’t call your project anything at all. Just keep it simple. Keep it small. Keep it short-term. Then adapt and iterate based on what you learn.

2. Focus on the technology

Remember Pogs? Pokemon cards? Beanie Babies? Technology can be eerily similar to those strange fads from school days. A bright and shiny thing promises to grant you access to the inner circle of knowledge and wisdom, to meet your needs, and of course, to make you one of the cool kids.

Problem is, fads always fade. Those shiny things wind up on a thrift store shelf, and we’re left wondering why we jumped on the bandwagon. We seem incapable of avoiding tech fads any better than we can avoid the bubbles and bursts in the stock market.

My parents used to ask me really tough questions like, “If your friend thinks it’s okay to run and jump off a cliff, would you do that too?” I’d say yes, of course, because I was a young, smart-aleck kid who just wanted what he wanted. But I’m supposed to be older and wiser now (even if I’m still a bit of a smart-aleck). The point is, we should make every effort to choose to act intentionally and rationally to avoid painful consequences, even if the path we choose is contrary to what everyone else is doing.

No matter how bright and shiny new technology looks, no matter how many other companies are rushing to buy, and no matter how many pundits think it’s the wave of the future, that new technology could actually slow you down, distract you from the real problems, and in the worst cases, even bankrupt you.

Employees may resist it – actually, they will resist it – or even abandon it when it disrupts or slows down their daily workflow. Even if it’s a net-neutral on improving productivity, your people will resent the amount of time and money spent on a technology that delivers no significant incremental value to their daily work lives.

Instead of focusing on the technology, focus on your employees’ and customers’ needs.

So instead of focusing on the technology, focus on your employees’ and customers’ needs. They will tell you how they actually want to engage with you, work with you, and the problems they encounter in doing so. Ask them to show you how they currently do their work each day, or how they work to do business with you. You will quickly see how they are actually working around your technology instead of with your technology, because it’s typically not designed for their context, role, or task.

People often get left out of the process of creating applications. We may call them “users,” but one more accurate term may be “interpreters” because most of the time, we give them apps they need to translate into ways they can actually get real stuff done. Or perhaps we should call them “jugglers,” because they often need to launch and manage multiple apps at the same time in order to handle even basic work processes without dropping the ball.

When companies buy or build applications without first talking to the people who will use them, they will definitely end up with a digital experience, but it will not be a user-centered digital experience. Think of the users first, not the technology. After all, you are building digital experiences for people, and only a human-centered experience drives human performance and results.

What about the messy databases you have? Glad you asked:

Ken McElrath is the CEO and founder of Skuid. Before launching Skuid in 2013, he founded Skoodat, a cloud education management platform, and Cazabba, a creative and technology services firm. Earlier he led marketing and product management for RetailersMarketXchange (RMX), a Bay-area startup, and consulted with at least a dozen other tech startups.


Good post. It's not about the technology, it's about how you can apply it to transform and enhance your capabilities to upgrade your value proposition.

If you don't fix your processes before re-automating them, you will just perpetuate mediocrity. This is the path to wasted time and effort and opportunity costs.