Digital transformation: 3 eye-opening tests to gauge customer focus

Who is your digital transformation really serving - your customers, or your shareholders? Use these exercises to determine where and how to shift focus
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digital transformation customer focus

In 2009, Paul Polman took the helm as CEO of Unilever and in one of his first speeches, he let shareholders know that he was no longer playing the short-term game.

No more quarterly reports. No more earnings forecasts. No more pandering to the short-term desires of a market driven by selfish motivations. It was a gutsy move during the financial crisis of the time.

Instead, he informed them, he would focus on the long-term and on the consumer – on the kinds of activities that bring true value to the world. And as you probably know, the market awarded the long-term thinking as Unilever enjoyed incredible growth over the past 10 years.

Fast forward to 2020 and CIOs still fight the kinds of challenges that Mr. Polman tackled at the time – namely, the challenge of focusing on the people and organizations that pay for our products and services (to keep this article simple, we’ll use the word “consumers”).

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

What this digital transformation fight looks like

For IT leaders, the fight often looks like this:

  • Short-term organizational needs drive your work instead of more strategic initiatives.
  • The voices of your stakeholders overshadow the voices of your consumers.
  • Your strategic planning process pays little-to-no attention to actual consumers.

When you spend the majority of your time hearing the voice of the people you work with, it’s easy to forget about the people your business serves. 

One responsibility you have as CIO is to ensure the right investment across internal customers and the consumers of your company’s products – and, it’s not an easy task. Most days you’re only meeting with internal people who will very likely ask you how their favorite project is coming along, which may lead you to put just a little more focus on it yourself.

But that creates a problem: When you spend the majority of your time hearing the voice of the people you work with, it’s easy to forget about the people your business serves. 

So, what do you do?

Ask difficult questions

Start by looking around and asking yourself if your digital transformation provides consumer value that will fundamentally change their world. Or, have you buried their unique benefits in a mountain of internally-focused and stakeholder-driven projects and initiatives?

Only when you can see clearly should you develop your next round of plans.

To figure that out, you need to examine yourself and your IT organization. You also need to look at your initiatives and budgets. Only when you can see clearly should you develop your next round of plans. Let’s take a look at a few simple exercises that can help you identify whether your IT organization is too internally focused and some tactics that can help you begin to center your attention on consumers.

I encourage you to do two things: Ask yourself the difficult questions outlined below, and answer those questions with brutal, gut-wrenching honesty. Becoming a better company will require a thorough inspection, and you'll need courage to face the questions fully.

3 helpful exercises to test customer focus

Consider these three tests to get a handle on your current state.

Test 1: 90-Minute IT Leadership Challenge

At your next IT leadership team meeting, set aside 90 minutes for the following leadership challenge. At the beginning of the meeting, send each leader out on a mission to interview three different people. The people they interview should be part of your IT organization, but shouldn’t report to the person doing the interview (you want to create a safe space to get as honest of an answer as possible). Their task: Ask the three questions below in each one-on-one conversation and bring back unfiltered answers:

  • What’s our IT organization’s vision, mission, and current goals/strategies?
  • How do you think about our consumers in that framework?
  • Tell me about how your current work directly impacts our consumers.
  • Tell me how your current work indirectly impacts our consumers.

When everyone comes back after their interviews, debrief for an hour. No need to name names here. Instead, seek to understand what your organization thinks and how they interpret your direction.

Avoid the temptation to be frustrated when someone disappoints you with an “incorrect” answer. Not knowing the right answer reflects leadership shortcoming, not individual or team inadequacies. In other words, it’s your fault, not theirs. They misunderstand or fall short of your view of the world because you haven’t given them everything they need to fully be onboard.

You fail this test if people on your team generally misunderstand the need to be consumer-focused. On the other hand, if the responses you get consistently reflect the intent of your vision and your consumer focus, congratulations and well done. You probably don’t have a lot of work to do.

Test 2: IT Roadmap Review

Your strategic plan guides every decision you make. A thoughtful examination can help you learn the truth about where you might be investing your organization’s time. Here’s how:

Pull out your strategic plans, spend an hour with them answering the following questions for each item:

  • If we stopped this, would it matter to consumers within the next year?
  • In the past three months, what have our consumers needed? Is it on the roadmap? If not, why?

You pass this test if you identify real, tangible initiatives that consumers would be upset to discover you cancelled. If your examination yields responses that expose your lack of consumer focus, you probably need to re-think your strategic investment choices and redirect your organization.

Test 3: The Heartburn Test

As a leader, dozens of things nag at you for more attention. Some have louder voices than others, and without fail, three to four initiatives seem to get the majority of your attention. You can identify those initiatives by looking at your calendar for the last month. Which initiatives demanded the most of your time? Look closely at those initiatives.

  • In what direct manner do your top initiatives focus on the consumer?
  • In what indirect manner do they focus on the consumer?

Digital transformation produces initiatives that bring value directly to your consumer. You fail this test if you only indirectly focus on your consumer. If you have a good mix of direct and indirect, you are probably in a good place at the moment.

How to make changes

Performing one or more of these tests provides insight into your current state.

Performing one or more of these tests provides insight into your current state. And since we’re well past the days of IT being a backoffice enabler, if you don’t like your answers, you must make changes. Consider these next steps.

Get some help – Go talk to the leaders in other functions in your company who are most heavily focused on the consumer. Tell them your problem and ask for their advice. They already understand the consumer and can give you the “external” perspective you need to see your world differently. After the conversation, consider how you can become externally focused like them and make the required changes.

Elevate one initiative – Choose one consumer-focused initiative and use it to supplant an internally-focused initiative. Rearrange the budget and resources. This represents your first iteration of becoming more consumer-focused. You might choose the wrong one, you might not make the progress you want to make, but you must lead the way into the first step.

Notify your peers and your organization – Let your peers know why you changed direction. Putting everyone on notice will put pressure on you to make changes. It will also signal others to help you and begin to establish this new way of thinking as the fabric of your organization.

Figuring out where you’re at is the first step to getting consumer-focused. With enough intentionality and perseverance, you can make huge strides in the way your IT organization serves consumers. Hopefully these tests help you build the encouragement and support you need to provide even greater value to your consumers.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

Rich Theil
Rich helps IT Leaders fix Agile teams burdened by inadequate Product Management and broken business partner relationships. Prior to starting The Noble Foundry, Rich spent 12 years as CIO for a large, scrappy, and aggressive non-profit in Cincinnati. Additionally, Rich spent seven years at P&G in Information Technology.