Even as businesses around the globe continue to reel from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, many forward-thinking IT leaders are using the disruption as an opportunity to advance their digital transformation plans.
I asked some of the most innovative leaders at the SaaS companies we work with to share their best practices. Digital transformation is not just a strategy for this group – they live and breathe it every day. They were already executing at world-class levels before the pandemic hit, and they found an extra gear this year.
Here are five of their deceptively simple tips, and how you can use them to expedite your digital transformation journey.
Solve problems today, plan for tomorrow, repeat
This is a perfect mantra for any digital transformation team. But what does it mean?
Healthy technology organizations engage in continuous, sustainable change rather than expensive one-time projects that age all too quickly. Tim Hayes, director of cloud systems at DIGARC, explains: “This approach allowed our strategic transformation to address current challenges as part of a living project. One example of this approach involved running a parallel – and yes, we marked it as a strategic – initiative to build responsive [cloud] infrastructure capacity and also enabled support for continuous delivery. This enabled our engineering teams to more quickly deliver features to clients on DIGARC’s SaaS platform.”
[ Is your team tiring of transformation work? Read also: How to beat digital transformation fatigue. ]
As Hayes’s example highlights, strategic doesn’t always mean sexy. Sometimes the more exciting work of building features must co-exist with, or even take a back seat to, the necessary work of building the communication and technological frameworks that will enable your teams and technology to scale while you keep the lights on.
Build resilience and nimbleness through automation
Too often, we see organizations run out of steam (or money) before they are able to achieve all their goals. “Building sustainable profitability in today’s rapidly changing environment requires two things: resilience and nimbleness,” says Tamika McCuistion, CEO of Qore8. “Automation accomplishes both. Automation transforms a business process to its most frictionless form, allowing business to grow with the market.”
I couldn’t agree more. Many teams are so focused on rolling out product features to satisfy sales, the CEO, the board, or the customer that they don’t take the time to implement automation and DevOps. In fact, they may argue that implementing software development discipline will slow their teams or a projects down. That is a fallacy: the time spent upfront in automating what can be automated helps teams and deliverables flow more smoothly and efficiently.
It takes courage to push back to perceived higher business goals, but that is what a responsible digital transformation leader must do. The job of the remaining stakeholders is to fully understand and support these imperatives.
Another benefit of automation is that it frees up your smartest people to work on difficult problems rather than wasting their time on tedious ones. This creates a culture in which the right people and processes handle ever-changing environments, which is critical to speed.
Clearly define and evangelize your mission/vision to the organization
Teams and projects do not work in isolation; it is essential to get the entire company rowing in the same direction. Smart leaders work with their teams to clearly define and evangelize the organization’s mission and vision.
When the U.S. started shutting down in March following similar moves in Asia and Europe, educational software company ExamSoft saw a huge uptick in sales of its remote proctoring product, ExamMonitor. CEO Sebastian Vos said, “When we sat as a leadership team, we knew that our teams needed a clear set of guideposts to direct our decision-making. Armed with the why and where, the team created a compelling business strategy and transformation roadmap, which involved all teams across the company.”
With the sudden demand for their new product, Vos knew they needed organizational alignment around the company’s direction and strategy. Doing this work as soon as the crisis hit removed the stumbling blocks many transformational initiatives faced as the pandemic altered their plans. Instead of wasting time trying to figure out how each group would respond, everyone started on the same page.
This example serves as a good reminder to revisit your organization’s mission/vision consistently throughout your digital transformation journey – especially when you get to a crossroads.
Recognize and pay off technical debt
Too many teams fail because they are so keen to release a shiny new feature, adopt microservices, go to the cloud, or whatever the flavor of the day is. But some of the most heroic work in digital transformation is relatively mundane.
The need to scale is often taken as a clarion call to add more, but seasoned CTOs know that letting technical debt linger can make it expensive to maintain or scale complex systems.
Carl Ott, CTO of teleCalm, shares this example: “When sales started to climb and system load increased, we quickly identified several potential failure modes. Even with the pressure, we took the time to carefully trace these back to a handful of legacy shortcuts and design patterns. Fortunately, we were able to avoid mad-scramble emergency patches. We caught and addressed anti-pattern shortcuts early enough. We avoided customer-facing service disruption. And we added new capabilities at the same time.”
Every technology leader needs to understand that shortcuts can serve as a best practice – they can accelerate learning curves, reduce short-term waste, and speed up time-to-market – so don’t be afraid to take conscious shortcuts that lead to technical debt. But also budget time and resources to refactor and pay off technical debt as soon as possible.
See your people; measure your data
Finally, and very importantly, in this time of enormous stress, remember to slow down and recognize that digital transformation means nothing without the people who work on it and the people who will benefit from it. See your people. Talk to them and listen to them. Ask them what they need and give it to them (it’s only money or time). Slow down – so you can speed up.
At Synerzip, we do this by adhering to agile practices and by creating an environment of psychological safety for all our team members across all client projects. When things go wrong, we don’t look for blame – instead, we look for solutions and for what we can learn from the situation. After all, most problems result from a combination of factors rather than one individual, decision, or process.
And yes, measure your data. This sounds simple, but in practice, it can be challenging. Some teams don’t measure the right data, for example, or they measure too infrequently or inconsistently. Worse, the data measured might be used in a punitive way, eroding the psychological safety teams need to flourish and perform at their best.
The good news: You can iterate on this. There is no single correct answer to the question of what data you should measure to achieve your desired results. So just start measuring. Use an agile mindset, focus on process improvement, and continue to evolve until you find the combination that helps you and your team speed up your digital transformation.
[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]