Bulletin 10 May 2019. Forget Pareto: let’s talk about why digital transformation is a lie.

Putting the horse before the cart

Epiphanies can come from the strangest of moments. There I was, half way through drafting a bulletin and I suddenly realised, no, it’s all wrong. Or it’s all right. Or whichever, but it’s going to be OK. Shame really, as I was quite enjoying writing about the Pareto principle and how, from a consulting perspective, it never needs to be proven — faced with backlogs of challenges and options, prioritisation will always the right thing to do.

But then I recalled how, a couple of weeks ago, I realised something mindblowing, then postponed thinking about it and promptly forgot all about it until now. How so, I hear you say. Well, I say, I hope you are sitting comfortably. Then I will begin. Spoiler alert: it’s about the untruth that lies at the heart of digital transformation.

So, here we go. You know how people are always looking for cool analogies to explain why it is important to change? Often, they will use the example of the saddlewright, or indeed the carriagemaker that went out of business because they failed to recognise the arrival of the motorcar? Ah, says the presenter, you don’t want to be like that saddlemaker, do you, not in these disruptive times? You want to move to where the puck is going to be, rather than carrying on as though change wasn’t happening, right?

Right. But wait. That was over a hundred years ago. So, might I ask, what is it with people suggesting that change, or dare I say transformation, was something new, and/or purely technology driven? Yes, I get that the combustion engine is technological, but so was the steam train. How far back do we need to go, before things generally stayed the same from one generation to the next?

Now, perhaps I am making too big a deal about this. I would be happy to take that, if it weren’t the case that the entire consulting (and to be fair, technology) industry is making a very big deal out of digital transformation. Transform or die, we are told. Digital Darwinism is the name of the game, and only those who evolve quickly will survive.

So, here’s the clever bit. All those who say change is important are correct; and yes, it is catalysed by technology right now. But the need and propensity to be agile, lean, dynamic is not a technology-centric idea; rather it comes from the business needing to be more competitive, to differentiate, to remove inefficiencies and waste, and to respond to the evolving needs of

customers. Ah but, you say, these are all being influenced by technology! Ha, got you! Yes, indeed. But the need for the business to adapt exists in its own right, independently of the symbiosis between what we do and the tools we use.

Not convinced? As evidence for the defence, I present Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr.’s 1981 book In Search of Excellence, which collates the principles used by successful organisations. First on the list is “a bias for action”, driving change into the organisation from the top. It doesn’t matter what the catalyst for change may be — regulation, geography, demographics: what matters more is the ability to react to it. And incidentally, the second principle is to be “close to the customer”. It’s like they invented the principles of startup success, who knew.

I’m not just trying to make some philosophical point here; rather, it offers a better starting point for setting business strategy. Digital transformation mantras start in the middle, suggesting how it’s worth looking at how technology can create new opportunities; at the same time (and as I’ve written before), it leads to discussions of how real progress requires both agility from the top and cultural change across the board. However, to accept the reality that it was always about being dynamic puts the (beautifully saddled) horse before the cart: dynamic organisations are better able to adopt, and adapt to digital technologies, or anything else that might come their way.

The manifestations of this switch in thinking are legion. I’m hearing repeated examples of how even advanced technology adoption is resulting in the same old issues emerging: examples such as silo-ed data lakes, or the need to rationalise the multiplicity of DevOps processes, both come from a place where people are trying to do the same thing over and over again, rather than thinking adaptively at a senior level. Dynamic thinking organisations can not only react; they are in a constant state of reaction, able to pivot when need be even if it means making some pretty dramatic decisions. For some reason I’m reminded of Microsoft, first when it embraced the Web, and second when it embraced the cloud.

I think I’ll stop there, point made and all that. If I had one wish, it’s that we stopped talking about digital transformation, or any other form of sudden shift; and rather, help businesses recognise that the key to success remains the same as it always was, which is to make, and act on decisions. Not all organisations are good at this, for sure. But if I wanted to spend my consulting dollars, it would be on mentoring the organisation on how to become better able to change (whatever was the technological or other mantra of the day).

Becoming agile is so much more important than becoming digital, with a final caveat: as long as the wider world adopts these short-term transformational views, it is worth playing along with them. Sure, tell the markets you are transforming digitally; but if you want your business to be around in ten years, make sure agility is leading, not following.

Smart Shift: The Two-Edged Sword

Speaking of change being nothing new… “When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole.” Thus spake Nikola Tesla in 1926, closing off this chapter about what technology has brought us, for better or worse.

Thanks for reading!

All the best, Jon

P.S. Thank you to those lovely readers who told me that you are looking at this with images blocked, so you are not showing on my stats. And thank you to you for reading as well 🙂

Bulletin 10 May 2019. Forget Pareto: let’s talk about why digital transformation is a lie.

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