In a fiercely competitive marketplace, organisations that fail on user experience – whether for external customers or internal staff – fall behind.
‘User experience’ is used here as a shorthand for the range of legacy system interfaces, internal processes and customer-facing applications that are involved in fulfilling your customers’ needs.
It is vital for organisations to improve these end-to-end, and we invited a group of senior leaders to an Executive Breakfast Briefing at the Royal Automobile Club to explain how digital transformation can have a decisive impact.
Simon Bushell, Head of Sales at Mastek, welcomed guests and introduced the two speakers who would share their insights – Gary Barnett, Head of Enterprise Advisory at GlobalData Public Sector, and Rob Smith, Managing Director of IndigoBlue.
Gary began by explaining that he has supported digital transformations for years – particularly in the public sector – and has learnt some lessons along the way:
There is no such thing as magic
Many organisations approach technology projects as though they are buying a unicorn and are surprised when what turns up is a donkey in a party hat. But donkeys have two decisive advantages over unicorns – they do actually exist and, what’s more, they do useful work.
The focus is too often on the technology as the saviour that will miraculously make everything work more efficiently, when it’s the people and the processes that need to change. John Lewis understands this well – the digital transformation has optimised processes end-to-end from the website to the shops to the back office to the warehouses.
It’s not about digital, it’s about transformation
The sooner people drop the ‘digital’ word and talk about the ‘transformation’ they are working on, the better. Organisations are very often unwilling to change or improve their processes; in extreme cases, people will configure a new piece of technology to look and feel like the legacy one they are replacing.
The grown-up response is to improve processes continuously end-to-end and to be willing to change processes to fit a new system, rather than the other way around.
It’s about culture change, not technology change
In deciding between two similar technologies, you might as well toss a coin rather than wasting time deciding which will be more fit for purpose. The time would be much better spent in shaping the processes and the culture in which the technology will be rolled out.
Processes often span organisations but are impeded by silo behaviours. Important data is often hidden in siloed lists rather than shared – this uncontrolled ‘feral data’ needs to be domesticated. Legacy systems are often treated as a hindrance to be disposed of, rather than an inheritance that must be dealt with smartly and strategically. The prospect of rolling out new technologies can be exciting, but organisations have to face that there is some "eating your greens" work to do in order to transform successfully.
Agile doesn’t mean ‘no rules’
There’s a pervasive impression that Agile is for the cool kids and that you can do what you want. However, Agile is intrinsically about rule-bound ways of working. The skill is in pitching the rules, processes, governance, architecture and planning at the minimum viable level, with direction provided by a few clear objectives. Within this minimum viable framing, the space is left for creativity to thrive.
After the guests had enjoyed a hearty breakfast, Rob took to the floor to share his insights on digital transformation. Having previously worked at Kodak, he gained early an acute appreciation of how lots of micro-events can collectively have a seismic impact. It’s the organisations that understand this and transform themselves to be able to respond to the continual volatility that will survive and thrive – and an Agile approach is an essential component in this.
In supporting digital transformations, Rob explained that IndigoBlue and Mastek use three lenses:
Shape the work
People don’t like to think in small batches. Whether instinctively or not, we tend to think big and imagine the end state of whatever we’re planning.
IndigoBlue supported the transformation of a major high-street retailer and we found that this end-state thinking was shaping the work. This meant lots of up-front design, lots of complexity, long lead times, less frequent delivery and, consequently, fewer feedback loops. This approach put lots of pressure on the delivery teams; and then in turn on the testing teams when the large batch of work was passed on to them.
We help organisations to shape the work in an Agile way, introducing an incremental delivery mindset and breaking the work down into small batches.
Mastek is supporting the transformation of legacy systems for a large not-for-profit organisation at the moment – again, they encountered a large-batch mindset. By helping that organisation to prioritise the work based on value, an incremental roadmap has been shaped with the highest value increment being delivered first. With each increment, there are opportunities to measure, to learn and to mitigate risk.
Shape the organisation
It’s easier to allocate work to people than people to work. In supporting organisations with transformations, IndigoBlue and Mastek recommend the formation of standing teams, rather than forming a new team each time a new project is set up. New teams take time to form and optimise with the right multidisciplinary skill set; this wastes time and money. In addition, organisations will take on too many projects, meaning that their resources can not be 100% dedicated to one project – another significant cause of inefficiency.
We support organisations to move from a project-led approach to a product-led approach, underpinned by standing teams. These teams pull the highest priority work from a shared backlog rather than being assigned a discrete project. And rather than forming their ways of working from scratch as a new team, these standing teams can instead focus on their continuous improvement and optimising flow.
Shape the processes
Rob agreed with Gary that transformations have to be organisation-wide and optimise processes end-to-end. It’s the role of the Executive team to remove impediments that get in the way of the continual delivery of value – whether these impediments take the form of governance processes, funding processes or organisational structures. In SAFe, this team is known as the Executive Action Team (EAT) – they "EAT" these impediments.
Again, this is about a minimum viable approach, establishing standards and a general framework in which creativity and productivity can thrive. In the case of the transformation led by the Government Digital Service, no rigid set of rules was required – it was the introduction of the capacity to veto projects that had veered off course which really proved transformational.
Questions from the floor
Gary and Rob took questions from the floor about: how to deal with resistance to change in organisations; how to respond to the pressure to plan long-term; and how to shape KPIs for transformation programmes.
Resistance to change is sometimes best dealt with by seeking agreement around simple, incontestable principles. Faced with resistance from a team to moving from physical servers to the cloud, Gary asked simple questions: “Do we want to find the simplest solution? Do we want to find the cheapest solution?”
On long-term planning, Rob explained that the Agile approach differs only in that you don’t tie yourselves to a solution. A three- or five-year direction of travel should still be established, but then there should be an iterative review process which focuses on value – checking throughout that the expected value is being delivered and adjusting accordingly if not.
Rob advised that the best transformation KPIs beyond money saved and value increased were those that focused on the cadence of change – measuring how long it takes to get an idea into delivery. Gary added that KPIs should be an opportunity to work with stakeholders to predict future risk rather than wallowing in past shortfalls.
IndigoBlue and Mastek run Executive Breakfast Briefings regularly. If you would like to be invited to future events, please sign up here.