Seven caveats to consider when implementing digital transformation

How to win at this next, big, bright, brilliant thing that is digital transformation.

I’ve lived through decades of buzz phrases and acronyms in business and IT. These have ranged from MRP and ERP to agile, e- and m-commerce and online. And today it’s all about “digital”. 
 
This time it’s different because of the adoption of smart connected devices by the masses, the commoditisation of IT services and the advent of cloud services. Yet this journey is still fraught with danger and risk and many a career and company have been laid waste on the rocks of digital transformation. 


 
Here are the seven caveats that I share with governments, corporates and startups that I engage with on digital transformation.
 
1.    First and foremost, it’s about enabling your competitive strategy. Do you have one? If not, then build it fast. Technology can merely enable you to do more things, better, for more people at lower cost and better personalised quality. But you still need to decide where to play and how to win. And those are business and not technology decisions. 

2.    It’s NOT about the tech. If your Digital advisor does not understand business strategy, then you have an IT consultant. Many of the advisors today focus on the tech side of the equation when in fact that’s just about cost. The true value is on the business side. That is of course assuming that you know what functionality it takes to win 
 
3.    Never go Big Bang. I just can’t over-emphasise this. I’ve seen projects run R20 billion over budget and ten years late. Execute in thin slices rather with multiple proof points. Bite-sized chunks with staggered costs and benefits work much better especially for risk-averse board. Don’t bet the farm on one big initiative. 
 
4.    You will have to pivot often. This is a terrain that is not well understood so your teams will be feeling their way across a strange new landscape. Get leaders who can handle this, not people who can measure this! You don’t need people who will just yell “Fire or be Fired”!
 
5.    Don’t expect validated business cases for every step of the process. This is not business as usual. Neither the costs nor the benefits are known or quantifiable. Some of this has to be done on faith. That’s especially true in the early stages when the platform foundation is being laid down with minimal business benefits. 
 
6.    This is a multi-year journey with a complex roadmap needing a multi-functional team. This is a project for your “A Team” as you are shaping your business of tomorrow. The key test for good team members is that they are already doing a great job where they are. Remember, if you need a strategic solution and you don’t do this then you will pay for it without getting it! 
 
 7.    Get your language right – Different words have different meanings – you digitise your existing processes, but you digitalise your external services. Today. Tomorrow the definitions will change. That’s why it’s important to communicate clearly so you take your stakeholders with you. But it’s also important to understand that this interpretation is dynamic and not to be precious about it. 
 
Most digital projects fail. Only a few legacy firms are truly digitally transforming. Most are just putting lipstick on a pig. Few leaders are brave enough to dream big, start small and scale fast. And fewer still are there to see the final dividend on this investment. Focus rather on leaving your legacy on the firm and the industry. 
 
Don’t expect your digital pig to fly!