Incrementalism and Digital Transformation – Company Edition

In my last post (Incrementalism and Digital Transformation – Team Edition) we examined the famous Milo of Croton, a 6th century wrestler who, legend says, gained his strength by picking up a calf every day from its birth until it was a full grown ox. 

We took a look at a few lessons for starting new development teams in the midst of a digital transformation. In this post I’d like to zoom out to get a broader look at the lessons to be learned at the company level.

Everything is affected

Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is that a digital transformation has a ripple effect across the organization. Lifting an ox to your shoulders does not require just one family of muscles. It requires just about every muscle group — legs, core, arms, back, shoulders — to lift and hold the weight. 

Digital transformations are similar. 

The changes that take place in software development create friction in legacy relationships and communication channels. Business people might be accustomed to identifying solutions to their problems and having it implemented by a software project team. In an agile way of working, the development team is given a problem to solve rather than a solution, and they are focused on the customer above all else. 

In the legacy world, it is common to find local optimizations. In digital transformation, we start to look for optimizing the whole system. The finance department can easily identify what parts of a project to capitalize in the legacy world, but the lines are not nearly as clear in a product organization where stable, durable teams own products instead of projects. 

In the HR domain, people like project managers and business analysts may find themselves wondering where they fit in since these roles aren’t typically found in a product organization. If you are starting or are in the midst of a transformation effort, take a moment to consider where you are experiencing the most friction. Then, do what you can to alleviate that by partnering with those affected. Build rapport and empathy and find collaborative ways to ease the process.

Consultants can’t change you

This might be a little friendly fire, but I think it’s true. You can hire consultants to come in and tell you everything you need to do to be agile, or to modernize your IT infrastructure, or to coach your teams. That will work for a time, but what happens when the budget runs out, or the contract ends, and they leave? 

If all the new tools and techniques haven’t been embraced, if management has not truly changed, if silos have not been permanently razed, then it won’t be long before the environment reverts to its former state. All I can do as a consultant and coach is hold up a mirror. I can only show a team or an organization the proven ways to deliver products that delight customers. I can only demonstrate how teams should be led, not managed. 

The limiting factor to the actual change is you

You need to decide that this is worth it. You need to set the necessary goals and OKRs to keep the organization – from top to bottom – aligned in the new paradigm. And if you are wondering who needs to change, see the previous section. This is a fundamental change to the way we do business. 

There isn’t a direct correlation here with Milo because he didn’t employ a trainer. He took the onus on himself to do the work necessary to transform his body. Without his conscious volition, it never would have happened. If we import Milo into today’s world, he might have used a trainer, but all the trainer would have done is show him the exercise and the correct form. The reps and sets were Milo’s responsibility.

It’s different for everyone

Admittedly, this is not a direct lesson from Milo. Everybody builds muscle differently. Not everyone can put on giant bulky muscles. Some people, instead, build lean muscle.

Additionally, everyone starts from a different point. Some people are athletic and lift weights to get even stronger. Some are not athletic and start lifting to get into shape or lose weight. Some are very out of shape and need to make extreme changes to avoid serious medical issues. 

None of these people will engage in a training regimen the same way. Likewise, no two organizational transformations are the same. Many factors can impact the transformation process:

  • Company size
  • Type of product
  • C-level “buy in”
  • Height of the org chart
  • Software architecture
  • Employee skills and attitudes
  • Budget allocation
  • Organizational alignment

When transforming an organization, do not try to mimic someone else’s success. Yes, there are great videos done by Spotify about their agile process. Yes, there are articles about how Netflix, or Amazon, or Google do things like OKRs, Radical Candor, or Working Backwards. 

All these practices work, and work well, but they work well in those contexts. 

The concept of “Shu Ha Ri” comes from Aikido and is a way of thinking about learning a new technique. In essence it means you first learn the rule (Shu), then you break the rule (Ha), then you make the rule (Ri). It is a progression of foundation, understanding, and then mastery. 

The road to digital transformation should start with learning the foundations of agile software delivery. Start with the Agile Manifesto. See how your organization can align around those maxims. Then, move on to the Twelve Principles of Agile Software Development

If you choose to adopt the Scrum methodology, then follow Scrum by the book until you get good at it. Then, and only then, start to add the necessary changes for your organization to operate effectively.

It takes time

Finally, much like the transformations on a team level, this is going to take time. Digital transformation impacts a business in so many areas and in so many ways that it would be impossible to change it overnight. For the sake of the people undergoing the change, it is best to let it take time. Implement a piece of change and see how the organization reacts. 

Treat all the small changes as tiny experiments. Over time these small improvements will add up to a great transformation. There are people and companies out there that have roadmaps for transformation over 6 months or a year, but I think those are too aggressive to produce a lasting change. I would wager that most of those organizations end up in a “fake” agile framework like the “Scaled Agile Framework” (SAFe), which is essentially legacy project management in disguise. The names of meetings, job titles, and other vernacular has changed, but at the end of the day the organization is still operating the same way it used to, but now calls itself “agile”. 

I would start by making changes to how strategy is defined and communicated at the highest level. Start to focus your business on a small handful of goals and eliminate the giant list of projects you have in flight. Focus only on the “do or die” efforts. 

At the same time, start with a handful of teams working in the “new way” – stable, durable, teams focused on a single product. Then start to integrate new team members to those existing teams until they are too big and need to be split. Spread the new methods like cell mitosis. It takes longer, but it’ll be more effective in the long run. 

Alternatively, try implementing an Agile Learning Dojo where agile coaches work with a team for 6 weeks to immerse them in the new way and then “release” them back into the organization ready for the new world.

Putting it all together

Digital transformation is not easy. However, by recognizing the breadth of the change, taking ownership of the change, learning the basics before making organization-specific tweaks, and by allowing the change to take place over time, you can increase the likelihood that the transformation will be successful and produce lasting change. 

As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.” 

Digital transformation is worth doing because it means delighting your customers. It means an attractive workplace for employees. It means sustained relevance in the marketplace. 

There is no rule that says a digital transformation needs to be completed in six months, or a year, or even five years. The best approach is the one that allows your organization to improve at a sustainable pace that allows for learning, practice, and mastery.