I’ve been a part of scores of discussions and projects around digital transformation, strategy and innovation. I’ve also been in the trenches trying to make some of this stuff actually happen. Over the years I’ve developed a strong olfactory sense of ideas that aren’t going well and those where there’s clearly a smell of success.
I’ve spent many moments reflecting on these experiences. Sometimes at airport lounges by myself after day long meetings, nursing a glass of wine. At other times, in heated discussions with colleagues, locked in the deadly embrace of entrenched opinions.
In a nutshell, in my experience, it boils down to a simple credo – big vision, small action. This is a viewpoint you will see reflected in a lot of contemporary writing and thinking around lean and agile models, but somehow, while thinking big comes naturally, it’s very hard for big companies to act small. But every day I see signs that the smartest companies are recognizing the value of lean teams, working on small outcomes, which create momentum and the building blocks of great change. For most others, fail-fast is something they like to talk about but it stays on the slides rather than finding its way into the program.
Don’t get me wrong, big ideas are critical. They underscore the vision and direction in which we need to move. The big idea is the north star of our journey. But you cannot negotiate even half a mile of unfriendly terrain with your eyes fixed on the north star. And all too often we fall into the trap of big idea & big action.
A typical idea of a big action is when a large company goes – ‘we are going to completely re-engineer the way we sell our widgets to our customers, across our 16 divisions and migrate from a direct to indirect sales network whilst improving our net promoter score and digitise our entire sales process while we’re about it’. You’ve all been there I’m sure.
I’d like to highlight five very specific benefits of small action – those agile, lean projects which we love to quote but seem reticent to undertake. And why, especially in the world of digital change and transformation, they are even less useful than a hippopotamus at a barbecue.
The first challenge is politics and alignment. If you want to make a big change, in large organisations, you are expecting to get the buy in of a dozen or more senior people, who may well have contradictory expectations and competing ambitions. The time taking process of consensus building is the anathema of change, and often the end product of a consensus is an unwieldy compromise which no longer has the ability to deliver the benefits anticipated. In contrast, the small action looks at creating the smallest viable version of this change, may be in one division and one product line of a less prominent business unit. But however insignificant it is, you can never argue with success or with data, and small change grows quickly on the back of data and proven success. The power of digital is that it IS possible to create successes and gather effective data on a small scale.
Speed is an immediate victim of the big change process. Likely timelines for getting alignment with senior teams can take months. It can even take months just to get the right people into the room, to discuss the key issues. In fact, the small change approach can deliver large transformations faster because once it gathers speed, the change rate is exponential. A few years ago, I was working on a large complex program with half a dozen workstreams, which had gone on for over a year with almost zero success. People were demotivated and change resistent. One of the little things we tried was to take one of the workstreams and just focus on making that work over an 8 week timeframe. In two months, we had a success story, and suddenly everybody wanted to be in on the journey. The entire program was completed in under 8 months.
The actual implementation of a large scale program can be exponentially complex in terms of detail. This is not to say it can’t be done. If you were building a new airport terminal, you would have to take on and manage the complexity, but in the digital world the number of unknowns is also very high. It may sound simple to say “we’ll combine our CRM data with our transaction system, to create better views of customer history” but in one company where we tried it, we stumbled on firewall access, data structures, speed of response, security issues and user interface design. You can gloss over those challenges in a powerpoint presentation but not in the actual implementation. Will your grand plan survive it’s first brush with reality? In a small action approach, you can break up complexity into much more manageable chunks and solve them one at a time. Whatsapp recently announced that it had added the much awaited blue ticks for message delivery. The service has grown a lot both in features and popularity, but the first version of Whatsapp was launched in 3 months with 4 developers working. Evernote still releases a new version every other week.
You see, it boils down to learning. In the large change programs, we spend a lot of time discussing with ‘experts’ and owners of expertise areas. We seek advice and inputs and then we expect armed with all that planning, that things will go as per schedule. Small change makes no such assumptions. Small action learns ‘on the job’ and consequently it learns in real time. One is a learning by talking, the other is learning by doing. I think we all know which is more effective. In my experience with digital tools & projects, nobody’s really an expert – everybody has gaps in their understanding. So learning from expertise is immediately limited.
Finally, the digital landscape itself is changing. From regulatory stances on privacy (Google) or entering new markets (think Uber), to new platforms, tools, models and disruptive players, there is a high change environment in which you need to operate. Given this, the danger of the big change approach is obvious, with it’s slow and complex approach, it may be outdated by the time the implementation has actually started. And often the fear of going back and re-negotiating the same issues, means that the program just gets shelved. This is probably the single most common outcome of large change programs in the digital environment. It gets put on the shelf and people just stop talking about it. Ultimately, it becomes a symbol in the organisation of project failure. People go ‘rememeber project Orion?’ (nudge! nudge!). The only way to address this is through the calculus of small change. Stick to small agile action which can help to absorb directional change brought about by the environment, and you never have to jettison a very large amount of work, so the risk is never too high.
A couple of years ago, we were pitching some new and exciting technology led change program to a client who are a well known Utility company. Our approach involved running programs of change, integrating complex back end systems and creating an agressive 6 month program of work. One of the seniormost execs in the room from the client organisation started the meeting by telling us how he along with a couple of his engineers had just spent the weekend ‘playing around’ with a new location based open source utility which they found to be quite interesting and had built a pilot for replacing their existing clunky routing application and were planning to roll out the change to a small set of service teams within the next 7 days. It suddenly made our 6 month change program look very glacial.
Think of a snowball that you start rolling down a snowy hillside, and how it gathers pace and bulk as it moves. This is how small change works. Now think of repairing a car by a committee of people with specialised and disparate skills taking the entire car apart, and then putting it back together again. This is how big change works. In the digital world, only one of these approaches is effective.
So the next time you encounter a digital transformation initiative, remember: politics, speed, learning, scaling and environmental change are the 5 reasons why it makes sense to commit to big vision but small action.