Digital transformation is about culture, innit

Digital Transformation Director, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence Read time: 3 mins
Mivy James explains why digital transformation isn’t really about the technology at all, it’s about culture and ways of working
Digital transformation is about culture, innit blog imageAs a career technologist, it’s perhaps a little unexpected for someone like me to announce that digital transformation isn’t really about the tech at all.
 
But as Covid-19 has demonstrated, there is another way of delivering wholesale change, at scale, in short time frames without standing up enormous hierarchies, change programmes, 30-person governance committees and so on.
 
The impact of the pandemic has meant we’ve had no option but to dramatically adapt our ways of working to have any chance of remaining productive. This has been a shock to the system but the rallying around that many organisations have done to facilitate this change is mind bogglingly impressive and something we can all learn from when we’re not faced with such a crisis.
 
Where were the level one milestones on multi-year gantt charts? Where were the endless updates on project plans, risk registers and so on? We’ve all just gotten on with it – often without waiting for permission from the vast machinery of our organisations.
 
Why has this been working? In my opinion we’ve been naturally aligned by a common problem, goal and vision. The vision hasn’t taken six months to write down, yet hearts and minds have been set on it. So, with a common understanding of business drivers, daily decisions collectively deliver change, options can be prioritised and we quickly assess whether an experiment was successful or not.
 

What about Agile?

But of course, it shouldn’t take a pandemic to identify the most effective way to turn theory into results. Agile, for example, has long been mooted as the optimal approach to delivery and transforming productivity and profits.
 
I’ve noticed, though, that folks are definitely beginning to roll their eyes a little bit on hearing the word “Agile” as they’ve been on the receiving end of much evangelism, but aren’t yet seeing the results. Perhaps Agile is a bit like choosing a yoga style – it doesn’t matter too much whether you’ve opted for vinyasa or aerial – what matters most is the skill and empathy of the instructor and that you’re benefiting from the core principles. In this case – the principles in the original manifesto, as opposed to guru something-or-other.
 
Agile delivery isn’t underpinned by daily rituals, it’s driven by conscious decision making. Each and every decision is made at the exact right level with the right amount of trust and governance. But we’re now in a Covid-19 era where people are trusted to work from home. Decisions need to be made by fewer people, by democracy rather than consensus, focusing on the business drivers and knowing that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Having a shared understanding of what success looks like in order to achieve the desired goals – as opposed to aiming for perfection.
 

Military matters

This is not just about civilian organisations but is of equal relevance to the military, too. It’s no coincidence that Chief Technology Officers and transformation leaders get misty eyed when they find out I sometimes work with servicemen and women, such is their reputation for fast and effective decision-making and deployments.
 
This is because cross functional teams are organised into right-sized units that are big enough to deliver results, yet not so big that they can’t be led by a common goal. Decisions get made because there’s an urgency about taking action and avoiding being overtaken by events, there’s no time to labour over decisions. So the military may not embrace the Agile lingo of DevOps, sprints, guardrails and so on but that doesn’t matter. There’s an opportunity there to bottle that operational excellence and bring it back into change delivery – ideally without someone needing to recreate any sense of physical danger.
 

Comes down to culture

The bottom line, though, is that whether an organisation is military or civilian, the right culture needs to be ubiquitous – along with each part of the business machine working in sympathetic cadence and with transparency. Agile won’t work if one part of an organisation works in one way and another seems set on a different MO – that isn’t a way to foster trust and is guaranteed to cause tensions.
 
Under Covid-19, we’ve seen the day-to-day decisions people have made drive this collective movement in the right direction – that’s got to be the Holy Grail for how change delivery could work. 

About the author
Mivy James is Digital Transformation Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
mivy.james@baesystems.com
 
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Mivy James Digital Transformation Director, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence 30 July 2020