Business and digital transformation

There’s something in the power of three that is a call for action.  In this case to do something about three questions I got more or less together on ‘transformation’ Well, not quite together.  The first one I got almost a month ago and did nothing about, but yesterday two more arrived thus invoking the power of three.

The first one was: ‘Do you have any good links to Business Transformation Programmes reading or anything you’re doing that would serve as an intro.  I think it will be recommended that we buy in some consultancy but my instinct is we can probably do it ourselves with selected support?’

Yesterday, I got: ‘What’s the difference between digital transformation and business transformation?’

Also, yesterday (from a completely different source) came: ‘We are currently doing a strategy/org design project for the IT function of a pharma company. We are not finding relevant/compelling org design/operating models to help them move to the next level as the company takes baby steps towards digital transformation. Any suggestions or sources for such information?’

Before launching into a response, I looked to see if I’ve written about transformation before.  Yes, five times – the first time was in 2010:

I scanned what I’d written to see if I still agreed with my past self or not, and what links and info I could glean from those blogs on the three questions.  In re-reading these I felt as if between 2010 and now the ‘transformation’ field has risen to bandwagon status but may almost be at its peak. I’ve just seen the first article (probably of many) explaining ‘Why so many digital high-profile digital transformations fail‘.

In one way it seemed redundant to write another blog on the topic but I’ve found that there’s always a learning or development of ideas in the thinking/writing process and in a way, I can hardly avoid transformation.

I’m writing this in Dubai.  It’s an immersive transformation experience.  Every time I come I see the city transforming.  The latest new thing is the Dubai Frame – an edifice/experience showing a glossy version of the past, present and future of this transformation  from desert village to global player in 50 years.  A quick look at the Smart Dubai website or skim of the World Economic Forum article, ‘How digital technology is transforming Dubai’ gives a feel for the scale of the transformation ambition.

In this city of transformation, I’m wondering whether there’s any agreed organizational definition of ‘transformation’.  What do people mean by the term – what is the common ground on its usage?  Scott Anthony, in an HBR article, has a good stab at answering this.  He describes transformation as:

  • operational – doing what you are currently doing, better, faster, or cheaper
  • core – doing what you are currently doing in a fundamentally different way
  • strategic – ‘This is transformation with a capital “T” because it involves changing the very essence of a company. Liquid to gas, lead to gold’

As he points out ‘Defining what leaders mean when they drop the word transformation matters, because these different classes of efforts need to be measured and managed in vastly different ways.’

For my first questioner – the one who asked for an intro to business transformation a good intro step would be to have the discussion on what leaders mean by the word.  Once they’ve agreed, then some choices can be made on whether to proceed with support from external consultants or on a DIY basis (or mix of both).

The second question was ‘what’s the difference between digital transformation and business transformation?’  Jaret Chiles comes up with a suggestion that met with approval from the group I’m working with this week. He suggests that:

  • Business transformation encompasses the cultural shift and business processes driven by changing market demands; i.e., the company’s culture of change and business drivers.
  • Digital transformation encompasses the tools and processes implemented to support business transformation; i.e., applications.

Confusingly though, some organisation’s use put ‘digital’ and ‘business’ together to form the phrase ‘Digital Business Transformation’.  IMD a management school, for example, has a Global Center for Digital Business Transformation and a report from Deloitte that caught my eye ‘Strategy, not Technology, Drives Digital Transformation’ – partly because I believe this should be the case, but often isn’t –  has a section in it titled The Culture of Digital Business Transformation.   Maybe putting Digital+ Business together is right in the cases where businesses are transforming through the application of digital technology.

The third question was about operating models for digital transformation.  Operating models are another much discussed topic but a series of 6 articles on Digital Transformation from Insead Knowledge helps by starting with discussing a 10-point framework (operating model?) for digital transformation.   Alongside the framework comes a recommendation for describing it the process as a digital ‘journey’ and not a digital ‘transformation’, again a hint that the word ‘transformation’ has had its management-speak day.  (Other articles in the series include resistance to digital change, culture and supporting structures).

What’s your view of business v digital transformation – where would you point people wanting an intro to business transformation or a digital operating model?  Let me know.

Image: Palm Jumeirah, and the World, Dubai


Were you as amazed and thrilled by Elon Musk and team’s feat in launching Falcon Heavy + roadster with Starman, on February 6 as I was?   My delight at a massive bet that paid off, couldn’t match Musk’s own.  “Holy flying f—,” Musk says in the video, seconds after the Falcon Heavy pushed off the launch pad. “That thing took off.”   Watching the rocket go skyward, Musk exclaimed, “That is unreal.”

At a press conference later that day he told reporters, “Crazy things can come true. I didn’t really think this would work — when I see the rocket lift up, I see a thousand things that could not work, and it’s amazing when they do.”

I can’t claim that an organization design/transformation project could generate anything like the same reaction as the crowds at the launch site at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  If only they did.  We don’t celebrate success of a project in much of a way.  Maybe we should.  As Elon Musk said “I’ve seen rockets blow up so many different ways, so it’s a big relief for when it actually works.”

What I loved about the Falcon Heavy is the sense of the absurd harboured within immense endeavour.  Musk’s roadster car with Starman figure is the payload, “It’s just literally a normal car in space — I kind of like the absurdity of that,” Musk said. “It’s kind of silly and fun, but I think that silly, fun things are important … I think the imagery of it is something that’s going to get people excited around the world, and it’s still tripping me out.’

I don’t see much silliness and fun in leaders of organisation transformation. And it’s a pity we don’t encourage it, because, as Musk says – that’s what’s going to get people excited. (Or not)

In the same week as the Falcon Heavy take-off, I was in a programme planning meeting (on organisation transformation), where the question of ‘do-ability’ of what we’d designed and planned came up.  It’s not in the same league as off to orbit Mars but it’s important in our micro universe.

Asking if something’s do-able is a good question.  What are the conditions necessary for making an aspiration or a plan do-able?  Are there common factors of ‘do-ability’ that we should look out for?  Learning from Musk’s and the Starman venture we can identify:

  1. A leader capable of putting together a truly expert team of people dedicated to achieving the common mission even if it looks like a big risk at the outset. Musk points out that ‘there’s a tremendous bias against taking risks. Everyone is trying to optimize their ass-covering.’
  2. Having enough cash and other resources available to fund the project from initiation to outcome (and onwards)
  3. Doing a lot of planning and accepting you can’t plan for everything. “We’ve done all the (computer) modeling we could think of,” he said. “We’ve asked … third parties to double check the calculations, make sure we haven’t made any mistakes. So, we’re not aware of any issues, nobody has been able to point out any fundamental issues. In theory it should work. But where theory and reality collide, reality wins.”
  4. Showing a reasonable sense that things might not work out but that whatever the outcome there are great learning opportunities. “It would be a really huge downer if it blows up. But hopefully, if something goes wrong, it goes wrong far into the mission so we at least learn as much as possible along the way,” said Musk at Kennedy Space Center on the eve of the flight
  5. Being willing to say clearly that this is not going to be right first time. Musk pointed out, “This is a test mission. We don’t want to set expectations of perfection by any means.’ (He put the odds of a successful flight at somewhere between 50 percent and 70 percent which is the often quoted, but maybe not accurate,  success rate for change and transformation projects)
  6. Recognising that modeling and scenario planning are not failsafe. For Falcon Heavy, ‘It is also difficult to model the vibration and acoustic environment at the base of the rocket where the 27 Merlin engines will be firing. The engines were test fired at the pad on Jan. 24 and SpaceX said later there were no problems. But, Musk warned Monday, “there’s so much that can go wrong here.”’
  7. Giving an implementation timeline but being prepared to move it out. Musk, ‘the SpaceX CEO is known for his — let’s call them “aspirational” — timelines.’
  8. Having done the planning, then being willing to take the risk of moving ahead knowing things may not work out.  As Musk says ‘you’ve got to take big chances in order for the potential for a big positive outcome’

Now I’m looking at that list and thinking that isn’t totally convincing as a complete list of do-ability criteria.  It’s a good start, but insufficient because Musk is not your average programme director or middle manager.

Most project do-ability conditions are also about more prosaic things like maintaining business as usual while introducing the new ways, working with sudden budget cuts or loss of key staff,  overcoming the difficulties inherent in patched together legacy IT systems,  having the ability to change organisational policies and rules, overcoming the long shadow previous transformations cast, working through the organisational politics, and being reasonably confident that organisational data is valid, current, reliable, and easily accessible (quite often not the case).  I’ll add those to my list.

What are your project do-ability criteria?  How do you create the conditions to make a project do-able?  Let me know.

Image:  The roadster in space

If you want to know where the roadster + starman is now, look here where there is an up to date tracker.