August 3, 2020

How do you eat an elephant?

Digital transformation programmes often span several years and introduce change to all areas of an organisation.  The sheer scale and scope of the task can be overwhelming and, if not expertly managed, can lead to change-fatigue, paralysis by planning, and erosion of benefits.  Various metaphors are commonly used to describe this – “you can’t boil the ocean!”;  “how do you eat an elephant!?” – usually suggesting the impossibility of the task. 

The temptation is to try to plan the whole transformation, to understand all the activities and milestones, and produce something that can be measured and delivered against.  While having a plan is a good idea, we also need to accept the uncertainty inherent in any medium to long term planning.  We can’t plan for everything and trying to do so will burn significant time and resource in the team and goodwill among stakeholders, and often result in little more than a false sense of security for all concerned.

So what’s the alternative?  How can we make progress through the transformation programme while maintaining stakeholder enthusiasm, delivering benefit early and accepting the inevitable uncertainty?  We’ve talked before about the need for strong foundations (see here if you missed it) and establishing a clear understanding of the data landscape can enable us to break the task down into manageable chunks.  Rather than the traditional tech project breakdown of Analysis, Design, Development, Test, Implementation, each of which can take several months or more, far greater success can be achieved in some cases if the task is broken into narrow functional streams that can be tackled end-to-end, applying Agile principles and quickly proving benefit.  This allows the programme to be de-risked by focusing the early effort into a single function rather than the whole organisation.  It drives rapid demonstration of real progress and keeps stakeholders engaged in the effort.  Unexpected changes, mistakes and failures along the way are inevitable so this “learn through doing” approach accepts that, and enables the course-corrections and lessons to be incorporated early on without derailing the whole programme. 

This focused end-to-end method enables all aspects of the function transformation to be tested, iterated and proven, before being rolled out to the other functions of the organisation.  It also gives the option for the transformation programme to be broken down into smaller commercial and contractual activities that can be better suited to increased engagement with SMEs, bringing in specific expertise and a more agile delivery of real digital change.

Author: Ewen Malloch, Head of Technology