No amount of technology will make you “digital”

The next Sense & Respond Press book (our fourth) is going to be Lateral Leadership: A practical guide to managing agile teams by Tim Herbig.
Sometimes you’re not in a position of authority yet you still need to lead a team. Tim shares his experience and insight on how to be an effective product leader even if you don’t have the authority or the job title.

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At the end of Soylent Green (one of my favourite old sci-fi movies), Charlton Heston realises that the main food of his post-apocalyptic reality was (spoiler alert!) made of people. He screams it out as he absorbs the horror of it all in the most famous scene in that movie.

Understanding the true source, in Heston’s case of food, and in our case of successful business transformations is key to making them work in our day to day lives. In our world, mercifully for now pre-apocalyptic, getting to the core of what makes digital transformation successful is critical to our change efforts. Many companies believe that if we just implemented the right set of tools — this continuous deployment system, that CRM platform — we will magically transform our operations into responsive, agile business units. Sadly and perhaps surprisingly, no amount of technology, on its own, will transform a legacy organisation into a modern, continuously learning organisation. Instead it requires a mindset shift.

At its root, digital transformation is the reimagining of our offerings and the way we do business as a series of continuously improving services.

Why do we have to think of everything as a service? Because services aren’t fixed. They are part of a system. This system is continuously optimised to deliver the most customer value it can. A truly digital business embraces this system of services and works to refine, improve, deprecate and focus it as soon as new market insight is available. Responsive organisations aren’t fixated on the production of software. They recognise that producing more code does not deliver more value necessarily. Instead, they focus on delivering the most efficient, elegant and sophisticated services to their customers.

Changing this mindset is difficult enough. Managing this mindset is even more challenging. Continuous improvement explicitly embraces a level of uncertainty in the work our teams do. If we want to move as quickly as new insight comes in from the market, the hierarchical chain of command proves an obstacle rather than an enabler. So, it’s not just a mindset shift that builds the foundation for successful digital transformation, it’s also a change in management style. As Tim Herbig, author of the upcoming book Lateral Leadership (Sense & Respond Press, 2018), puts it, “Agile teams thrive because of the cross-functional collaboration of domain experts. Leading an agile team means aligning it with a shared goal and letting the team complete the mission. As a manager, this requires you to allow the team to complete their tasks without getting involved.”

Amazon is famous for mandating that anything built anywhere in the company must be implemented as an externally consumable service. Why? It gives them the option to do a multitude of things with it as new business realities emerge. This includes productising these services. Once internal services, like Amazon Web Services, have been turned into multi-billion dollar businesses because of the agility of their service-based model. Herbig adds, “By adopting a ‘disagree and commit’ mindset for decisions, teams at Amazon can pursue and adapt missions quickly, without the need to justify them again and again. Famously, Jeff Bezos disagreed with a content decision made by the Prime video team but backed that decision anwyay because he trusted the team’s domain-specific skills, which exceeded his in this case.”

To recap, if your goal is to transform your organisation into a modern, digital company consider two things: (1) everything you deliver to your customers should be considered a continuous service and (2) build in the kind of empowerment your teams need to maximise the benefits of this approach, because just like Soylent Green, our companies are also made of people.


P.S. — Transformation is difficult. Want to learn how to make a strong case for change? Join me on March 28, 2018 for a FREE webinar with veteran transformation agents Jonathan Bertfield and Sonja Kresojevic. Sign up here.


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[NEW] — Barcelona — June 7–8, 2018–2 Day Lean Product Management Workshop with Itamar Gilad (early bird now)


As always, if you want me to work directly with your company on training, coaching or workshops on the topics of organizational agility, digital transformation, product discovery and agile leadership, don’t hesitate to reach out or consider micro-hiring me for short, remote consultations. Each consultation slot is 60 minutes long, you send me your topics in advance, we exchange a couple of emails to set context and then connect via video conf for the scheduled time. Pick a time that works for you.