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The Emperor’s Fresh Coat of Paint: Why Digital Transformation Efforts Miss the Mark


Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No costume the Emperor had worn before was ever such a complete success.

“But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said.

– From The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen

Everyone knows Hans Christian Andersen’s cautionary tale. Yet, no one wants to think of themselves as the emperor. I fear, however, that when it comes to the much-buzzed-about topic of digital transformation, too many enterprise leaders are unwittingly playing the part.

I was recently interviewed on the Process Excellence Networks podcast and dove into this topic using a slightly different metaphor. I explained, “My frustration with the way people talk about digital transformation…, [is that] they talk about it in this very thin layer that sits on the top, like it’s a coat of paint, you can stick on it. And that’s not it. You cannot deliver a winning customer experience…by doing that.”

My point was that digital transformation is not a project or a one-time effort. That it wasn’t some magic elixir you could buy and implement. It’s so much more than that — and that’s why most current digital transformation efforts are actually missing the mark and achieving very little.

The problem is that too many enterprise leaders are acting like the emperor, parading around in their new digital transformation suit, hoping that it’s real, but fearing that it’s not.

Why ‘Digital’ is the Problem

The foundation of this problem is actually in the name itself. The fact that we call it digital transformation has led too many organizations to approach it primarily as a technology-driven effort.

An effective digital transformation initiative unquestionably involves the application of ‘digital,’ but it’s a question of sequence. The technology is the how, not the what.

Whether it’s because the technology focus is more comfortable, because it represents a more manageable scope, or if it’s because that’s what the vendors are pushing (and what’s easiest to buy), the fact that most digital transformation efforts revolve around the technology is unmistakable.

But this technology-centricity is where things go off-the-rails.

Real digital transformation has always been about business transformation. More specifically, it’s about transforming the business to meet rapidly changing customer expectations.

The digital part of the equation has always been the how of accomplishing such a transformation.

Ask most enterprise leaders about their digital transformation efforts, however, and what you’ll hear is a litany of technology-based projects and scant talk about the business transformation they are to enable.

The Essence of Digital Transformation: Reinvention

In fairness, many enterprise executives get this — at least at a conceptual level.

The threat of so-called digital disruption and a rapidly changing market has left almost every organization scrambling to respond. They instinctively understand that they must transform their business.

But somewhere between understanding the strategic need to transform and the ability to execute, things go awry.

Organizations lose sight of the fact that the purpose of these efforts is to transform the fundamental business and operating models to overcome disruptive threats and better serve their customers and, instead, become overly focused on the technology. But as I wrote recently in my column, “…if your business model does not become almost unrecognizable, there’s a high probability that you’re not transforming anything at all.”

There is, however, a simple way to break this cycle: stop calling it digital transformation and, instead, think of it as cultural and process reinvention.

When you get right down to it, that’s what you’re seeking.

In the face of market threats and changing customer expectations, you need to reinvent yourself at every level. You must transform your business model to meet these demands, and then transform your culture and operating processes and practices to deliver on its promise.

Technology will, of course, be a critical part of how you accomplish this reinvention. But by starting with reinventing your business, culture, and processes — long before you focus on the technology necessary to do so — you will finally have the sequencing correct.

The Intellyx Take: The Missing Link Connecting Strategy and Execution

The reason you must focus on the cultural and process reinvention is that the failure to do so is one of the most likely inhibitors to the successful deployment and adoption of your technology efforts.

If the goal is transformation, the starting point is understanding the current cultural norms and current-state operating practices. After all, every transformation must have a known starting point.

Moreover, knowing your current cultural and operating state is the surest way to successfully connect the dots between your digital transformation strategy and your ability to execute against it.

Admittedly, it is easier to undertake a big, splashy technology project and call it digital transformation. Envisioning and executing a business transformation is much more involved and demands cross-functional visibility and coordination. It requires that you articulate a business-centric strategy, and then effectively connect it to an execution capability.

The results of this approach, however, speak — and pay — for themselves.

To that end, we are working with iGrafx, an industry leader helping organizations connect strategy to execution, to conduct qualitative research that will explore how leading enterprises are taking a process-centric approach to business and digital transformation. We will share their stories and the results they’re realizing with this approach.

The initial findings of this research will be presented at the company’s upcoming virtual event, Innovate 2020, taking place May 4th through the 8th.

As these stories will show, those organizations that get beyond the hyperbolic talk of transformation and hyper-focus on technology and, instead, focus on the strategy-to-execution connection are those that, ironically, will see the greatest transformation.

And it will be the leaders of these organizations that will be able to walk down the street unafraid that a child will point out that they are wearing no clothes.

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