Enterprises are finally realizing that digital transformation must be end-to-end if they want to remain competitive in today’s software-driven, customer-focused world – but virtually every large organization has a massive boat anchor dragging them down – slow IT.

Legacy technology woes are bad enough – but what really makes slow IT slow are the people and the processes they follow. Nobody likes to change, yet change is what digital transformation is all about.

tortoiseSome organizations look for shortcuts. Let fast go fast and let slow go slow, Gartner says – but that road leads to ruin, as competitiveness slips through the fingers of executives fool enough to take such advice.

Instead, we must fix slow. Not an easy task, to be sure – but nevertheless quite achievable. And yet, every enterprise will face its unique challenges as it wends its way toward successful transformation. In spite of all the roadblocks, however, there is a straightforward path to achieving the change necessary – the agile digital transformation way.

Getting to Square Zero

The real work of digital transformation can’t even begin until an organization has cleaned up the worst of its particularly nasty messes. For example, if your IT shop doesn’t know what applications it is responsible for or has no idea what systems talk to which, then you have issues you must address before you can begin.

Similarly, in many cases the challenges are organizational or process-centric – and while there are always certain similarities from one organization to another, every situation is different, and thus calls for a different approach.

In keeping with the ‘agile’ part of agile digital transformation, therefore, the best course of action is to fix what’s broken iteratively, with a constant focus on customer priorities to drive the decision making process as to what you should fix first.

Make no mistake – you’re eating an elephant here, so your best bet is ‘one bite at a time.’ Instead of facing an intractable morass all at once, break up the challenge into tasks that your organization can accomplish, and repeat as necessary. It’s far more desirable to be successful at a series of smaller tasks than to fail spectacularly upon attempting to tackle a transformation initiative as a big-bang effort.

Be careful, however, to avoid being dogmatic in your approach. Don’t follow any particular methodology if it doesn’t meet the needs of the day. Better to be iconoclastic and throw away rules and advice that don’t suit the situation at hand. If any consultant or analyst firm or management guru gives you a recipe to follow, don’t take their advice simply because they give it.

Beware the Three Fallacies of IT Decision Making

Three common fallacies – untruths that nevertheless seem true – derail many a transformation initiative. The best way to avoid such a fate is to understand and recognize the erroneous thought patterns when they occur.

I discussed the first fallacy in my last Cortex newsletter: failing to consider opportunity risk when evaluating your risk profile. Lowering risk short term only to drive your enterprise into an uncompetitive death spiral is a fallacious risk calculation. Don’t do it!

The second fallacy to avoid is the sunk cost (AKA good money after bad) fallacy. The fact you’ve already spent money on an approach is not a good reason to stick with it if a better approach presents itself. If you spent $10 million on that dinosaur of an ERP system, for example, and today you realize there’s a far more flexible, cloud-based alternative that will cost you less starting today, those $10 million shouldn’t figure into your decision making.

The third fallacy actually has two sides to it. The first side: the ‘shiny things’ fallacy. Don’t base a decision on the fact that some new technology or approach is the new, cool, ‘in’ thing to do. Every year there are new buzzwords – Containers! Microservices! Cognitive computing! Such technologies may or may not meet your needs, but don’t let the fact that they are hot buzzwords sway your decision.

The converse of the shiny things fallacy is the ‘legacy’ fallacy – assuming that just because something is old or out of fashion, then it’s necessarily a good idea to get rid of it. Mainframes in particular are especially susceptible to this fallacy, as younger CIOs jump to the conclusion that digital transformation requires the retirement of these workhorses of IT. As I’ve written before, however, such reasoning is fallacious. The bottom line: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The Key to Organizational Change

I’ve written in earlier articles about how self-organization is essential for building agile organizations, and is thus critically important to any digital transformation initiative. How, then, do you introduce self-organizational principles to the hidebound, rigidly hierarchical organizational structures and associated business processes of slow IT?

The answer: DevOps. If you’re not ‘doing’ DevOps (for want of a better verb), then start. If you are doing DevOps (but poorly), then get better at it. DevOps perking along nicely? Then extend it horizontally, beyond just dev and ops to SecDevOps and BizDevOps. The names don’t matter, but the approach does.

DevOps is more than just a way to build better software faster. It’s even more than a cultural shift that drives such improvements. DevOps is a self-organization ‘virus’ that can infect your whole enterprise with self-organizing principles that drive agility at velocity.

DevOps – or DevOps-like principles, as we don’t want to be overly dogmatic here – are the key to changing the culture, not just in IT, but across the organization. Even if your company doesn’t develop software internally, you should still move to a DevOps organizational model. It will be different from the DevOps we see in software development shops to be sure, but you should still do it.

Make the Most of Self-Organizing Change

As a DevOps-like self-organizing model takes hold in your organization, it will supplant and eventually replace traditional hierarchical thinking. There’s a good chance that many people won’t want to come along on this ride, and that’s fine. So pay people to leave if they’re not with the program.

Those people who stay – especially management – will require retraining and reassignment, or more precisely, the absence of assignment. There’s no need for layers of management in a digitally transformed enterprise. Leaders will naturally arise from the self-organization process, and those people are the leaders you actually need.

Companies like Zappos and WL Gore have implemented such management approaches, but that doesn’t mean you should follow their examples (or anyone else’s) too closely. Remember, be iconoclastic. Let your own people resolve the details of the organizational models that will work for your organization.

Self-organizing teams will figure out how to negotiate the efficiency vs. flexibility tradeoff. Sometimes efficiency wins out, but imposing an organizational structure that favors efficiency over flexibility may lead to optimal business outcomes in the short term, but will stifle innovation in the process.

Target Slow Governance

The mishmash of organizational constructs and delay-ridden processes we call governance are perhaps the primary culprit that make slow IT so slow. The solution is a combination of self-organization and automation that not coincidentally follows DevOps patterns.

SecDevOps, for example, shifts security considerations ‘to the left’ (that is, toward the beginning of relevant iterations), and furthermore, seeks to automate policy enforcement following continuous integration/continuous delivery models.

Where security goes, all governance should follow. From the strictures of the architecture review board to the audits from the compliance division, the focus should be on self-organization and automation. Don’t be a gatekeeper. Instead, become an enabler.

Enterprise architects, of course, play an important role in this transformation. We don’t need more gatekeepers among this crowd either. Instead, EAs should help to self-organize Centers for Digital Enablement – teams that facilitate digital best practices across the organization, in particular, a culture of self-service.

The Intellyx Take: The ‘Agile’ in Agile Digital Transformation

There’s far more to fixing slow than one 1,400-word article can cover, of course. Furthermore, the devil will always be in the details. And of course, if I could give you a recipe for success, then my advice would be to not follow the recipe!

In the absence of such a recipe, therefore, seek the big picture – and in this case, the big picture is the nature of organizational transformation. We’re not simply taking the old way of doing things and switching it out for the new way. This is no simple change management puzzle. Instead, we’re seeking to reinvent how we think about doing things altogether.

We have a true paradigm shift on our hands here, as we’re discarding deeply held notions that the business world has clung to for centuries. In their place: a new way of building and running large organizations to be more agile, and thus rise to the challenges of meeting ever-changing customer demands. Welcome to the world of agile digital transformation.

Intellyx advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: USFWS.

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