Lost in digital transformation: The snowball effect

The snowball effect - snowball in hands

In this blog series, we’re covering the three common pitfalls that can lead well-intentioned digital transformation initiatives astray. In this piece, we’ll talk about the Snowball Effect.

The Snowball Effect

Business transformation typically begins within a single small team, before eventually scaling across departments, portfolios and sometimes even the entire organization. Oftentimes, the process starts with excitement about a particular technology, process or methodology. “Cloud,” “agile transformation,” “DevOps” and even “digital transformation” have all been tabbed as the way of the future for organizations, but a lack of hands-on experience in actually applying those concepts could make a transformation initiative more expensive and time-consuming than planned.

When things are small and focused with good alignment, progress is made quickly and results are typically good. Problems occur when companies try to scale up to big change programs without clarity of why and what success might look like.

Aligning the vision, mission and goals for transformation is essential. Businesses must first identify what success, innovation and disruption might look like for their organization, and how this potential plays into the company’s core goals. How will they know that their transformation initiative is actually working? How are they going to measure progress along the way? Who has a say in this decision? Who is setting the vision, and who can contribute to it? When key performance indicators are not agreed upon by everyone involved, your vision for success can be murky and hard to follow.

If too many leaders pull in different directions because the vision lacks clarity to connect different business units and functions, then a small transformation project can easily snowball into a quagmire.

Below is a diagram that depicts the typical journey a company goes through. Small-scale success is created at each step, but it’s not quite what was desired. That’s because the goal is actually to continuously deliver better products, services and customer experiences, putting the customer at the heart of the process. This saves time and energy, leaves a bigger impact by focusing on the ultimate outcome sooner, and achieves quick wins to support the ultimate goal.

A typical Agile Journey

For example, your IT team may decide to trial a new software system to improve customer service. The software will be deployed within a single department, with an initial goal of 25 percent usage within that team. Next, someone else in the business may argue that 25 percent coverage is too easily achievable, and it would only count as real progress when 50 percent of the team is covered.

Another suggestion might come in – can the project be scaled to two teams? What kind of data is being collected to measure success? Should the business consider an additional investment, one that might make it faster and easier to scale this new software across the entire business? Has agile been considered at any point? Should we start over and do it that way instead?

Meanwhile, staffs change. Leaders move on. Priorities shift. Suddenly, a modest project has become a massive undertaking, and the focus is on scaling the transformation, on accomplishing more. A rollout of governance methodologies and processes mucks up the whole effort, and by the end of it, participants have lost sight of the original goal: to make better products and better serve customers. The good elements of a transformation need to survive these kinds of organizational changes.

Digital transformation is a complex process with many disparate parts that have to be aligned from the beginning. There are any numbers of factors that can make that alignment that much harder – be it a disengaged management team, inexperienced participants or misaligned expectations across the organization. The vision of the future and operating principles need to be flexible enough to be interpreted in different areas of the business, but clear enough that alignment exists.

It’s like a puzzle: When one piece is missing or simply isn’t fitting correctly, it throws the whole picture off. The best way for you to make everything fit is to shrink down the scale of the puzzle. Look for opportunities to implement simple, long-lasting change in contexts that make sense to the people who have a stake in the game.

In other posts in this series, we also cover two other areas to watch out for: