One of the words that came up frequently in my early digital career was “optimize”. We were always optimizing web content for keywords to improve search engine results and rankings. We optimized experiences to increase conversion of site visitors.We optimized site performance to shave off milliseconds of page load time. My first job at GE was in operations in the era of Six Sigma religion, so applying this type of optimization discipline to digital marketing and customer experience made sense to me.
When I moved into the world of digital transformation, I quickly realized the word “optimize” took on a different scale. I was no longer focused on the micro – optimizing discrete processes and touch points. Instead, the focus shifted to the macro – optimizing the broader enterprise, consisting of thousands of employees, to deliver and design in an Agile manner experiences that could impact millions of customers. This is the work of capital T “Transformation”, particularly as a consulting partner.
However, I’ve noticed something predictable over the past several years of leading transformations. Getting started with transformation can be rough on an organization. KPIs often take a dip as the organization adapts to new ways of delivering work, employees adapt to new roles and upskill, technology architecture and infrastructure begins an overhaul. Then, something almost magical happens. Things start clicking! Teams are working agilely and collaboratively. Streamlined experiences are engaging and delighting customers. Technology is enabling a greater deal of flexibility and speed than ever before. There is a feeling of euphoria and optimism as “future state” suddenly doesn’t seem so far away for the organization.
Then, [cue ominous music] things start to slow. And it’s usually not abrupt and noticeable; it’s subtle. KPIs begin to turn from green to yellow and, worse…stay yellow. The productivity and efficiency gains from implementing new operating models and processes gets eroded. The speed of deployments starts to slow down. Customer satisfaction starts to dip. Yet, individual leaders look at their teams and see people working hard. In fact, the toil is often creating burnout and talent retention challenges. Teams start to squabble and point the finger when results aren’t what is expected.
Many of you that lead transformations can relate. The transformation roadmap might be focused on the big pieces of work to get the organization from current state to future state – but as a leader, the hours in your day are often spent in the inevitable fire drills and problem-solving entailed with running the business along the way. It’s easy to look past what appears to be isolated incidences of friction and conflict – “it’s just growing pains,” “it’s just the new processes to ensure compliance,” “it’s just this Product Increment that’s challenging,” etc. But it’s rarely just that. It’s often a broader issue of friction that will drag down and slow your transformation progress and create waste for the organization that rapidly starts to add up.
Friction is the point at where there is resistance, conflict, or a rub when trying to accomplish something. No matter how well-designed your operating model, processes, and technology architecture, friction has a way of creeping in and building over time in institutions like corporations. Why should you care as a business leader or IT leader? It’s simple – it will impact your organization’s ability to reach its goals.
Why do we care about friction and focus on it from a transformation perspective? It’s because we see most companies out there struggling to realize value from their investments in transformation. Indeed, according to HBR in 2019, nearly 70% of digital transformation investments do not achieve expected results. We see the waste that is occurring, and the sum can be astounding when you add it up. We see the toll that friction takes on people within the organization. And we deem it unacceptable because it’s not inevitable. You can identify and remove the sources of friction. “Optimize” doesn’t have to be a dirty word in transformation.
So, how do you know if you have a problem with friction and waste in your organization? For starters, review this list of common symptoms.
- Transformation and product roadmaps that are continually being shifted out
- KPIs and OKRs that are yellow or red week after week, month after month, often with reasons why that continually change
- More bureaucracy and committees, more tollgates and reviews
- Complaints and deteriorating relationships between teams, functions or departments
- Symptoms of burnout, key talent leaving certain teams or worse, the organization
- More system downtime
- More data risk
- Failed audits
- More product bugs
If any of these sounds familiar, it’s time to dig deeper. Appoint an objective investigator to diagnose the root causes and true cost, not just the symptoms. Engage key stakeholders to optimize the experience and processes across internal organizational boundaries of teams and departments. Err on the side of action – implement, measure, and refine. Don’t let friction continue to slow or stall your transformation progress.
Learn more about how friction impacts transformation in this recent podcast.