Follow the yellow brick road: digital transformation for cowardly lions
I am, as many of you know, an accidental… everything.
I am driven by curiosity, learning, making the most of what’s in front me and wondering what comes next.
It’s probably no surprise I gravitated towards change management and business process management (BPM), service design for rapid execution and eventually digital transformation. The tools are similar, the mind-set is similar, but the goals keep getting more ambitious and the tech so much smarter.
I feel lucky. I’ve seen some incredible things come to life during the course of my career and I am sure the best is yet to come.
And don’t get me wrong. The path – on both a personal and organisational level – is dotted with challenges, obstacles and loop-backs. It’s often uphill. It is often rough. You often have to back-up and re-do. And of course it frequently forks. And you have choices to make. Little choices, big choices. They are not always momentous but they are constant. And you feel cheated because having made the big choice to go for the big change – from a career perspective, from an organisational strategy perspective – you expected a yellow brick road towards a fully digital future: if not easy then at least specific. And it just wasn’t there.
The yellow brick road of digital transformation is neither marked nor paved
This is in the spirit of “the course of true love never did run smooth”.
Innovation, much to the discomfort of many people and most organisations, is about doing things for the first time. The second time round, it is no longer innovation, it’s a thing that you do. That’s the whole idea, by the way. To figure out how to do new things so that you can… do them. Dorothy didn’t set out to explore the yellow brick road. She set out to find the yellow brick road because she wanted to find the emerald city, because that’s where the wizard was and she needed the wizard to go home, which is her end game.
And she does what it takes along the way to get there. And like many innovation teams, she occasionally gets distracted. And like many innovation teams, what she finds when she gets there, is not what she expected.
That is the point though: this journey is less about the experimentation and more about the eventual doing, after the experiment has succeeded. The point is to get to where you are going, eventually. Experiments should ideally be quick to help us along the way although some times they are long-winded, as Dorothy found. And they should ideally be neat and tidy but that is hardly ever the case, as anyone making a new dish for the first time inevitably discovers.
Yet mad scientists, explosions and green goo have no place in a bank.
Partly because we deal with other people’s pensions and we should be super careful; partly because we trust process more than people, so we straightjacket the experiments. And then we turn those into the deliverables. Forgetting to even look for the yellow brick road. Never getting to the point where we freak out because it’s not there.
That’s not everyone, of course.
Some people within every bank work it out. Some banks work it out. Some banks know how to keep their eye on the prize. They stumble, they fall, they make mistakes, they trip themselves up. But they get to the yellow brick road because they realise how important is to continue on this journey.
And then, when they get there, they realise that the road is not yellow. It is not even paved. Following this path is not going to be any easier than finding it. There is no path. You are it. You carve the path as you walk it.
That is the moment when most people consider throwing in the towel.
Innovation is about doing things for the first time.
Digital transformation is about doing everything differently for the first time.
There is no path or it wouldn’t be the first time. It stands to reason and yet it is a terrible burden to carry, day in day out.
The ruby slippers of the faint-of-heart
My first contact with the wizard of Oz was a stage production when I was five and I fell in love with the ruby slippers hard and fast. And felt bitterly cheated when the witch got crushed by a flying house because I feared that may be the end of the ruby slippers in the plot. Thankfully that was not the case and yet I was, in hindsight, literally and monumentally missing the point. Which is the fate of many an executive, sponsor, project manager and mid-level boss on this mapless journey of ours.
We keep looking for the blasted things.
The ruby slippers of digital transformation: something shiny, self-contained, easy to explain, easy to use and universally coveted. We all secretly or not-so-secretly want this bit of voodoo.
It will make life easier with bosses and shareholders, boards and stakeholders. It will generate awesome PR and please the clients. But above all, it will give us and our teams the validation that we are doing it right, in this chaotic journey of firsts. As there are no recognisable milestones, the digital equivalent of the magical ruby slippers would give everyone a much-needed boost of confidence, a validation that we are heading in the right direction, in the absence of any roadmap, let alone a bright yellow, unmistakeable one.
The lion, the scarecrow, the wicked witch of the west: extreme stakeholder management
To paraphrase John Oliver, Dorothy is a young woman on a mission with a whole host of hangers-on trying to force their own issues upon her. Just picture this. You are on a journey with an undefined goal, immensely high stakes and a lot of personal investment. You have the eyes of your stakeholders and sponsors on you. The jobs of your team, not to mention the future of your organisation, hang in the balance. And you are doing this for the first time because it has not been done before so you are harnessing every bit of experience you have, relevant and irrelevant, to help you on the journey. And before you know it, you are beset by a motley crew who want to come along with you or stop you, each for their own reasons, and some who haven’t decided where they stand yet but look to you anyway to guide and make it all ok.
Some do so because they genuinely need your help, some because they are overwhelmed and need anybody’s help, some because they are green and nasty. Their motivations vary as does their individual agenda, the point remains however: that when you embark on this journey, many will try to stop you and many will try to join you. Out of those, not everyone wants the same ends for the same reason. Who gets to captain, who gets to decide how far different agendas can happily coexist and who gets to have those battles when the time comes? It’s going to be you. Not necessarily alone, but necessarily you.
And the time will come.
Just remember it will come for some. But not for all. And you don’t need to decide upfront who belongs to which category. The journey will reshuffle your hand many a time.
It’s ok to not agree with everyone on everything as long as you don’t disagree on fundamentals.
When navigating uncertainty and building the path as you walk it, it would be absurd to demand full alignment on the unknowable, much as we keep trying to do it.
And it’s actually ok that some of your team have a personal agenda: learning, reward and fame, money and promotion, a brain and a heart. That’s ok. It’s the personal equivalent of what the organisation is trying to do, writ large, and not mutually exclusive with pursuing the larger goal.
It needs to be ok. You need to ensure it is ok.
If you have read enough stories you will know, personal quests always motivate people more deeply than any collective cause. Let it get personal. It’s more than ok, provided it’s aligned. That alignment, that process of ensuring the multiple agendas don’t pull away from each other even when they clash, will be your job. And it is a daily task. But it is worth it.
Having people to share the journey with may be good for you too. It will force you to reflect, iterate, accommodate, play nice.
At the end of the day, our transformation isn’t just about the tech. The main thing that changes on the way to see the wizard is us. Let the journey work its magic in getting this change underway as soon as possible.
You will not be in Kansas any more, and that is sort of the whole point
Digital transformation is not about the tech.
It is about leveraging the tech to re-imagine the human experience and re-coalesce our businesses around the person. The person as a user, as a customer, as a colleague.
The tech allows us to do that and it’s a lot, so we are busily dealing with what that looks like, how much of the infrastructure it is all delivered on needs to be propped up, patched up or changed. We are reflecting on how much of the monetisation philosophy we work to needs to be revisited: not just because of the aggression of margin compression and disintermediation but because we are moving into a different paradigm of service design and provision and the economics of it will be different.
As we lift our eyes from the first part of this chain, we realise how much more is still to come and how deep it goes. We realise that, by the end of this journey, not a single part of our business will remain untouched. We realise it and yet we still can’t see the emerald city, the seat of the wizard, the end of this road. Which is neither the end of the journey nor is it really a road. What we see is change: profound, radical and pervasive.
We realise that on this journey, in this digital transformation epic where we set out to find a magical destination that is neither clearly defined nor even loosely mapped, the main thing that will change along the way is us.
Us as people, as workers, as organisations, as teams, as businesses.
It is the whole point of the journey, from a narrative perspective. It is also the whole point of the transformation, the clue is in the name and all.
And yet we fight it. Because it’s scary.
We try to hold onto pre-existing shapes of power and control, we try to defend old value chains and profitability structures, we try to hold onto the familiar. We try to become as much as possible that is new while striving to change as little as possible. We try to pick and choose: I want the ruby slippers without the wicked witch of the West. I want the triumph of arrival without the disappointment of finding the wizard less than I had hoped. I want the learning without the striving, the success without the fear of failure, the progress without ever having to retrace my steps.
I want to mature without the discomfort of coming of age.
I can’t mock this, or judge. Who hasn’t been tempted to look for the easy path?
But the people and the banks getting this right make the hard choice every time the road forks. They know they are not in Kansas any more. And every time the road forks in a yellow wood, as Frost taught us, they choose the road the least travelled by. And that makes all the difference. Again and again.
By the time we get to the emerald city, the biggest change will have been on us: our people, not our infrastructure.
That’s how we will know we have arrived.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ new resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
Leda is a lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem, inhabiting both start-ups and banks over the years. She is a roaming banker and all-weather geek.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!