Failure is Always an Option

By Hugo H. Alvarez, Chief Information Officer & Chief Digital Officer, The CMA Group, LLC

We have heard many times, in movies, and unfortunately in real life that “failure is not an option” for a particular initiative.  Yet failure is always an option and likely guaranteed if you do not prepare and plan ahead. The statistics on the rates of project failures serve as a clear warning.

Digital Transformation initiatives can bring many benefits to the enterprise.  Among them are the results of a particular initiative, which, when well thought through should result in a positive and welcome outcome for the enterprise. More profoundly, when well executed, Digital Transformation can indeed transform the processes, procedures and mindset of the group to bring continuous innovation to fruition, creating a virtuous cycle.

For Digital Transformation to succeed requires careful preparation and analysis before the initiative begins, during execution, and for a significant period after deployment.

The first and most important item is to clearly identify the goal of the initiative and the resources to accomplish the mission: what are we working to achieve and how will we determine whether the effort succeeds or fails? The main executive sponsor has the responsibility for determining and clearly stating the main goal of the initiative. Is it an x% in sales? A y% decrease in costs of production?. Whatever the goal, it must be clear and quantifiable with the key performance indicators (KPIs) selected as the guide path up front. 

Similarly, this executive is primarily responsible for providing the resources (funding, expertise, etc.) needed to do the work. Failure to have clear goals, or approved funding is a sure sign that your beautiful Digital Transformation Initiative will turn into a nightmare. Having secured the goal and KPIs, you can now move into the planning details. However, if you cannot determine who the principal executive sponsor is for your initiative, proceed no further until that person is on board, fully supports the initiative and publicly identifies the project’s goal. I have declined many projects when the sponsor has been unwilling to commit to the effort publicly.

The second most important item is to understand the current process and systems in detail. For this to go well, you must have access to the people that do the actual work, not just the department managers or higher-level executives.  Managers often know, or think they know, well enough how the work is supposed to be done and may provide you with procedure manuals and other documentation, all nice to have.  They may know less well how the work is actually performed and why people take shortcuts or otherwise deviate from the approved processes. Once you understand the current process, you should create the baseline for the KPIs that will be used to determine the success of the initiative. It might be that the analysis of the current process highlights whether the initially selected KPIs should be modified, discarded, or augmented. Make sure to agree to any changes to KPIs with the key Executive Sponsor.

Often as you discover the details of current processes and receive suggestions from your team, there will be intermediary solutions to improve the system that can be implemented with relative ease and little to no expense. This can be presented to area management in the form of a cookbook, detailing the issue, solution and expected benefit of each proposed change. This approach should result in a much more collaborative approach, with several credibility building gains on the way to a fully redesigned approach. It also provides an excellent testing approach for each change, that can be easily removed if the projected benefits are lacking.

If your initiative is significant, then you will assuredly face intense resistance along the way. This is normal human behavior. We are going to change how things are, which introduces risks of turning the current experts into temporary novices and potentially highlights significant deviation from the management approved processes. The latter must be handled tactfully to bring area management into a partnership to improve, rather than an adversarial relationship that obstructs progress and hides information. It is best to share widely and explicitly the why of the initiative and then elicit broad suggestions from the colleagues most involved in the current systems and processes. It is always amazing how many great ideas we can get from the people that know the current processes. They know well what works and what does not work in their areas of expertise. Approach people with respect and an open mind to receive the many great suggestions that will be shared and to bring them along on the road to a successful Digital Transformation Journey.

Once you have the plan for the grand transformation, be sure to make clear if this is something that can be implemented in phases and rolled out incrementally or if it requires an all at once implementation once all components have been created. If incremental deployment is possible, you will have the opportunity to adjust as each phase is completed and gain real-world experience from the results. If incremental deployment is not possible, robust testing and simulations are in order before deployment. In either case and paraphrasing Winston Churchill: no matter how beautiful your plan, every once in a while you should examine the results.