Although most times both terms are used together, sometimes even referring to a similar act or process change at a company, I feel they are very separate in not only definition but also practice. Transformation, by its very nature, is to change old or current strategy, process, workflows and even teams into something new. I like to look at transformation as a multi-phased approach to enact and support changes across organizations. The first step requires a deep dive to see what assets exist; what resources and structures are available and can be reused once things are put in motion. Surprisingly, many companies have the right “things” to successfully pull off a transformation, they just need a new way to look at and use them. Once you have a good sense of where things are at, a clearly defined strategy needs to be created and communicated. It is paramount that this strategy is actionable and has an outcome because it needs to be put up for testing and debate by the teams. The testing and debate is possible by adding clear and accountable metrics to each part of the strategy, breaking down those parts into sub-strategies and team goals. From there, you assign existing assets and resources to the parts of the strategy or sub-strategies that can be acted upon and define and isolate what is still required that isn’t part of your current resource pool. Your next job is to fill those gaps, quickly. After that is done, you empower the new teams to constantly test and challenge the strategy and processes with the clear instructions that challenges will always be accepted and reviewed. An empowered team with a clear strategy and goals, armed with new ways to attack problems that are imperative to the success of a company can do some pretty amazing things.
After the above is in place, the transformative behaviors need to be disseminated, taught and embodied by all leaders of the team or organization to set great examples for all. Old processes have to be changed with clear reasons why they are changing. The two areas that I like to focus on that are the most powerful to enact and embody change are human resource and funding related. Traditionally, both of these functions in a large company move slow and haven’t been changed in some time. My goal when addressing these is to get each to a position of “real-time” as possible. For human resource related issues, I look at review structures and occurrences, recognition systems, feedback loops and check-ins as all ripe candidates for change. For funding, I stray away from the traditional corporate funding models and set the teams up on lean budgets with the ability to pitch for more capital if needed to expand, keeping a close eye on their output like they were a separate entity. This allows you to quickly see the health or potential in a team or product, save money by pivoting or changing the team or product or bet big on something that is working and needs more runway. Funding is also one of the hardest items to change so a little bit of creative thinking is required to accomplish what you might be going for.
Ultimately the goal of any transformation is to come out of the dust with new, lean, fast processes and teams, clearly focused on set goals that are tracked and reported on as close to real time as possible. Ideally, you have or are realizing significant savings and generating incremental revenue as the new processes take hold.
What happens next is quite exciting and is where innovation can play a key role. After the transformative behaviors and processes are in place and teams or products have met a new velocity on their work, funding and tracking, they begin to approach their strategic problems and solutions with more innovation. It’s the job of key leaders to take advantage of teams that start to think outside the box and support it in any way possible. I feel that innovation has to be part, a key part, to the entire organization – not just a single team or a department. Although some innovative ideas can become new products or teams they should start from teams recognizing and solving a real problem. To help bring that into a culture, you have to foster innovation and show support for anyone with great ideas. It can produce its own set of problems of duplicative work, tracking and potential decreases in productivity but what it can do in the long run is revolutionary.
In rare situations, innovation can be started along with a transformation (and even without one) but the processes are the same – they are just focused on a single team, project or product and not an entire organization.
Now that you understand my definitions and how I look at both, I think it’s quite easy to add the digital climate lens to my answer. For me, transformation within digital requires the ability for entire teams to own and enact their own processes, tools and procedures to deliver on their goals and strategy. For a digital team, this means that everything they require, from engineering to development operations to infrastructure all sit together and follow a clearly defined agile methodology and release calendar that works with their goals and their users. A digital team also needs one leader, a single decision maker that passionately understands their goals and how to reach them. I also think large-scale roadmaps and planning need to be more goals oriented the farther they are planned out. Once a team has a great velocity and is showing promising metrics, I usually only want to know what they are thinking about from a feature and release cadence in the next 30, 60 and 90 days. This is even more important for user facing products and services, as they need the flexibility to pivot or change their experiences. Sometimes, that is the hardest part when driving transformation in a larger organization – those teams become a black box with an unknown future. There aren’t 5-year road maps or plans. Because of that, trust is the most important leadership quality required; trust in the teams, their metrics and their abilities to drive their business. Without that trust, the entire transformation can break down and it is very hard to recover.