This probably sounds self-serving given that GlobalLogic is in the product development services business—and perhaps it is self-serving.
However, I’ve observed time and time again that it’s very difficult for companies to change without the continued presence of an external change implementation partner working side-by-side and whispering in their ear. It’s far too easy to lapse into earlier and more familiar patterns despite the best of intentions, especially under pressure.
A third party can reinforce the message of change. Also, to the extent that you empower them, they can help you be more effective as a change agent within your company by establishing touchpoints with all the functions in your company who need to be influenced—even those outside your direct sphere of control. They can even help hold you yourself accountable by holding up a mirror to your progress—if you let them.
With all types of coaching, I like to use the analogy of learning how to ski. I suppose that you can read and take classroom instruction about skiing. However, until you go down the hill a few times with a skilled instructor at your side, you will never be successful. Similarly, having an experienced partner by your side as a reality check and “force multiplier” is a key value-add.
As an “outside” partner we are often asked—by senior management—to bring a message to even more senior management or to board members within their own company. This is because a lot of the lessons of digital transformation are counterintuitive to people who have been part of the old system. Also, to put it very directly, if our clients perceive a risk that the messenger may get shot, many would prefer that we are the messenger, rather than themselves! We and companies like us understand and are OK with that; taking these risks on our client’s behalf is part of why you pay us in the first place. Also, the message may be better received if it’s coming from us rather than you; it’s often easier for people to hear messages coming from a 3rd party than from someone “inside the system”. Questions of loyalty, past interactions and company culture don’t apply with the same force. The more arms-length nature of the relationship can put the focus more squarely on the message than the messenger.
In particular, having someone outside your company back you up when you make the stand to “stop digging the hole deeper” can be very effective. The ability of a 3rd party to say what’s “normal” and what’s “unusual” is key for the credibility of many transformation initiatives. All of us who work for a particular company tend to develop tunnel-vision around that company. Working with someone outside your particular company structure who has “been there and done that” can help everyone gain perspective about what may seem novel to people in your company, but which in fact is perfectly normal in other company’s undergoing transformations.
We are also seeing the phenomenon of hiring experienced technology executives from outside the company. That is, bringing seasoned management from a successful product or technology company into a more traditional business as the designated owner / catalyst for transformation. If these people are empowered, this can be very successful. I’ve seen the most success where the new “outside” people have a very explicit mandate that is outside the mainstream of the business—at least at first.
One US brick-and-mortar retail giant we work with offers a great success story for the case where outside executives were brought in. This traditional old-school brick-and-mortar retail business brought in executives with a non-retail software development background. There first task was to implement the company’s mobile business strategy. While the retail company had a web-based e-commerce site, they had not had any success establishing a mobile presence. In fact, previous attempts had failed badly.
The new technology execs were spectacularly successful in devising and executing the mobile strategy, producing one of the most widely used e-commerce apps that had so far been deployed in the US. They also, quite shrewdly, took the opportunity to address a number of problems of the brick-and-mortar business, including “showrooming” (looking at items in the store but purchasing from a lower-cost competitor on-line) and “Omni channel” (seamlessly relating the customer relationship and shopping experience on-line and in the physical world).
On the basis of this success, they were given increased responsibility, including technology ownership for previously off-limits retail domains, including the brick-and-mortar stores.
This strategy worked because the new technology execs had an opportunity to demonstrate success in a “safe” area; this is, an area that was clearly related to the company’s main business, but not at that time seen as “core” to that business. If they had failed, the core business brick-and-mortar retail business would have been largely unaffected. In the course of developing the mobile solution, they gained the confidence of the business’s more traditional stakeholders, including those in charge of brick-and-mortar operations. They also, I would argue, opened their eyes to the fact that what happens on-line is in fact core to their business, and also showed what technical transformation could mean to their company.
From the outset, the retailer’s largest need for transformation was in fact in their core brick-and-mortar business, not in their mobile strategy. However sometimes the quickest path to the end goal is not the direct one. If this retail transformation initiative had started the other way around—in other words, if it had focused on the arguably more important brick-and-mortar retail transformation first—I doubt it would have succeeded. Despite the technical skills of the new executives (and their innovation partner, GlobalLogic), the stakes simply would have been too high for the retail company. The legacy stakeholders would have actively opposed the changes claiming the newcomers “lacked expertise” and “didn’t understand how things really worked”. Bottom line, the biggest stakeholders in the status quo would have opposed any change that was too close to their core business, and never would have bought in. This is not out of any evil intent; it just would have been perceived as too risky.
For people grounded in the “old, traditional way” of doing things, it is very hard to imagine what digital transformation looks like in the context of the company they are so familiar with. It’s a “fish in water” phenomenon and not a failure of intelligence; just of imagination. Seeing a proven success-point within their own business helps open people’s eyes. An in-context success can get a critical mass of people either on-board, or at least willing to start considering the potential benefits of change. Also, after a demonstrated success, it is the detractors who now have the burden of proof when they oppose further transformation. This can shift the dynamics of change in the direction of transformation.
Not all companies have the luxury of starting with a project where the fate of the business is not at stake. However, if you can do it, focus on one of these “high upside, limited downside” projects to start. It will increase your chances of success by reducing the perceived “threat level” to the business. It also gives people a conceptual framework that allows them to begin to understand the benefits that further transformation will bring.