12 Secrets of Digital Transformation: Part 2

In this 12-part blog series, Dr. Jim Walsh (CTO, GlobalLogic) explores how businesses can effectively embrace digital transformation

Insight categories: Digital Transformation

In this 12-part blog series, Dr. Jim Walsh (CTO, GlobalLogic) explores how businesses can effectively embrace digital transformation. Read “Secret #1: Stop Digging the Hole Deeper” here.

Secret #2: Define and Become the Competitor You Fear Most

When we work with companies to design their next-generation product architectures, there鈥檚 an exercise we like to do. We get the smartest technical people we can on the company side together with the smartest technical people we can on the GlobalLogic side. We sit them down face-to-face in a big room with lots of whiteboards. We then ask a simple question:

鈥淪uppose all of us in this room left your company today and did a startup together. We take everything we know with us鈥攁ll the domain knowledge you鈥檝e acquired, all your expertise about what works and what doesn鈥檛, GlobalLogic鈥檚 expertise on the technology side, everything. HOWEVER, we are not allowed to use any existing code at all, because we鈥檙e no longer in your company鈥攚e鈥檙e now a startup. What system can we design and implement that would start to put your current company out of business in, say, 6 months?鈥

Removing the constraints that exist in your current system unblocks a lot of thinking. In every case I can think of, we ended up with a next-generation system architecture that鈥檚 simpler, faster and cheaper to develop, as well as far more flexible and powerful than the existing system. It鈥檚 often disappointing to the team when they have to come back to reality and face the 鈥渞eal world鈥 of the system as it currently exists.

The software you have today gives your company huge benefits. It鈥檚 probably very feature rich, your end users are familiar with it, it generates revenue and gives you market presence and, most important, it exists in the real world, not just on a whiteboard.

However, it also places a lot of burdens and costs on you that your competitors may not have鈥攁nd which startups in your space certainly don鈥檛 have.

The competition that established companies in transition generally fear the most is, and probably should be, the 鈥渢echnology upstart鈥 who comes from left field and disrupts the entire market. Their traditional competitors are, by comparison, known quantities and therefore manageable. In retrospect, Tower Books and Blockbuster Video had nothing to fear from their competitor Borders; their disrupters were Apple Computer, Amazon Kindle, and Netflix streaming. Similarly, competing pharmaceutical companies today don鈥檛 really worry so much about each other鈥攖hey worry about Google and their massive DNA repository and data science capabilities.

It is nearly impossible to evolve incrementally into a great system without first visualizing where you want to end up. Even if your end goal is fuzzy and changes from time to time, starting with some sort of end in mind helps organize your efforts and get people aligned.

It seems like open-ended incremental evolution should work, but in practice it just doesn鈥檛 happen unless your activities and thinking are focused toward some type of end goal, however imperfect. Biological evolution works because it uses a massive number of trials. Millions of mistakes and dead-ends over long periods of time, together with ruthless pruning are required to achieve a relative handful of successes. In business, we generally don鈥檛 have the option of using a pure biological process. We will, of course, evolve as we make mistakes and learn from them, but in general we can鈥檛 afford to make enough mistakes to drive a truly and exclusively evolutionary process. Instead we need to start with a goal in mind to create enough alignment to focus our evolution.

Thinking about how you could become the competitor you would fear the most helps you envision the software you really need to have. There鈥檚 a lot of work after that to figure out how to get from where you are to where you want to be鈥攁nd even more work actually doing it. This thinking needs to take into account not only your long-term business goals, but also the intermediate goals and constraints you need to accommodate along the way. Start out by visualizing where you鈥檇 like to end up; it鈥檚 a major step in getting there.

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Author

Dr. Jim Walsh

CTO

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