In this article, I want to specifically drill down to a concrete example about why digital transformation can succeed and fail. In the first case study, I want to explain why and how a corporate website can be easily built and offer a solution to what remains to be the most difficult digital transformation work in a company.
To summarize the first and second articles I have written about digital transformation, for every digital transformation to fail, typically consists of the following: (a) the inability of CEOs and boards to deal with the incumbent & disruptor dilemma, (b) the counter attack from the immune system in the form of cultural and operational DNA from the company and (c) lack of education and short term thinking towards digital transformation.
I have written these case studies to be company neutral, and it will be based on not just my experience but incorporating other stories so that you can get an understanding on why digital transformations fail for many companies. In fact, if there is one central theme which I will want my reader to take home, digital transformation is about people. People remain to be the focal point in how you can make it work or fail.
Case Study 1: Transforming a Corporate Website
The most difficult digital transformation project I have under-taken in my role is transforming a corporate website. In short, the CEO who I worked for, tried to change it for four years and there were strong pushbacks from different heads of business units. The owner of the corporate website was the head of marketing and his digital marketing team.
The story goes like this. The entire executive team was supposed to spend five minutes in a leadership meeting to agree and approve the concept and let the head of marketing follow through with the change. What transpired was an argument among different business leaders that went beyond the concept but to specific design concepts whether the buttons should be red or blue or it should look like an ecommerce or airline booking site. The meeting went for an hour, and no one agreed on anything. In the end, the head of marketing resigned as a result of not getting anything done with his entire team demoralized. In the end, the CEO tasked me to take over the project with the digital marketing team placed under my charge until the next head of marketing would be hired.
Since I was in the same meeting and witnessed the entire discussion, I realized that the problem is not with the design but everyone having their own opinions and perspectives to how the new corporate website should look like. I asked the CEO for a small budget to the extent of about less than 20K, and then assured him that I will get the approval done in 5 minutes with the rest of the executive leadership team. However, I need that meeting to happen in 3 months time.
I went back to the digital marketing team and tasked them to find me three design vendors. Prior to that, I have written a design brief based on first discussions I have with the CEO and COO of the company to agree what they want the new corporate site to look like. The rationale for the design brief is to find three design vendors to build a mock version of the corporate website fully aligned with the design lexicon and language which I have implemented successfully in my past projects but at the same time, integrate and align with the other 15 people in the executive leadership team including the CEO and COO. In my framework, this new mock site will have a modern feel adhering to the values of the company and fully design responsive, i.e. it should look like a mobile website when viewed on a smartphone and a desktop website if I browsed it on a laptop or desktop. I simplified the problem for the digital marketing team that the responsive design should be split between two screens, any screens below 7″ which will adhere to a mobile smartphone and anything above that, which correspond to a tablet, desktop or laptop.
I have also sought advice from my mentor who’s spearheading a very successful digital transformation from another company. He suggested to me that in order for the entire company to agree to the new corporate design, he scheduled meetings for every owner of a specific part of the website on Friday evenings between 5-8 pm, and without their sign off or input, they will not be allowed to leave. Of course, in where I am, that would be impossible to pull off. While I was doing that, I took a look from what others are doing and replicated their best practices. One particular example was the idea of launching the new corporate website in beta, such that the customer will be able to see the new site from the old site, and decide if they want to switch it fully. Upon 80% of traffic converted to the new site, we completely flipped the switch and at the same time, resolved the problems that might come with the old ones.
Upon reviewing the design vendors, we have decided on the final one within two weeks of the first month based on the design brief I have written. I have specifically asked for the mock website to be delivered two weeks prior to the meeting. My team was extremely worried as the timeline was extremely aggressive. I assured them that the two weeks before the actual meeting is important. What I did not add to the story when I tell it on panels, is that I did a poll within the executive leadership, which design vendor has produced the best design best suited to their tastes? It turned out that it was not the one which the digital marketing team and I thought were the best, but the one which was most optimized and incorporated different viewpoints. I requested a short URL which I can write on a white board such that anyone in the meeting can access any form of the website in any device.
The mock corporate website was delivered two weeks in advance. Knowing that the product will be on time, I have set up 1:1 with my other colleagues within the executive leadership and randomly showed them the versions of the new site with either mobile or desktop. My first question after demonstrating the new site was, “Tell me, what do you not like about this new corporate website design?” Trust me, nothing was nice from the first word. Everyone has different feedback and I have compiled all of them into one document. So, I went back to the team and the design vendor and listed the collective feedback into twenty points. I told them that by hook or by crook, solve the first five, which involves changing button colors, language and layouts that everyone hope to see for their individual pages, and I will speak about the next ten during the presentation which I will lay them out in phases that it will eventually be implemented and the last 5 comments were just not possible unless I have more resources.
The day it came to the actual meeting, I started the presentation with a short URL on the board, and then ask them to take out whatever device of their choice from smartphone, tablet or laptop, and then lay out the design concept of the new corporate website, and in the process, discuss the ideas coming from the other business heads particularly those who have major objections. I was careful to explain how I incorporated their feedback and lay them out in phases for future implementation. Within the 4th minute, I just asked everyone, “This new mock website surely looks better than the current site which look like a website from the 1990s. Can I get the approval to do this?” The consensus was unanimous and I got the approval to build the new corporate site.
Of course, getting the website approved was only half the battle. It took about 6 months to get the beta version to show up with the new version and another 6 months to fully transition into the new website. Most challenges arise from the working level and typically, it were more about presentation of content than core website features. There were constant attempts to block the website but the digital marketing team have mitigated the risks.
To me, from the approval to the implementation of the corporate website, this activity remains to be the most difficult one I have solved. The problem as I have shown is not about technology. In fact, we can easily implemented it within three months to make it fully design responsive and search engine optimized. What remains difficult is the leaders in the room. Each of them have a different view or perspective to what this new website should look like. Hence I have identified very early that the challenge is to align them to agree on the site rather than trying to show them designs to get approval in the process.
Digital transformation is often about people and rarely about technology. In fact, the most important thing for the digital leader is to focus on how to align the stakeholders and unlock resources while letting his or her team to do the work of building and manage the digital assets.