Neil Perkin is one of Econsultancy’s most experienced and thought leading consultants. Having just written his second book, Agile Transformation: Structures, Processes and Mindsets for the Digital Age, we caught up with him to ask a few questions about the nature of digital transformation.
Why did you write the book?
Digital transformation is front and centre with so many organisations right now but whilst there is plenty of material out there about the ‘why’ of transformation there is precious little about the ‘how’. Whilst there is wide recognition of the need to change organisational structures, processes and culture to be more fit for purpose for a digital world many businesses remain stuck. Stuck with rigid functional silos, outdated, or fixed change management programmes that are doomed to fail. This book is about getting unstuck. It’s about developing an engine for continuous innovation and an organisational structure that supports horizontal collaboration. It’s about enabling high-performance teams and customer-backwards thinking to support real change. It’s about scaling agile principles in judicious and lasting ways to empower a culture of energy and entrepreneurialism. It’s about not just doing Agile, but being agile.
Business culture and context can be very unique – how do you account for this when offering advice?
Every company’s context is different and that’s why there is no one blueprint for change. There are however some really good rules of thumb for structuring adaptive change programmes and applying the principles at scale that will ensure that they will succeed.
It’s useful for example to think big about the vision for the company you want to become and the enabling infrastructure and culture that will help you get there. It’s then helpful to start small but then scale and learn fast in order to ensure that you are responsive to changing contexts as you change. It’s then a matter of taking specific organisational or sector contexts and overlaying them on this framework. Many large businesses are surprisingly similar in the challenges that they face around managing transformation and the broad opportunities that they can reap from greater agility, regardless of sector.
Digital transformation has a broad definition – but what are the most important details?
Terms like ‘digital transformation’ and ‘agile’ are becoming so ubiquitous that they are starting to lose their meaning, and yet there is huge value in the understanding of how to scale agile ways of thinking and working, and knowing where to apply them and where it makes less sense to do so. There is also a huge but undervalued mindset and culture shift that is needed to support this, particularly in large businesses which have become slow over time.
In my first book, Building the Agile Business, I used a Clayton Christensen concept about organisational capabilities to define digital transformation as ‘the transformation and reinvention of the resources, priorities and processes of a company in order to be fit for purpose in a digital-empowered world’. I think that’s still a good definition, but we know more now about the kinds of structures and cultures that can support real, lasting change, and also about how we need to approach making that change. That’s what Agile Transformation is about.
What are your favourite case studies?
I think it’s useful to draw learnings from both digital-native businesses that have grown up with a digital mindset and thinking at their heart and also from large, legacy businesses that have succeeded to driving significant change. In the book I talk about a number of these big companies, like Vodafone and ANZ Bank, that have made large-scale investments into structural and cultural changes to make a step change in agility.
Although a lot of the heavy lifting work was done in the first five years or so of their existence, I also think the UK Government Digital Service is an excellent exemplar of sensible and impactful digital transformation at scale in what must be one of the most un-agile of environments. If we’re looking at younger technology-based businesses, examples like Amazon and Airbnb are perhaps obvious, but I think it’s helpful to draw out specific practices or strategies that every company can learn from and apply to support their own transformation programmes.
What are your favourite brands?
Although I mainly work with large businesses, I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for plucky challenger brands and right now the financial sector is seeing a burgeoning number of smart, agile, high growth businesses that incumbents ignore at their peril. Amongst my favourites right now are Monzo, Starling Bank, and Lemonade Insurance. Beyond that, I love brands that can tell powerful stories and/or create great marketing that connects customers to their brand in compelling ways. Nike, Burger King, Asos are all great at this.
Any advice for people considering writing their own book?
Before writing my first book I asked authors that I knew for advice on how to do it. Fortunately, no-one said that I should forget it, but a number said to me that doing it can feel like something of a marathon and I‘d say that’s true. That’s why it’s so important that you feel passionate about your subject, and the message and ideas that you want to put out in the world.
It’s important to write often, to practice it regularly, and even develop writing as a habit. I’ve written a blog (Only Dead Fish) now for over a decade and it’s become the way in which I think out loud and make sense of all the things that are changing around us. Once the book is done however, it’s such a good encapsulation of your thinking and something to genuinely feel proud about. There’s nothing else quite like it. So if you feel that you have a book in you, my advice would be to just start writing.