From Complexity to Digital Simplification

In the tech world filled with brilliant people, we tend to over-complicate things. It recalls the wisdom of Forrest Gump, ”Stupid is as stupid does.” Simple can be a virtue.

“I’ve never had a goal.”

I recently listened to Jason Fried on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Jason is the co-founder of Basecamp, a provider of a well-known project management tool. You might dismiss him as a crank, but it’s hard to ignore 2.8 million customers and 18 years of solid business results.

Goals are helpful, but often not in the way we tend to structure them. Goals work as a step function. You hit one goal, you move on, and so on and so forth, but Jason has an interesting perspective on how he thinks about work and progress:

“I approach things continuously, not in stops. I just want to keep going — whatever happens along the way is just what happens.”

That is essentially the promise of Agile and DevOps, a means of working continuously and improving through iteration. When done well, it is the purest manifestation of GSD (“Getting Stuff Done”).

This might work for Jason and his startup like company. But what about the world of enterprises that need goals, KPI’s, and all of this infrastructure to stay afloat? Can enterprises truly be fast and innovate like startups?

Digital transformation is the manifestation of this question for enterprises. Executives realize they need to be closer to the customer, faster to deliver product, and be more nimble to market shifts. It is what gets CEO’s like Piyush Gupta of DBS Bank to ask out loud “how do you create a 22,000-person startup?

This is how CEO’s think. They believe that digital transformation is how their lumbering company will stay relevant. However digital transformation is not the goal. That is why according to a Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO survey only 18 percent of companies consider their digital strategies “very effective”.

Digital transformation has become the waterfall methodology of corporate strategy. It is big, brash, and ballsy. But as we know from decades of waterfall, what you start off building is not what you end up with, even if you reach the finish line.

Why? Because digital transformation requires an organization cultural shift to openness and collaboration. Even if the organization is ready, the scope of change is overwhelming, like the proverbial swapping jet engines in mid-flight, affecting every department.

Earlier last week, this head of engineering I spoke with said something profound about how tech companies sell. The geekier companies talk all about the tech. The more business savvy companies however find more success in the market because they are able to make the complex simple for executives.

Our minds have a tough time handling new concepts. As Daniel Kahneman explains in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the brain operates on two systems; one makes quick decisions while the other is analytical. The first system makes sense of the world so we do not have to expend energy dealing with complexity. It simplifies the world, which is an incredible mental feat given the volume of information we deal with at any moment.

Steve Jobs said the following about simplicity:

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

When executives make things look complex, it creates resistance to change across the organization, and individual resistance to the unknown. And that is what digital transformation sounds like, an incredibly complex initiative with huge risks and uncertainties. Then pockets of resistance coalesce to stall the transformation initiative.

Instead of digital transformation, embrace Digital Simplification. The vision needs to be easily digestible and clear for staff. Instead of explaining a huge legacy migration effort or mass digitalizing all the customer channels, start small and simple. 

As an example, pick 2 or 3 of the most pressing areas in need of digitization. Have a short timeframe, create smaller teams with co-located business and IT staff, release new features in faster intervals, gather feedback from users, rinse and repeat. Then share what is learned and widely celebrate the success, so that the rest of the organization buys into the vision. This is exactly the playbook being used by Capital One, FedEx, Verizon, and other organizations that have demonstrated success in their transformation.

This flies in the face of the typical corporate playbook. Often that playbook is created by people with a vested interest in keeping things complex, that goes for IT as well. This is not to minimize the incredible complexity involved in enterprise IT, information security, and multiple eras of infrastructure. As one senior bank IT director told me, no one even wants to touch the core banking system, built on mainframe code from the 80’s.

That is why simplicity is so important in undertaking digital transformation, because of the nature of the change is so enormously complex. And as Steve Jobs says, simplicity is hard, but the benefit is that, when done well, can move an entire organization.

What are the challenges you observe in your own organization’s digital transformation? What are some ways your team could embrace simplicity?

Why would a flight from North America to Asia sometimes fly over the Atlantic?

I have noticed this too sometimes and now I know…

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

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