DevOpsGroup Blog The Digital Prophecy: five things 2020 taught us

Fulfilling the Digital Prophecy: five things 2020 taught us

It turns out that 2020 was the year digital evangelists had prophesied.

Formerly bustling high streets and malls became ghost towns, transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Sadly, the unprecedented government economic support will not save every enterprise without an equally unprecedented shift in business models. The abrupt step change to widespread remote working and mission-critical reliance on digital services has tested organisational creativity, adaptivity and technological capability.

The ‘adapt or die’ mantra coined by father of Scrum Jeff Sutherland has been used by Agilists for more than a decade. Today, memes asking what accelerated organisations’ digital transformation traverse social media, with Covid-19 circled in red. Similarly, the three questions central to Eliyahu Goldratt’s systems thinking (what to change? what to change to? and how to make the change?) dominate the agenda of virtual boardrooms across the planet.

Up-to-date insights into customer behaviour, business ecosystems and pandemic responses, along with adaptive technology, now form the foundation of success. Using data that’s six months old to predict which products and services will be needed for the future doesn’t cut it anymore.

Achieving the business agility that’s so sorely needed demands a business-wide paradigm shift. There’s no shortage of literature and advice on this topic, but trying to make sense of it can be overwhelming.

At DevOpsGroup, I’m in a privileged position whereby I have access to the latest in thought leadership and close contact with enterprises navigating the challenges we face today.

Our Adaptive ITTM framework combines theoretical models with practical experience and industry knowledge to unpick the challenges of digital transformation. This year we published a series of papers looking at this in detail. I’ve summarised five key takeaways that are particularly relevant to the Covid-19 world here.

Takeaway #1: Work backwards from the customer

Whether you operate in a business-to-consumer or a business-to-business context, the demands and requirements of the people and organisations you serve are constantly changing.

This was true before Covid-19. Smartphone penetration has led people to expect seamless user experiences between the physical and various online worlds. During the pandemic, this has become more important than ever.

People want digital experiences that enrich their lives or make it simpler and easier to get what they want, personally and professionally. Delivering this is essential to engage and nurture customers, earning their spend and loyalty. So, the remit of the IT department needs to extend from technology service delivery to encompass strategic enablement of these goals.

Whatever product or service you sell, customer satisfaction is everything. It’s about truly understanding what customers need right now. Then delivering on that in tangible, measurable ways which continually improve over time.

For many organisations, achieving this means turning the traditional innovation process inside out. Rather than devising a new concept and taking it to market, customer insight comes first, shaping and directing the innovation strategy. You need to discover what customers want, then figure out how to give it to them.

This echoes the Amazon concept of ‘working backwards’. Product managers are encouraged to write a mock press release announcing their latest product before they begin work on it. This forces them to focus on consumer benefits, simplicity and competitive differentiation. They keep refining and honing the press release until it passes the ‘so what’ test, a process which is cheaper and quicker than iterating the product itself. Perhaps this is a technique you could adopt in your own organisation?

Further reading: Adaptive IT – Strategy

Takeaway #2: Organise people around products

Putting the customer at the heart of everything requires new ways of working. DevOps helps here, with its focus on long-lived, product-centric software delivery and operations. Multiskilled teams take full responsibility for products within a defined lifecycle, from inception to retirement. And the provision of reliable, valuable customer experiences remains the central objective throughout.

This contrasts with the transient, project-led approach of traditional IT. A project mentality leads to a lack of accountability which hinders overall progress and performance. For instance, developers are only responsible for a narrowly defined segment of product development, before handing off to operations colleagues.

A product-centric strategy focuses everyone’s attention and effort on target outcomes. These must be measurable and geared towards customer value.

“[A digital product] creates specific value for a group of people, the customers and users, and to the organisation that develops and provides it.”

Roman Pichler

This fosters a dynamic and collaborative spirit where the team holds collective responsibility for success. At a micro level, a developer is more likely to ensure their code is up to standard if they work closely with operations colleagues who will be directly impacted by any problems. What’s more, efficiency is improved through joined-up decision making and rapid feedback loops.

It all adds up to more adaptive, inherently flexible ways of working. Which is exactly what was needed during the initial disruption of Covid-19. And it remains critical to organisational success as businesses ready themselves for trading in the post Covid-19 world. 

Further reading: Adaptive IT – Organisation

Takeaway #3: Unlock the power of your people

Digital transformation isn’t easy, and when it goes wrong cultural factors are often cited as the root cause.

Culture is something that evolves over time. It’s deeply ingrained in the things people do, how they feel and the way they behave. Many aspects are governed by unspoken rules, with no explicit rationale behind them. In an organisational context, it often equates to ‘the way things are done around here’.

In the Covid-19 world, many organisations’ cultures have been hugely disrupted by the need for social distancing and remote working. Things look set to remain this way for the next few months at least, and the benefits of nurturing a DevOps culture have come to the fore. This doesn’t equate to ‘the type of culture they have at Google, Amazon or Netflix’ (which would ignore the significant cultural differences between these three organisations). And it’s not about emulating a stereotypical Silicon Valley start-up culture either. It’s about understanding and improving your existing culture to meet employee needs so that they in turn can meet your customers’ needs.

Covid-19 has been hard on employees. New working practices pushed them out of their comfort zone and forced them to adopt unfamiliar processes. There’s a real risk of burnout as ongoing uncertainty has a detrimental impact on morale, wellbeing and job fulfilment.

In enterprise-level digital transformation, we find that focusing on psychological safety, continuous learning and autonomy keeps employees engaged and happy. With the double-whammy of accelerated digital transformation and the wider concerns of Covid-19, this takes on even greater significance.

Further reading: Adaptive IT – Culture

Takeaway #4: Reduce risk with faster feedback

For many conventional enterprise organisations, the lead time for software changes is between one and six months. Deployments are batched and released on a weekly or monthly basis. When an incident occurs, it typically takes days or weeks for normal service to resume.

This pace is not conducive to success in the digital age. In fact, it puts the organisation at serious risk of disruption from competitors with better, more intuitive and more reliable offerings.

The need to respond quickly and effectively to changing demands and environments is not new. But its importance escalated rapidly as businesses responded to the challenges posed by Covid-19. Those that had already embraced DevOps ways of working had the edge.

DevOps is widely recognised as a way to get new software products and features to market quickly. But as a relatively new concept – more a philosophy than a prescriptive set of rules or practices – it can seem a little nebulous for conventional enterprises. It’s not always easy to figure out what practical steps are needed.

Ultimately it comes down to striking the right balance between technical approaches and ways of working.

Cloud-based infrastructures, self-service platforms and continuous integration / continuous delivery (CI/CD) pipelines play an important role, but they are no silver bullet. It’s when they are underpinned by systems thinking, Lean and Agile practices that the magic happens.

In short, when people work together more effectively, timeframes for software delivery or remediation are slashed. Changes or activities which previously took months can be realised in a matter of minutes. Innovation accelerates, creating that all-important value and getting relevant products to customers at an opportune time.

Further reading: Adaptive IT – Ways of Working

Takeaway #5: Build an adaptive technology platform

In any enterprise, the primary function of the IT department is to provide technological solutions to business problems.

Use of IT has become ubiquitous at every level. It encompasses personal computing via desktops or laptops and mobile computing via phones or tablets. It also extends to the embedded computing that supports manufacturing, distribution, warehousing and other line-of-business applications.

In the digital economy technology must do more than support functional aspects of the business. It also needs to act as a strategic enabler, playing an active role in competitive differentiation and customer satisfaction.

Today, in a world redefined by Covid-19, the expectations placed on IT have intensified.

Customers expect seamless experiences across multiple online devices. Excellent service, ease of use and reliability have become a hygiene factor.

To differentiate, you need to continually hone your offering with updates that are relevant to customers’ current personal or professional circumstances. If you don’t, there’s probably a competitor who will.

In this environment, the role of enterprise technology has shifted. It’s no longer enough to ‘keep the lights on’. Technological capabilities are directly aligned with business success. And this puts immense pressure on corporate IT.

The overwhelming message we find business users conveying to IT teams is ‘we need it faster’. To keep up with disruptive market forces, from new entrants to capricious customers to world-changing pandemics, organisations need to shorten the cycle from new idea to launched service. This is what Tom and Mary Poppendieck call the ‘concept to cash’ cycle.

Of the many new technologies that have emerged in the past decade, three core developments are fundamental to business success in the digital economy:

Cloud computing: changing the economic model of corporate IT and providing access to previously uneconomical services at affordable prices via on-demand computing.

Self-service platforms: increasing team autonomy through the provision of high- quality self-service platforms for the tools to perform common tasks, plus shared source libraries of reusable components.

Automation: using modern software tools to automate repetitive, low-value work (toil) freeing teams to focus on value-added work. Often referred to as the ‘everything-as-code’ approach.

None of these technologies offers an easy route to digital transformation. They need to be integrated with each other. And they must go hand-in-hand with wider business measures to foster customer-centricity, collaboration and continual improvement. Nevertheless, combined with an appetite and inclination for transformation, they can empower and enable the business to increase the velocity of change.

Further reading: Adaptive IT – Technology

The lasting impact of Covid-19

Covid-19 has escalated the need to serve customers with products and services that meet of-the-moment needs. This has accelerated many organisations’ development and adoption of digital capabilities while embracing Agile and DevOps principles.

So, to recap what 2020 taught us, enterprise organisations need to:

  1. Work backwards from the customer
  2. Organise people around products
  3. Unlock the power of people
  4. Reduce risk with faster feedback
  5. Build an adaptive technology platform

For a more detailed summary of our thinking in these five areas, you can download our overarching Adaptive IT whitepaper, Digital Transformation Done Right

And if you’re looking for reading material over Christmas, check out our recommended book list.

If you’d like to find out how Adaptive IT could benefit your business, and even book a free two-hour workshop with our team, view our Adaptive IT page.


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