Have you noticed a sudden surge in interest about “digital transformation” out there in the wild wild word of web?  I have.  It’s a whole thing nowadays.  I usually don’t comment on stuff like this because, frankly, I’m a practical guy — and “pie in the sky” theories about business transformation sometimes strike me as people sipping cocktails while the room’s on fire.  But today, I’m making an exception.

Here’s the backstory.  Everyday I read feedly.  If you don’t know what that is, it’s basically a cloud RSS reader.  I’ve used it since Google dropped support for their cloud reader product. This is because I lack the patience to read the news like a normal person on Twitter or LinkedIn. Yes, I still subscribe to RSS feeds… like your grandpa used to.  (The first email I sent was over WWIVNet, so lay off my old-timey ways.)

Anyway, the reason I’m mentioning the tool specifically is that I actually thought it was bugged this morning because of the prevalence of digital transformation related content in it.  See, the view I use shows headlines as a long, single-spaced list.  On it, there was a full page of items starting with the words “Digital transformation…”  I thought at first (silly me) that there was some feed spamming the same article over and over again.  Like maybe some CMS somewhere was producing feeds that munged the time or maybe was reposting the same article over and over again.

Nope.  Turns out there were just a bajillion articles up there about digital transformation.   Articles like, “Digital Transformation: Ways to get it done right in your business” or “Digital Transformation: The career defining issue for CEOs…”  Plus a whole other boatload of similar-sounding ones.  What’s interesting to me isn’t that people are interested in the topic (because of course they are) or that companies are transforming (because again, of course.)  Instead, what is interesting to me is that this is news… that it’s news now and that people are thinking differently about their companies today because “digital transformation”.

Look, here’s the deal.  It’s “already yesterday” on the digital transformation – at least insofar as people typically use the term.  What I mean by that is two things: 1) If you’re thinking about “digital transformation” now and focusing on something specific you need to do to “achieve” it, that’s a symptom of something.  What it’s symptomatic of probably isn’t good news for you or your business.  2) What you really ought to be doing (instead of focusing on some post-“transformation” end state) is instead concentrating on your “adaptability”.

For example, there’s a reason I didn’t type this post out on a Selectric and fax it to you.  I have adapted in how I write stuff… you’ve adapted in how you read stuff.  “Transformation complete.”

Did you need to do something specific to achieve the “post-transformation goal” of reading something in a blog vs. a memo, newspaper, or on a bathroom stall?  Yes and no.  You did, but you didn’t really think about it too much, right?   It happened by degrees as a normal course of events unfolding.  The truth is, transformation isn’t a goal in and of itself.  There is no spoon.  If you “transform” today, you will need to transform again tomorrow. Chasing the specific mechanics of how best to transform is like me pondering my lawn and deciding which blade of grass I’m going to cut.  It’s ridiculous because I’m going to cut them all.  And I’m going to cut them again a week from now.

This article really seems to get to the nut of what I’m trying to say here:

If your company has not been applying digital technologies over the last 40 years, you don’t exist. The time-share, mainframe, departmental computing, client-server, PC, ERP, Internet, cloud, and mobile eras are all old news today. You already use some of these, of course. If anything, most of these eras coexist in your technology stack.

I recommend you read it.  This guy is really astute.  He goes on to say why the important point isn’t that you transform — or even really how you transform.  Instead, his point is about your willingness to adapt.  He says it relates to “fungibility”, which I guess works too.  I’m using “adaptability” though because more people know what “adapt” means vs. “fungible”.  Anyway, most people are fundamentally not that willing to adapt.  I still use an RSS reader, for example. That said, I like to think that if there was a better way (for me) that I would consider it.  I also periodically try new ways and evaluate their success vs. their failure at doing what I need it to do.

Being willing to adapt is, fundamentally, a mindset.  It’s cultural.  It means that you:

  • Continuously self-examine and take nothing for granted.  You ask the question about whether you are doing things the best, most flexible, and most agile way.  You ask it all day, every day.  Red flags go up when you get answers like “it’s the way we do it” or “it’s our standard”.
  • Focus on “utility-share”, not “wallet-share”.  Are you focused on preserving the business models you have today?  Or are you asking what your new business model should be?  Red flags go up when people worry about “cannibalizing” existing products or markets…  when “entrenching the old” trumps “embracing the new”.
  • Are willing to invest quickly and decisively.  You don’t wait for a budget cycle to invest and individuals are empowered to make things happen without waiting for layers of approval.  Red flags are people waiting months for senior leaders to make up their minds — or detailed and long discussions about building a better business case before you can move.
  • Experiment.  You try things out to see if they work.  Red flags are people who “don’t see the value” so aren’t willing to try something small and see if it works.

Do these things describe your company?  If not, stop reading about “digital transformation” and start asking tough questions about your culture.  Because if it’s your culture limiting you, you need to address that with cultural solutions.