Organizational transformations have been part of organizational life for many years. There are reorganizations, big IT transformations and nowadays Agile, Cloud, Digital or DevOps transformations. These transformations used to follow a familiar pattern: An organization is going through a major transformation and invests significant amounts of money over a three-to five-year horizon into the transformation. At the end of the transformation when the “end-state” was achieved, the level of investment was reduced and focus shifted to stabilization and cost reduction. Over time the requirements changed more than the current level of investment allowed us to adapt for. Technical debt and the gap between needs and system functionality increased until this reached a level that required significant reinvestment or a new transformation to the next trend.
The cycle repeated every few years. While far from ideal it seemed to work okay. It was good business for technology companies and consultancies, it provided a level of comfort for organizations as they executed their three-to five-year road maps of transformation. The duration was not really a problem as the environment changed slowly enough for organizations to catch up with each cycle. The level of change in the environment has increased and competitors are increasingly coming from digital startups that move very quickly. This means that the traditional transformation cycle is too slow to react. We cannot afford three-to five-year cycles any longer, and instead need to create an organizational capability to continuously adapt to the environment. If you do one more transformation in your organization, it needs to be the anti-transformation transformation. The idea of this transformation is to transform not with a specific technical capability in mind but rather to transform to an ever improving, learning organization and to build the organizational capability that allows you to drive this ongoing process at a sustainable pace and process.
There are obviously a few things different with this transformation, and the most obvious yet confusing thing is that there is no end-state. There is no end-state technology architecture, there is no end-state organizational structure and there is no end-state delivery methodology. But if there is no end-state how do we know when we are done? This is the bad news, we will never be done. We have to create capabilities that make it easier and easier to adapt incrementally and we need mechanisms to guide each improvement even in the absence of an end-state.
Having this discussion with my clients makes me feel like a doctor who is telling the patient that is coming to the office that there is no pill that I can give to reduce his blood pressure and shortness of breath, but rather that the patient needs to eat healthier and play more sports. It is not going to be easy and each day will present a new challenge. Furthermore, as his consultant I cannot do this work for him, I can only guide and support, but the patient has to do a lot of the work himself. The exact same is true for organizations; neither Cloud, Robotic Process Automation, AI or any other technology will magically solve the problems. We need our organizations to change to a healthier lifestyle to remain fit and survive.
Enough of the analogy, but I hope you get the point. So what can we do to guide the anti-transformation transformation? First of all, our view of technology architecture needs to change; as highlighted in this blog post there are three architectures we are dealing with and each one of them needs to be adaptable: our business systems architecture, our IT tools architecture, and our QA and data architecture. We also need to have a guiding system to show us where our technical debt is and where systems are highly coupled—these need to be reduced to remain adaptable. Last but not least, we need to find ways that allow us to continue to evolve organizational structure and methodology in a way that does not disrupt the business—it is not about moving from the Spotify model to SAFe or vice versa, but rather it’s about running small experiments with your own contextual methodology or org structure to be able to evolve and continuously improve. If you are still in the beginnings of the anti-transformation then you might want to adopt one of the more common methodology frameworks to get yourself started, but if in two to three years you are either still doing the same things or feel the need to adopt another model then you have a problem. Neither of those two extremes should be correct, you should feel like you are working with a methodology and org structure that is truly your own and that has been optimized for your context over time.
One last thing to note—larger disruptions in business or technology will still cause more challenging needs for change and require you to increase investment, but it should not require another transformation. It should instead require a larger incremental change that is easier to manage because we decoupled our architectures and methods.
The transformation is dead, long live the anti-transformation transformation.