Digital transformation from the inside out

Let your transformation be guided by your sheepherders

Sep 13, 2018   |  

To digitally transform your company, you need people who can tend to your efforts in just the right way—leaders who can nurture and nudge, who are good at getting everyone moving in the same direction.

You need sheepherders.

First a bit of a detour.

When it comes to sharing how we in Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO) are helping to drive the transformation of Microsoft from the inside, we’ve talked about how you pragmatically create a vision for your transformation and how you choose clear initiatives that you think will get you to a transformed state.

At this point some of you who may be wondering about the role culture change plays in digital transformation—I’d say it’s significant. You could argue, and I would agree, that your willingness or ability to change your culture puts a strong ceiling on any transformational efforts you choose to undertake. The digitization of processes and products is a necessary activity, but is it enough to transform?

Let’s look at these questions and see what we find. And let’s ask our sheepherders for help.

Within Microsoft, one of the most complex issues we face with respect to transformation is not just the digitization of process but understanding the complexity of these processes end-to-end. As our leaders like to say, process is the product! We’re looking to not just make these processes more efficient but also to make them useable in more than one context.

One of our biggest challenges is creating business processes (particularly ones that help drive our value chain directly) that are useable in multiple contexts so that, as we transform our products and our business models to meet new customer demands or to sell solutions in new and innovative ways, we do so in a way that doesn’t require a new set of capabilities. This requires a mind shift in not just how we think about automation end-to-end, but how we think about building for the future with our customer at the center.

Each company will have different cultural challenges as they consider the above.

For us, our processes are complex and end-to-end is “hard” because of two drivers of complexity. One, our business is intricate by nature. Our very large product mix gets multiplied by our various customer types (enterprises, consumers, developers, etc.), and that gets multiplied by the many ways we go to market to reach each of these customer types. Two, we’re getting on in years. We have been a large company for 40-plus years, and our strategies and practices have changed as we’ve evolved, so much so that rapidly digitally transforming is hard.

So how do get out of this quagmire and transform at the same time?

As we talked about in prior posts, it starts with having a vision for what needs to transform. You need a sense of where you’re headed. We also posit that there are new roles, policies, and leadership skills needed to truly transform. Having great automation is wasted if you’re not able to work across the seams of your organization. Having great products is not enough if your unable to lower the barrier to entry to purchase and consumption through new and innovative business models. In short, expecting different results from the same mindset is a curious form of insanity (according to Einstein).

Introducing our sheepherders

We made one fundamental change that has already paid significant dividends. We created the role of a General Contractor (GC), whose job it is to work end-to-end across our transformation initiatives to both define the broad scope of what we’re trying to accomplish and to also own the end-to-end execution of that initiative.

These are our sheepherders.

If this sounds like a big job, it is—especially at a company the size of Microsoft. Working across our seams is something that’s easy for overloaded senior leaders to ignore, but we don’t want that. We think this is the most important role that these folks play and we’re working with them to prioritize this work. They are masters at planning and cross group collaboration. They know how to keep the team moving. They are great at watching for trouble (while not crying wolf). They are master motivators. They are the ones who look out across broad swaths of our company, making sure we ship what our customers and partners want and not our organizational chart.

The other important function that the people in these new roles play is to drive clarity of priority across the company.

It likely won’t surprise you that we have bright people with big ideas—we love this as we’re a learning and growth-mindset company. At times, our ideas and priorities overlap and require alignment. This is where the GC role really pays off—they are tasked with making sure we stay aligned at the highest levels of the company, and it’s that alignment that then accelerates our transformation.
Digital transformation can easily become a systems focused, digitization program—while digitization of products and processes is a necessary component of transformation, you place unneeded limits on yourself when you don’t take a hard look at your cultural norms, people, and policies.

What are your deep seeded cultural norms that need to change for you to transform and who are the sheepherders who will guide you through it?