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Digital Business Delivery Leadership

Teppo Tommila • Business Strategist

In many traditional organizations, business and IT are often still two completely separate functions (some might even say “silos”) that don’t communicate that well with each other. Business invents and specifies a new business need and then throws it over the fence to IT with a note “please deliver as you see fit”. This will easily lead into projects that go over budget, past planned schedule and the outcome is not exactly what was expected. Many times IT ends up driving these projects and there is no clear ownership and driver on business side because of lack of technical understanding.

The fundamental problem in the abovementioned approach is, that in more and more companies in various industries the line between business and IT is increasingly artificial, as they are no longer two separate things. In fact, many times IT is the business. This applies also to such industries as e.g. finance, retail, healthcare, transportation and energy where IT has conventionally been only in supportive role.

Many companies have great ideas on how to reap the benefits of digitalization and they also have skillful people building them, but they are failing the implementation because of poor delivery leadership and end up with projects that just tend to drag on forever without a clear direction. When companies are developing new products, services and capabilities in the new digital era, the approach needs to be more holistic and internal barriers must go.

In many organizations, there is a clear shortage of cross-functional people who have competence in both business and technology and are therefore best suited for driving digital business deliveries successfully forward. This differs from the traditional project manager’s role, who in many cases is there just to fill the progress tracking and reporting needs for the top management. A person working as a delivery lead has a clear responsibility and ownership of the delivery and is actively contributing to the progress of the project and driving it forward.

In addition to having the right set of competences, I’ve noticed that the chances of making a successful digital business delivery tremendously increases when the following five guidelines are followed:

  1. Master the details
  2. Solve problems on all frontiers immediately
  3. Assume that nothing works until verified in production
  4. Involve, Inspire and empower people
  5. Manage stakeholder expectations and create a sense of urgency

Master the details

Whether you are working as a product owner, delivery lead or in some kind of other business implementation role, you cannot get past this fact: If you want to get stuff done, you need to be neck-deep in the details. Things don’t unfortunately just happen themselves, they need to be actively driven forward and to be capable of doing that effectively, you need to know your product/service inside out including the technical capabilities and limitations. If you need to consult an expert every time a question regarding your delivery is raised, you cannot effectively drive things nor make good decisions. You need to understand the details in addition to the big picture.

Solve problems on all frontiers immediately

During any digital business delivery, multiple problems will keep on arising constantly. Even though some particular problem might not be big and urgent right at that moment, it should nevertheless be solved as soon as it is identified. This is important because until the problem has been fixed, you cannot be sure that your solution works. Many times fixing one issue also reveals following issues that could not have been identified before fixing the original problem. Sometimes resolving the original issue may also indirectly cause something else that you are dependent on to fail. If you lull yourself into thinking that these are just small issues that can be solved later, you will end up with a huge pile of problems by the end of the delivery (and you will probably miss the deadline).

Assume that nothing works until verified in production

When implementing new digital products/services, you rarely can work in a green field environment. Almost every time you need to integrate with multiple different legacy systems to obtain data etc. Although companies are striving to have a test environment that would be similar to their production environment, I have rarely, if ever, seen this to be 100% true. On a system level this might hold for many of them, but when you are integrating several different systems, there is seldom true and full end-to-end testing capabilities. This means that in digital business deliveries you need to work in an agile manner and push everything into production as soon as it’s ready, just to verify that it’s really working as expected. This is not to say that you should not test at all, you definitely should have thorough testing practices. You should just understand that if something works in test environment, that’s just an implication and not a guarantee about anything. When you are implementing new features continuously, you also need to keep regression testing all the time so that the new features don’t break something that was implemented already earlier.

Involve, Inspire and empower people

Digital business delivery is never a one man show. Yes, you have a core team working on the actual product/service, but in addition to that you will typically need wide support from different parts of the organization. You need to keep all stakeholders involved, not just to avoid “not invented here” type of change resistance, but also to create a positive atmosphere where everybody feels that they are working together towards the same goal. People have other tasks during their work day than just to help your delivery going forward, so you need to inspire them with fast paced results to create a bandwagon effect. As soon as people will see this momentum in action, they want to be a part of making a difference. When leading a digital business delivery, you need to empower these people. Talented people don’t need micromanagement, they need communication and help with getting rid of the impediments that are blocking them.

Manage stakeholder expectations and create a sense of urgency

Having a transparent and open dialogue with top management is very crucial on a successful delivery, so that everybody involved is on the same page on the status and expectations. Focus of the communication towards management should be the main hurdles you are facing, and less about achieved milestones. If there are problems or ambiguities with the delivery, these should be raised as soon as identified. Many people are shy on bringing problems up, but if this is not done, management is rightfully assuming that everything is going as planned. It’s better to be a little too pessimistic than too optimistic, as negative surprises, especially close to deadline, are the last thing that management wants. Getting management attention and involvement in time is therefore crucial so that you get the right sense of urgency and pressure.