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Collaboration in Digital Strategy: A Key Differentiator in Digital Transformation & Venturing

Collaboration in Digital Strategy: A Key Differentiator in Digital Transformation & Venturing

Published by Michael Kirch.

Originally published here

A passion for design and digital

The past 22 years of quite digital work life have revolved around orchestrating, designing, developing and evangelising in the Digital enterprise landscape. From designing digital experiences, development for agile to object oriented code, training and evangelising Dev Ops and best practice in digital production and much more. Broadly speaking I have seen the digital landscape to date. More recently I’ve been advising and helping enterprises on emerging Customer Experience programs and design approaches, business case, organisational models, individual capability development and interpretations of Customer research and Digital Strategy so enterprises can adopt, adapt and transform into “more digital” organisations. But, while transformation is the need seldom do they succeed. So lets chat about that.
Overall, I love the ‘Digital Transformation promise’, the intended cultural awareness, philosophical agitation and systemic challenges that transformation neatly drops on the table of the business stakeholder and the organisations funding their ventures. A multifaceted design and strategy conundrum from anyone’s perspective. Whilst there are many organisational approaches to modernising a business, we have all witnessed some level of success but far more common are the struggling attempts ending in disappointment. Organisations broadly become engulfed in delivery which strategically upholds what is considered success in most organisations. Delivery is seen as the foundation across some change and BAU (Business As Usual).

“There are things happening all across government — we come across them all the time but we don’t know enough about them. Quite often the people who are doing these things are trying to… ‘hide it’ is the wrong word… trying to make sure it flourishes as much as possible without causing it to become visible in a way that might cause it to get shut down.
“These isolated pockets are not necessarily communicating very well, not necessarily recognised or rewarded.” (Sam Hannah Rankin, Head of the New Innovation Fund in Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet July 19, 2017 in the

As a consultant it is easy to say (as a strategic group, delivery team, an executive suite etc…) that you must challenge and ideate together from top to bottom, internally and externally. This is rarely easy to do! Hence my assessment and theme for this piece is that to collaborate successfully an organisation is best to adopt collaboration as part of a cross capability and business unit culture, its mantra. As a practice many and perhaps all its ways of working need to first succeed here before they can be the all the things they aspire to, a tier 1 Agile practice, best in class digital delivery provider or most basic version of Digital Program Management.

Culture affecting outcomes regardless of methodology
Firstly a caveat, there is a great deal I am not touching on here, but within the last 20 years of formal Program Management approaches, Scrum mastery, fast paced Agile delivery, Scalable/non-scalable Strategy & Design Thinking the best of what I’ve seen from an outcomes and benefits perspective still comes down to some simple tenets that must be adopted at an executive cultural level.

  1. Cross Capability collaboration is key in transformation and I see many fail here in favour of org preferences, management policy or delivery control devices. Vertical business ownership is the primary culprit!
  2. Authoritarian leaders don’t thrive in Digital organisations. Whether internal or external facing the individual ownership of ‘the outcomes and benefits’ is the enemy of realising benefits and an organisation living the many factors of success. In say this a healthy perspective on ‘failure’ is a vital one and along side this instant success is most rare!
  3. A good success story loves being shared! Narrative and ideation are crucial for advocacy. Inversely failure is a hard story to share in business for everyone. Learning on the other hand is not!
  4. Culture is as expensive as it is ambiguous, don’t underestimate its power for underpinning success or destruction! Broadly speaking, watered down collaborative practices, whatever they are, more expensive to use than more well balanced ones that garner support and encourage idea creation. The negatives of isolated strategy, black box design, singular vision, seldom see the benefits of sustainability, visibility and don’t encourage healthy transformation or experiential sharing driving healthy cultures. So don’t try and short fix culture… it is a losing proposition!

Cross Capability Collaboration is (in whichever balance you choose) the key to your success. Some approaches obviously being better at providing advocacy, clarity, transparency and connectedness for your clients, your individual staff or the vendors who in the end must deliver their part of the success story.

Success is a blend, it always was!
At a 10,000ft perspective the blend of internal and external approaches actually used by companies delivers the flavour of collaborative culture. Whether a small compartmentalised piece of marketing digital for a new digital magazine, an end to end customer approach for a superannuation company CRM integration, through to hypothesising new procurement practices where Machine Learning (AI) might be employed in automation. In all of these engagements, Discovery, Definition, Development and Delivery processes (Link : TheDoubleDiamond) can be upset by culturally and strategically insensitive approaches to collaboration.

Assisting collaborative development in Digital Strategy with Design Approaches
Being a Designer and Strategist I find myself continually asking the following. How does Design Strategy catch the evolution of the ‘problem statement’ early enough. More importantly, how can we bring an hypothesis before the right people to include a good spread of all the influencers across this domain to the benefit of the program so that …

  1. Strategists/Designers and Managers can be sure they have the correct problem statements and questions around these and
  2. We then look at the dynamics affecting the design and delivery process’ to achieve well understood outcomes as viable products, (as in Minimum Viable Products)?

To me these are the crucial questions of collaboration in the Digital era. In my and many other Digital Transformation evangelists views, this is a top down problem. This is where an enterprise, program or projects Digital Transformation maturity will be tested. In the end ‘being digital’ separately or in voice only is not enough. Even when organisations talk to being ‘customer first’, agile and experimenting, outcomes driven, data driven, strategic visionaries, open communicators etc… if the collaboration is not really there, failure to recognise possibly game changing outcomes will eventually be. Many organisations fail on collaboration at many levels with what is a ‘like water for chocolate’ intent.

Having a deeply collaborative culture is difficult but also is essential and this has been clear for repeatedly successful companies for a long time. There are clear red flags that many of us are very familiar with… look out for the telltale language like, ‘we just need to get this done, finished, out, delivered’, ‘this is just a replacement of the old system’, ‘there is no budget for design and strategy in this project’. All clear signs your strategy and planning are non inclusive and not driving positive culture growth! Whereas when we look to history there are countless examples of strong collaboration and culture in the transformation and innovation success stories of the past! Henry Ford continually recounted if he had listened to customers her would have sold more horses … but he didn’t create an industrial revolution alone!

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” – Henry Ford

Where should organisations go from here?
There are of course very individual group dynamics at play, budget limits, political agendas, courting of interests and on trend popular movements like in any social, workplace or political landscape. Recognition for the importance of cultural collaborative depth is not new. Don’t be afraid to challenge situations and indicators of lagging practices, non-inclusive strategy and workplace agenda. Left to grow unattended these will cost a great deal, possibly everything!

It all seems too much of a challenge at times for executive individuals and groups, yes. So, many organisations outsource with some success, some tackle problems like poor cultural collaboration with talent procurement programs and enlist some ‘agile or designer thinkers’ running around (maybe in T-Shirts), asking stakeholders to gamify strategy, to play with Lego, draw sketches, to learn by telling each other stories and all to break down organisational barriers to resistance. Enter big ‘Eureka’ opportunity… often unrecognised because of poor buy in.

For good reason, all of these open sharing and collaborative practices don’t just deliver the outcomes, they also offer valuable cultural lessons. Adaptability is important in transformation, one can’t simply rent it. That said a small line of advice here is if you are bringing in the skills at least try and learn/grow from it. This simply speaks to value for money if nothing else!

What do we gain when we succeed on culture?
Overall this new Digital collaborative culture (ambiguous as it is) encourages discovery with other people, bites of chewable pieces of the problem, continually looks for the meaning of success and embraces some learned failure along the way. Lets not forget much better cross specialisation learning and this delivers flexibility. It is tough but co-design and collaboration always were an exercise in self awareness and hence a challenge for individuals and organisations more so. As my previous government reference points out, with so much going on we perhaps forget to see the forest through the trees.

In response, instead of discussing the universally large set of devices of Business Program Management, Digital Strategy, Design, Agile, Development Operations and Managed Services take a look around and find out how the culture of the organisation is going. Will all of your teams, your people, your would be collaborators

  1. Organisational Vision,
    Recognise common goals at multiple levels,
  2. Use of the tools and skills that enable your people to collaborate,
  3. Co-design and develop together across capabilities provides a sense of ownership and hence loyalty,
  4. Self assessment and organisational agility (Not Agile practice),
  5. Embracing failure as learning (A massive culture gain in my view.),
  6. Develop collaborative cultures driving a sense of individual contribution and reward.

Collaborative culture assessment and action
Strangely most organisations have some version of these. They don’t often discuss these enough as they are not as ‘on trend’ as UX Practice, Dev Ops, Agile, Design Thinking and alike. A simple maturity test for organisations on collborative culture is to try and explain what you are measuring against in cultural growth and is it different, (particularly is it less defined or with less depth) than the way you assess delivered programs of Customer loyalty or engagement for a client?

For example, taking typical Customer metrics and analysis criteria and applying an inwards lens we might see the following categories/metrics as an analysis of Collaborative Culture Health.

  • Reduced calls to contact centre > Executive or Management time consulting staff regarding, cultural planning, delivery, issues and crisis’
  • Reduced abandonment rates > Staff attrition rates citing poor services and delivery methods
  • Decreased time to adoption / conversion > Contributions to company capabilities, sales, mentorship programs and or culture
  • Impacted time to task completion > Improved sales, delivery, eNPS performance as a yr/yr comparison
  • Helped successful tasks to failed ratio > Equivalent performance criteria for delivery and capability development around engagement and rewards systems.

Of course, eNPS scores (employee Net Promoter Scores) are a simple good place to start all be it slightly shallow and easily misinterpreted. But no doubt better would be actually activating initiatives via workshopping and collaboration culture with your teams and practices at all levels! Which by the way I am yet to see in any consistency across companies who even employ Cultural Officers at great expense!

Who is helping you execute on collaboration and culture?
Companies seldom use their Design or Agile practices to facilitate strategically citing conflict of interest. Why, well Senior Executives don’t like to throw around ideas amidst the ranks where this might diminish authority for one and two, CX research strategy is seldom used as a torch light to better understand internal issues, performance lag or cultural problems. Would love to take feedback from any organisations who actually perform gap analysis on internal culture delivery? (Email :

So Digital Transformation leaders, to start your strategy for how your business’ can develop, how it can engage in Digital Transformation success, look to your people first. They are still your most valuable asset even in an automation era. This is because bringing the best of collaboration will deliver the success that all business strives for. Advocacy, transparency, growth, profitability, delivery, testability, improvement, product relevance, services value and that very valuable tag of positive digital transformation.

#DevelopingCollaborationCultures #DigitalTransformation #DesignThinking #CollaborationStrategy