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Enterprises Don’t Care About Planning

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Acme Enterprise is the world leader in designing robots for manufacturing plants. They are viewed in the world as the gold standard and the ones that “have their shit together” when you work with them. They release a new robot every year or two that is generally an upgraded version of the previous one with some new bells and whistles. The teams building these robots, from concept to prototype to production, have good velocity and care deeply about their work.

Sounds like a company that is performing well, right? Here’s the other part of the story.

Acme Enterprise is under constant fire from the public market for missing their earnings per share and having a lack of control over their operation costs. They are getting disrupted by cheaper and pointed robotic solutions that move the needle farther for their customers. There’s intense market pressure to move to that direction but Acme Enterprises constantly is late in delivery their robots. That’s not to mention the fact that releasing a new robot every year or two is creating a huge disadvantage for their sales team to compete against. Sales are slowing and everyone is frustrated. No matter how hard they plan and try to execute against these plans, they always fail and have to re-baseline their delivery dates.

I can tell you this now: every damn enterprise I go and talk to that once was but isn’t now is facing the above problem. In general, everything feels like it’s going well but the reality is that they are struggling significantly. This is the “digital disruption” everyone talks about. In my opinion, digital disruption is not about whether or not you have the latest marketing personalization tech from Adobe. It’s about whether you adopt software-minded principles of development and agility to compete in an age where technology drives change at a 10x rate than we historically have seen.

One of the key points, and the general point of this post, is the sentence around Acme Enterprise doing everything they can to plan for confidence only to have the plan blow up. This follows the old adage of “no plan survives contact with the enemy”, in which the enemy is the reality we live in. When we plan, we do it often in isolation, our subjective bias, or we try to account for mishaps only to find out that we experienced none of the mishaps we planned for but all of the ones we didn’t.

One of the biggest trends we’re seeing happen in enterprises is that everyone is moving more towards an agile work methodology backed with some sort of goal structure, such as OKRs. When I say agile, I mean this in more of a little “a” where it’s not a dogmatic state. I’ve seen this in marketing departments, engineering, corporate communications, IT, and even legal! Everyone is starting to adopt a more flexible framework for the sole fact that it provides more freedom. This goes into a longer topic that I’ve written about previously around experience owners and enabling autonomy of oneself and teams to of ownership. Agile work methodologies provide just that.

The tricky thing here is that we do need some sort of structure for specific communication and delivery purposes. It’s foolish to say that we can all live in the wild west where we can do whatever we want and when (although it would be amazing!). Thus, we get to planning. We plan like crazy in order to create predictability but see a stark failure of it when we hit reality – only to be further amplified with a new agile way of working.

Historically, this is where Portfolio and Project Management uses to come heavily in play. These disciplines helped “tame the chaos” and kept teams moving along the right track with issues tracking and risk adjustments.

News Flash: Project Management is Dead.

Yep. It’s dead. Gone. Moving forward, it will no longer be something we value and here’s why:

In the new agile and modern way of working, planning only needs to be good enough.

This means that we need our plans to be flexible and completely shift our focus away from delivering a project to delivering on deliverables that change outcomes that our customers experience. That’s the key shift here. Outcomes aren’t time bound and imply an ongoing experience optimization that we continue to invest in. This is the fundamental change in where rigorous planning is going away.

This isn’t to say that planning isn’t valuable. In fact, quite the opposite. I believe that planning will shift towards a more flexible framework where we think through different scenarios and think more in probabilities than absolutes to gain confidence instead of accuracy around what we’re doing. From there, we move forward with the notion that we are, let’s say, 70% confident in the deliverables and dates with the remaining 30% getting structured, informed, and backwards propagated to our plan to achieve a “100%” plan.

I hate even saying 100% as well because, in an outcome and experience-driven world, 100% is a goal post that always shifts. I often times believe that we should instead find more effective ways of measuring a diminishing return factor, which is to say that we may continue to deliver new outcomes and experiences up until our ROI score is <1.25x or something. This way, tradeoff conversations around resourcing, focus, and alignment are forced to happen in a more objective and quantifiable way.

If we come back to the reality of what I’m seeing in the market, we have just crossed the chasm of Fortune 5000 adopting this sort of mindset. This will be a huge fundamental shift for these corporations as they’re forced to compete with more nimble startups and business as well as a generational workforce that has an extremely high propensity to change direction or rip out software on the turn of a dime. I believe that as we move more into an agile world, the above becomes the truth for everyone.

Why Digital Transformation and Modern Work Will Fail

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According to McKinsey, 70% of enterprise digital transformations fail. There are other numbers out there, such as 1 in 5, but at the end of the day they all point to a ridiculously high number.

We can chalk it up to a lot of things – and people do. Lack of CEO sponsorship. Disorganization. Can’t keep up with the pace. Resistance to the change. The list of excuses is basically endless. At the end of the day, there are many moving parts to any large enterprise strategy.

In fact, I’ve worked for 4 different companies now that all claim they help with the digital transformation. At Acquia, we would say things along the lines of “there’s a digital crisis and our CMS/cloud platform helps solve that”. At Localytics, we touted ideas and messaging such as “transform your enterprise to be digital first with our mobile analytics”. Crimson Hexagon had conversations along the lines of “social analytics is a key pillar to your digital transformations strategy”. At my current job with Workfront, we say there is a “digital work crisis” and that our platform helps jump the “digital work transformation gap”.

Haven’t we been in a digital work crisis for at least 5 years now? I remember when I did product marketing at Acquia back in 2014, I used explicit dialogs and phrases like “if you’re not focusing on fixing your digital crisis, you’re going to be dead along with the other 70% Fortune 500s.” It was all to spark an emotional response and worry, but the reality is that we actually haven’t made much progress. There’s more amazing tools than ever to help solve problems…so why are we still seeing such abysmal success rates?

I’d start out by saying that it’s a fallacy to achieve digital transformation because it’s not a tangible or quantifiable goal. It’s an evolution – a continuum of change that will last for the rest of every businesses life. We say digital transformation because it provides a marker and straw man position that gets people worried. It doesn’t help that the same notion is perpetuated by all the big analyst firms that MBAs rely on for their business strategy ideation.

If we get into the reality of it though, digital transformation doesn’t start with a tool. It starts with a a culture change that must be cascaded from the top down. If the leaders are incapable of thinking beyond the quarters and only focus on optimizing for the short term, they will undoubtably fail. The same can be said about the board of directors as well but that will lead us down a tangent of what their role should be.

The culture change is, in my opinion, hilariously simple: change your employees from having a job to owning an experience. That’s it – simple, right? There’s a lot in there to unpack though. Experience implies that they change from specific accounting measures (their goals) to measuring the change in the outcomes that their experiences produce. Having a job creates ivory towers and a lack of ownership. It becomes to easy to say “that’s not my job so I don’t care”. When you shift their responsibilities to owning an experience, the whole thing matters to them – especially if they’re measure by it.

Let’s draft out a couple team examples:

  • Coffee Shop
    • Job = Coffee Barista = Make coffee for customers
    • Experience = Morning Designer = Get customers off to the right start for their day
  • Financial Management
    • Job = Financial Advisor = Plan financial decisions for clients
    • Experience = Financial Experience Manager = Help captain and coach clients financial behaviors to achieve their life goals
  • Product Design
    • Job = UX Designer for Search = Make search experience better
    • Experience = Product Interaction Experience Owner = Change the way users communication with and find information from the system

I’m hoping you notice the difference, apart from the experience side having more words to describe the roles. When you change the titles to be more experience management focused, the roles and responsibilities start to more aptly communicate the “why” as opposed to just the “what”. It also broadens the roles to be more encompassing and provides ownership of the entire process.

There’s a specific and significant reason in expanding the ownership. When employees have a job, they only focus on their world. If you hire someone in, they’re often ambitious initially and then that ambition wanes over time. I think this is due in large part to them not being able to make the larger changes they see impacting their role or the customers because it’s “someone else’s job”. By enabling them to own the experience, they can mould and shape the full experience, end to end, with a measurable impact that keeps them inspired to work. The buck stops at them and they can’t point the blame to anyone else.

The obvious caveat to this is that it can’t be without oversight or some degree of governance and guidance. I’m not advocating for us to hire a bunch of people, change their titles to “____ experience manager”, and let them free. What I am suggesting is that in order to generate the right digital transformation experience, it starts with the culture of ownership. In order to have true ownership, not the fake crap that we write on the job description, you have to change the title and broaden the responsibility.

Now, I’ll pause here and state that I understand digital transformation means a lot of different things to different people. It’s most widely used in the context of transforming business process and efficiencies to be in digital formats. Even then, my above statement still stands and lends to the importance of a CIO or CDO role. These roles should not be “we are going to use this tool to get this job done” but rather “here are a suite of tools that we can use to help craft experiences”. The latter provides latitude for individuals to move and the former jams it down their throat.

At the end of the end of the day, enterprises must recognize that there is a new generation of workers heading into the enterprise who are not content with just having a job. They want a sense of purpose and ownership. They would rather be broke and bitch about it on Twitter than hold down that job. They’re not our parents generation who fall in line and “respect the process and elders” but rather challenge everything that has the hint of BS floating around it. It’s up to companies to usher this new generation of workers into the ownership world and pushing them to own the outcomes. That’s the real “digital” transformation. It’s the transformation that has a focuses on cultural transformation and recognizes that software are just digital tools to help that transformation but aren’t the end all, be all.

The Next Lazy Generation of Workers

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Millennials. It’s almost a derogatory word when you say it out loud. I’m sure you’ve heard phrases like “millennials are so damn lazy” or “they just don’t care, are selfish, and only just want to get their work done”.

I was onsite with some customers last week where we talked about this topic in great detail. It was an older company that has a new age brand, creating an environment where their workforce spans 3 different generations. We were meeting with more senior management where, as you’d expect, they were older. Most of their employees ranged from 21 to 35 in age and they shared the same complaints as everyone else we’ve ever talked to.

It seems like each generation loves to hate and shit on each other around their work ethics with very little empathy towards the other. I’ll be honest, I’ve done the same around my own generation (I’m a millennial) when I get frustrated with their lack of commitment or work ethics. It’s true, we were spoon fed a lot and everything we want has largely been given to us “on demand”. We grew up in the age where if you wanted to get an answer to a question, you didn’t need to go to a library or ask a bunch of wiser people – you just go to Google.

This creates an interesting dynamic where if you know how to search for what you’re looking for and can quickly comprehend information, you can punch well above your weight quickly. I see this creating discourse between them and the older generations where their mentality is largely around getting years of experience before you can say certain things. It’s also why our generation wants to constantly know the “why” around our work. We question because we think we have better answers than the older generation who says “because I’m the boss, you’re going to do what we need you to do”.

Now, I’m making some big generalizations here but I’ve talked with enough senior members of organizations across many industries to feel that there is credence in what I’m saying. What now gives me pause is a conversation I had with my colleague in design where he said an amazing quote. I’m paraphrasing a little but the gist goes like this:

New generations coming into the workforce are hyper energy conservationists. Since they grew up in a world where they have 100’s of services vying for their attention, they treat their attention as a privilege. When this enters the workforce, they question the validity of everything they do because if they don’t understand the “why”, they correspond that with wasting their attention and, thus, a loss of energy.

Interesting, right? Energy conservationists. I believe it too. I find myself in this situation all the time where I have senior leaders pushing me to do something that I think is ridiculous – so I fight them. I gather the data and present the case as to why this is “dumb” to do. When they over rule me, I give that particular work effort as little attention as I possible can, creating a lack of quality. Funny enough, my employees and engineering teams do this as well.

Why? Because we want to spend our energy on what we deem to believe the highest return on our energy spend. I fundamentally believe this is why the OKR framework is starting to take off. Because OKRs can shed light on what is the most important work efforts, it allows the newer generations to focus and perceive that their energy truly is going towards a single effort.

Going back to a point I made earlier, there is a lot of consternation in the workforce between older and younger generations because of the perceived ability to acquire knowledge at a rapid rate. The speed in which we can access critical data, crowd source an opinion, and create an reasonably well thought out opinion on a particular topic that we have no training on is astounding. The younger generations are so effective at this that it makes them not trust their leaders when they think they smell bullshit. It’s also the reason why they are quick to challenge opinions, creating the perception that they are “lazy and don’t want to do the work” or “self entitled”.

The reality is that it’s probably a mixture. Their opinions probably have some credence but in lieu of the older generation clearly communicating nuances and experience with data sets to back it, the younger generation perceives the older generations attempt to override their opinion as disingenuous, creating a large lack of trust between the two. It’s largely why only 9% of the workforce believe that their work matters and that they care about it. I believe it’s also a large reason why younger generations switch jobs more frequently than their older ones. They just don’t put up with what they think is bullshit. 60% of workers leaving or looking to leave cite that it is because of their boss. I’d be willing to bet that the sub-reason is that they believe their boss is incompetent, a poor communicator, or doesn’t know how to lead.

The exceptional leaders who are able to retain their employees are the ones who can tell stories, have the data to back their opinions, and have the soft skills to bring along folks throughout the journey. It’s not longer good enough to have a title because, the reality is, everyones opinion is up for debate. Even the CEO. The most effective leaders will provide focus, mappings of work efforts to outcomes, and provide education through story telling to their employees. They will build trust and relationships with their employees, creating a sense of kinship instead of something that is transactional and inhuman. Bosses who come off as robotic and “all business” will lose the trust of their employees.

It’s been an interesting journey and privilege to be able to interview and research with many of these top leaders in the Fortune 500s. While every industry is different on the surface, the process and people are insanely similar. No one organization has a snowflake operation and every one of them share the same problem sets. Interestingly enough, the problem sets are getting distilled down more and more to being problems with the people; largely the problem with everything I stated above. I’ll continue to write about these transformations and problem sets as I interview these folks. Hopefully, some of the learnings and key insights will be of use to folks who are trying to figure out how they transform their business. Distilling down the problems are simple. The answers are actually pretty simple. The action to get there is much harder. Perhaps I’ll write some thoughts about that next.