Digital transformation is a marathon, not a sprint

This month the NHS announced its Long Term Plan, identifying more digital tools and better data management as the best way to improve access for patients to information and services.

It’s an inspiring undertaking, but we all know that previous attempts to modernise the NHS have struggled. For example, it still relies heavily on faxes for communication. Can this change? A desire to change, even when backed by effort and investment, does not necessarily equate to progress.

At ustwo we believe it’s necessary to reshape the traditional, siloed model to one that prioritises collaboration, transparency and learning. Most companies still vastly underestimate the amount of time and investment required to create the conditions where real transformation can thrive. We believe starting small helps mitigate some of this.

The importance of a team

Working with companies as varied as Google Deepmind, Three, Samsung, Sky and the Co-op has taught us that real transformation requires clear purpose and conditions in which a team, or set of teams, can thrive. You need to take your people and your clients along with you on the journey – and to be open and honest with them and with yourself about what has worked and, just as importantly, what hasn’t – and why. Where we’ve seen successful transformation, it’s always been about the people––the team. Or as GDS first put it “The unit of delivery is the team.”

Start small

We frequently start with the germ of an idea for a service. We then build a team around the idea, so that, from the beginning, together, we have a shared mindset about how to approach the work. We work incrementally. We constantly seek out user feedback. We don’t shy away from discarding what doesn’t work. We also ensure that each team member has the freedom to take decisions and perform at their full potential. Soon you see that a rapid and Agile way of working helps people feel invested in the journey, and gives them something real and tangible to react to.

The role of a coach is central to all our teams: it helps the team own and run the process, creates a good dynamic, and ensures that everyone involved in the project is learning as we go, so that we change together. They also help us to focus not only on the specific problem we are solving, but to educate the client team on how an incremental user-centred process works, so that in time they adopt the practice themselves. In short, we think they’re fundamental to empowering small, cross-discipline, self-organising teams.

Is multi-sectoral collaboration the key?

Of course, we aren’t the only organisation to have found that this approach works. A recent study by the World Health Organisation (published in the BMJ), called ‘Business not as usual: how multisectoral collaboration can promote transformative change’ outlined a number of ways to achieve successful working practices that enable meaningful impact. It’s relevant to all teams that want to work better together and achieve positive, transformative change.

Despite the BMJ’s case studies being heterogeneous in their geographic, economic, social, cultural, and historical contexts, strong similarities were identified in how multi-sectoral collaborations were initiated, managed, and taken to scale. Key messages come under the headings ‘define,’ ‘design,’ ‘realise,’ ‘relate,’ and ‘capture success.’

The study points to the importance of an iterative learning process, in which goals and strategies are continually tested and adjusted to ensure relevance and effectiveness. Multi-stakeholder dialogue is also emphasised, with relationship-building identified as central to successful collaborations. Open, transparent communication is essential because it facilitates the mutual understanding, trust, and accountability needed to achieve shared goals.

Similarly, the Harvard Business Review recently looked at ‘Why so many high-profile digital transformations fail’. It points out that many of the world’s biggest household names – including Lego, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Burberry and GE – have spent millions developing digital products and infrastructures that have failed. Despite tremendous media and investor attention, their efforts at transformation sometimes stumble when faced with significant performance challenges and shareholder dissent.

Transformation can’t be rushed

“Digital is not just a thing that you can you can buy and plug into the organization,” the article, written by two authors who both work in research at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, rightly points out. “It is multi-faceted and diffuse, and doesn’t just involve technology. Digital transformation is an ongoing process of changing the way you do business. It requires foundational investments in skills, projects, infrastructure, and, often, in cleaning up IT systems. It requires mixing people, machines, and business processes, with all of the messiness that entails. It also requires continuous monitoring and intervention, from the top, to ensure that both digital leaders and non-digital leaders are making good decisions about their transformation efforts.”

New technologies can cause even the most rational business decision makers to lose their heads. Accepting piecemeal, steady, incremental progress, rather than demanding rapid advancements, can avoid costly mistakes and lead to significant gains. It also just feels better for everyone involved. Despite the temptation to focus on technology and process, the real transformation is cultural. If we accept that, the timelines don't feel so unreasonable. Long-term success is a marathon and not a sprint.