On track for digital transformation success: What digital transformation can learn from HS2

The story of High Speed 2 (HS2) really began in the early 2000s with the development of High Speed 1 (HS1), the Channel Tunnel Rail Link which carries passengers from the capital to the Channel Tunnel at nearly 200mph.

HS1 was a success, and so came the idea for a second phase, a high-speed railway designed to connect London, Birmingham, the East Midlands, Leeds and Manchester. However, with a number of sections still awaiting approval, some services aren’t predicted to be running until 2033. HS1 was delivered on time and under budget, whilst HS2 stands to act as the ugly sister – slow and with ever-increasing costs. In theory, HS2 makes perfect sense, to continue the High Speed legacy and advance the UK’s infrastructure. But in reality, we can see the danger: the struggle with scale. The bigger the ambition, the bigger the project, the bigger the costs, the bigger the risk — the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

All too frequently, projects fail because they lack clear objectives. Grand and supposedly future-proof, they are often cumbersome and doomed from the start. One of the main concerns about HS2 is that, come completion, it will be outdated and unfit for future demands, despite it being designed for exactly that. Time and time again we see flashy, large-scale projects crippled by these false promises. Such big projects lack the flexibility to adapt, ultimately failing to achieve the desired outcome, unable to keep up with the fast-paced development of technology or changes in priority. The recent demise of Airbus’ A380 superjumbo is a prime example of the ‘too big to succeed’ project paradox. Having estimated 1,500 A380 sales, Airbus pulled the plug after only a meagre 250 planes were manufactured over its lifespan.

The difficulties faced by HS2 are no different from what we see with many digital transformation projects. So, what is the answer? For us, it lies in clarity of purpose linked to definitive deliverables along with controllable size and scale. Organisations should look to adopt an agile approach, which, as the name suggests, is about delivering results for the business quickly. This involves breaking down large projects, only committing financial support to smaller incremental steps, each with its own clear business benefit, to deliver function quickly in a 3 to 6 month-window.

Clear purpose

True agility in business transformation rests on getting the basics right. In order to optimise speed and efficiency, and avoid pitfalls, businesses need to start by examining the project rationale. Do you have a clear understanding of your business objectives? This is the first and most crucial question to ask. Too many projects fail because they aren’t sure of, or lose sight of, what they wanted to achieve in the first place or they neglect to consider what the business really needs. The key lies in drilling down to specific outcomes, deciding how you are going to measure them, considering the processes you will need to adopt or change to meet them and, of course, the technology required (and available) to support them.

Future focus

Too much focus on what the business does today, and on current technologies, can stop organisations from developing a true future-looking strategy. Of course, HS2 hasn’t failed on this front, it is still in its development infancy, and yet it bears all the hallmarks of a project at risk. Long-term success lies in defining what the business is striving to achieve tomorrow, then working backwards to develop a roadmap of how to get there, with clear milestones along the way. What do you need to build, procure, evaluate, host and integrate to make our vision a reality? Technology short-sightedness can also render projects out of date before they are even complete. The answer is not to restrict your project to technology solutions available today. Take time to research innovations coming down the line and seek insight from the wider industry.

Changing gears HS2, it has been said, exemplifies the “sunk costs” fallacy – the idea that having spent X amount on a government project, we are “too far gone to turn back now”. This happens with digital transformation projects, too. Problems arise, but still the project plods on. Part of the issue is that the problems are not always visible to the executive board – and what they don’t know they can’t resolve. Poor control mechanisms can lead to a lack of real understanding of what is being achieved against time and budget – and what still needs to be done. To mitigate the risk of this happening in your organisation, set clear milestones and KPIs in advance, and apply the same rigorous analysis to internal progress and costs as you would external delivery and spend. And if you do find yourself on the wrong path, be prepared to change the direction of the programme, to stop delivering things that are no longer needed or realistically achievable.

The track to success

As obvious and simple as it may seem, agile digital transformation remains an elusive goal for many. Suffocated by the big project mentality, organisations are held back by their fear of taking risks and their inability to acknowledge problems. Knowing when to stop and change course is a difficult but crucial lesson for any organisation of any size to learn. Much pain can be saved by going back to what a business really wants with the aim of delivering value quickly, which provides the ability to solve issues quickly too. This puts real emphasis on flexibility, building it into your transformation programme so that you can adapt, change, and experiment, to react to new technologies and changing priorities within the business and the wider marketplace. When it comes to digital transformation projects, smaller is often the track to bigger success.

About the Author

Jim Berrisford is COO of Step5 – a digital transformation consultancy which specialises in complex change programmes and in recovering programmes that are failing to meet their objectives. Clients include large private and public sector organisations such as the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Experian and BNP Paribas Personal Finance UK.

Step5 consultants have worked on some of the UK’s most challenging change programmes – from the £1 billion recovery of the spine programme for the NHS to the management and delivery of all telecommunications for the London 2012 Olympics.

For more information visit our website www.step5group.com