Why ‘Big Bang’ style IT transformations don’t work – and what to do about it

COVID-19 has created a puzzle for businesses – on one hand, it might pose an immediate financial threat, while on the other it offers a window of opportunity to transform for the long-term.

Needless to say, both scenarios require adaptation, futureproofing and evolution.

However, transformation isn’t as simple as throwing lump sums into a big project, and leaders must make an effort to deliver change thoughtfully and effectively. To put things into context, according to a recent report by McKinsey, around 70% of large transformation projects fail. Why? In large part, the research suggests, because they take a lot more commitment and introduce more risk than leaders expect or are willing to give.

Change is a natural part of any business and the acceleration of technology has given companies more possibilities to transform than ever. So, what’s the problem with large scale projects and how should leaders approach change?

Rome wasn’t built in a day

‘Big bang’ style changes are nothing new. In my experience, they’ve been happening for the past 20 years, roughly in five-year cycles. Typically, years of underinvestment in the IT estate results in a rush to get up to speed by doing everything at once.

There’s nothing wrong with the desire for rapid change and, in many cases, decision makers will see what needs to be done. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most sectors were under great pressure to improve their competitive position, operations and their bottom line. In the time since, these pressures have only been amplified. So where does the problem lie with transformation investment?

The problem is with the method. You can’t always have what you want – even with a significant cash injection. The businesses who will suffer are those who have approached change over the past 20 years impulsively, rather than with a strategic, long-term vision. The end goal can be achieved eventually, but questions remain about the pain of the journey, the casualties and the outcome. Transformation with a single step to jump ahead of the curve results in a lack of alignment that sets up businesses to trip next time around, and this happens again and again.

Businesses must understand that they are living through the 4th industrial revolution. It may not feel like it for younger operations, but the pace of change is indeed revolutionary and failure to build change into company culture will compound problems quickly. The pandemic has highlighted, for many office-based workplaces, how IT supports and contributes to the success of other business functions. It is not isolated, but central to the way we work.

The success of remote working, for many businesses, has shown what the future of work might look like. Large software implementations, cloud migrations and changes to IT Service delivery sit at the top of priority lists for those without them.

What’s not exciting, often works

Incremental change isn’t exciting. It’s slow and measured, might feel more complex and be even more expensive. However, research by Harvard Business Review shows that a long-term project which is reviewed often is much more likely to succeed than a short project which is reviewed infrequently.

Businesses need to be brave and adopt a slower, more considered approach to delivering change. So, what does this mean in practice? This might be best looked at by thinking about what ‘big bang’ change is lacking: measurement, communication, and commitment.

A measured approach is a targeted approach. Essentially, this means establishing key performance indicators (KPIs) to evaluate the effectiveness of current infrastructure, systems and processes to get an idea of what’s working and what’s not. If KPIs aren’t in place, it might take a little time to map out what tech might work where best, but it will be worth it.

Second, companies must communicate the value of IT to staff not just downwards but across all levels. At board level, they need to understand how the IT environments, both now and planned, links into the wider business strategies and goals. Without this knowledge the board can’t and won’t understand the intrinsic link between IT and the business operations, processes and procedures. This obviously stifles change and innovation, both of which are essential in the current market.

This does not necessarily require the board to be involved in the scoping, planning or the detail of what the future IT systems and environment should be or needs to be. They do, however, need to be very clear on determining and communicating the business’s overall and departmental strategies to the IT leadership.

Thirdly, commitment is essential. This means taking a holistic approach to the hard and soft factors of transformation. Developing culture, leadership and motivation on one hand, and on the other backing initiatives without cutting corners in cost or in the basic, but time-consuming groundwork.

Becoming an evolving business

Incremental transformation will ultimately build in a natural pace of evolution so that a business is not changing in uncontrolled bursts, but continuously. Businesses cannot predict the future, and the current climate is fluctuating all the time; with lockdown in place in England and furlough now extended until March, businesses can’t afford to wait and hope that things return back to normal.

Building up with a slower but targeted approach married to real mid-term and long-term vision naturally reduces and eliminates risk and allows leaders to focus on the tangible benefits at each stage of change, realising value and innovating in stages. 

It’s never been more important for businesses to be agile, secure and innovative so they can hold a competitive advantage not just for a short period but constantly. For a handful of businesses, the big bang approach might work, but it’s no time to risk it now. 

Robert Rutherford is CEO at QuoStar. QuoStar is your full-service IT provider. We have been helping mid-market and growth businesses to achieve ambitious goals since 2005 through specialist IT support, consultancy and security services. Our team of IT industry experts help businesses become more effective, productive and secure by using proven processes and appropriate technologies. We endeavour to be your trusted partner, working with you to deliver your operational and strategic objectives.

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