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Digital transformation is about strategy, not technology.

An illustration showing mapped points connected on a graph suggesting direction

As you lounge by the riverside with a friend, a sudden shriek fills the air — a child is drowning. Reacting instinctively, you both plunge into the water, rescue the child, and get back to shore. Before either of you can catch your breath, you hear another distress call — another child is drowning. You both jump back in. But before you can rescue the second child, there is another… and another… As more and more drowning children come into sight, your friend abruptly gets out of the river. “Where are you going?” you demand. Without hesitation, they reply, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.” — A public health parable, attributed to Irving Zola and adapted from ‘Upstream’ by Dan Heath

Let’s get one thing straight. Digital transformation is about strategy, not technology. It doesn’t matter what technology you use to prevent children from drowning; without a strategy that defines an outcome to address the upstream cause, there is still someone throwing them in. These strategies — having a clear ambition of what needs to be achieved, articulating how we get there and then figuring out how to make it happen — are critical in any successful digital transformation programme.

Estonia, often framed as the poster child for e-Government, are lauded for their digital transformation strategy to “leapfrog rather than catch up with the West” and, over a three-decade journey, have essentially created an entire ‘digital state’. Not bad, right? Closer to home, the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) has driven the digitisation of services, saved £bn’s in technology procurement, and introduced a whole new set of professions to drive a new way of thinking and working as a ‘digital by default’ government. What’s the problem then?

Well. Only 13% of large government software projects are successful. The default for policy teams is still a technology-first approach (“we need a machine-learning strategy!”) rather than one that defines policy outcomes (“We need fewer children in the river!”) and then figures out effective and efficient ways to deliver them. Put simply, these projects lack knowledge of modern software development and rely on outdated processes — a more strategic approach to upstream digital transformation has yet to successfully diffuse. This is where this article fits in.

Over the last six years, I’ve been working with some of the world’s leading companies and, more recently, the UK government to help shift teams’ thinking upstream at the earliest opportunity. To better define new digital capabilities that enable effective and efficient digital services by aligning teams through three strategic aspects: (1) Where are we going? (2) How do we get there? and (3) What needs to happen?

This article is a breakdown of the approach I use with policy teams at the onset of these programs of work, embedding upstream, strategic thinking into digital transformation projects.

1. Where are we going?

An illustration showing an arrow to the future

“Where are we going?” is, in theory, the ongoing outcome of any digital transformation strategy. It’s not just another way to describe an organisation. It’s a new way of seeing what that organisation is there to do — aligning everything that’s involved in using or delivering its services; from what users see and how frontline teams work, to supporting processes and enabling technologies. By defining what’s in an organisation from the outside, you create a viewpoint and language to understand what it does and who it’s for. It’s a futurestate target to aim at.

In government, mission-orientated innovation policy is the phrase du jour. It calls on governments and policymakers to ambitiously and purposefully set the direction of innovation for public value to meet the tasks at hand. This approach directs large-scale projects towards ‘grand challenges’, identifying and articulating missions (outcomes) that can galvanise production, distribution, and consumption across sectors.

In the context of digital transformation, missions not only influence change but set a direction for it. It organises projects (which I see as outcomes in their own right) that stimulate innovation towards achieving the mission — creating a tangible vision of the future that allows us to see the potential components needed to get there. These visions are not specific recommendations, but illustrations of scope, methodology, and ambition.

An image demonstrating how grand challenges connect to missions, sectors and projects
Arranging sectors and capabilities to achieve missions — A Mission-Oriented UK Industrial Strategy, UCL Commission for Mission-Oriented Innovation and Industrial Strategy (MOIIS).

When working with policy teams, I’ve found that a strong vision can guide entire teams towards the future and encourage them to think upstream about what they need to consider, rather than being stuck solving problems within the constraints of today. To help teams articulate these visions, I often use a mix of the following questions, inspired by Ami Vora, to tease out the characteristics of what they are trying to achieve:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • How do we know when we’ve achieved it?
  • What are the key service performance indicators?
  • Why does this service exist?

These questions, although simple, help align everyone in the room and provoke productive conversations towards articulating what we are working on and what the upstream outcomes of the work may be.

2. How do we get there?

An illustration showing key steps back from the future

“How do we get there?” is part of the strategy that begins to plan how teams will achieve their goals by identifying a set of key transformations. Here, the role of strategy is to bridge the gap between an organisation’s current state and futurestate — setting the boundaries within which we may act, the outer limits of what we do, and — importantly — the direction in which we move.

Government as a Platform, coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2010, is a widely accepted vision for digital government; a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build digital government services from. Effectively, an upstream solution to creating digital services for government. Governments around the world, however, have taken a number of different approaches to achieve this vision.

Estonia has probably come closer than any other country to realising Government as a Platform. After gaining independence in 1992, Estonia aimed to create a ‘minimal and efficient’ state. Leveraging their ability to start from scratch, they invested heavily into a ‘bottom-up’ approach that quickly developed the ‘backbone’ of their digital services: X-Road, an open-source data exchange solution; eID, an electronic national ID; and eesti.ee, a service layer accessed through a single portal. The early introduction of these layers meant that almost all public digital services are connected.

On the other hand, the UK needed to be more provocative. GDS couldn’t start from scratch. It had to navigate an existing labyrinth of legacy infrastructure and monolithic services. The approach GDS took to digital transformation was ‘top-down’, identifying common outcomes across siloed services and looking to build capabilities that could be reused across them. Agile was the name of the game. Start small. Spread risk. Embed feedback loops. Prove value.

Although different in approach and scale, each country demonstrated the ability to identify the most effective transformations needed to achieve a clear outcome within the contexts they were operating in. They are examples of looking upstream to define a futurestate, not downstream to solve existing problems. This is essential for policy teams when defining digital capabilities. I often frame these decisions with the policy teams I’m working with as ‘key transformations’ and use a simple structure derived from the ‘futurestate design’ methodology to help identify them:

  • From X to Y: what needs to change?
  • Imperative: why does it need to change?
  • Implications: what are the likely impacts or key considerations involved in making it happen?
  • Key benefits: what benefits will be realised by doing this?

3. What needs to happen?

An illustration mapping key points across a graph suggesting a direction forward

“What needs to happen?” is the connective tissue of any digital transformation strategy and forms the backbone of the strategic ‘plan’. To loosely reference Simon Wardley, when you understand what key transformations need to take place and why, you can start to map, connect, and standardise the capabilities, resources, and teams required to make it happen in the context they exist in.

The ability to map capabilities to make strategic decisions about their delivery can be seen prominently in the delivery of India’s Aadhaar digital ID service. Initially rolled out as a system for disbursing welfare benefits, the founders actually had a much more ambitious vision for the capability as a foundational ID but recognised they first needed to build and prove it worked as a functional one.

Fundamentally, by understanding Aadhaar as a capability, categorising it, and understanding how they wanted to standardise it, India could plan for the upstream organisational design, operating models, and investment strategies that needed to be put in place to enable it. They could plot key transformations on an effective roadmap to deliver them.

I’m not going to mince words here. This part of the approach to defining digital capabilities often involves a series of complex mapping exercises. These are essential for understanding the relationships and dependencies between the services being delivered and the digital capabilities required to enable them. Ecosystem diagrams, Wardley Maps, and service blueprints are just a few of the powerful tools that underpin this stage.

Wrapping up: Successful digital transformation requires direction.

A strategic approach to digital transformation through these three aspects has enabled me to work with policy teams not necessarily to solve problems, but to think upstream to manage problems that don’t exist yet. Together, we’ve been able to prevent someone from throwing children in the river in the first place through well-defined digital capabilities that support successful transformations.

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