Making a start on digitalness part 3 – organising for digital

It has taken longer than I hoped to get round to this post. This is the third in the series of loosely themed pieces about what it means to ‘be digital’ and some ideas on how to make a start. The first and second pieces are available for the curious/persistent reader.

The impetus to write this post came from leading the first of a series of sessions for Digital Leaders on Developing a Digital Mindset. Future sessions in London and Leeds are available as part of their Academy courses.  The sessions are short, workshop style events aimed to give those with less hands-on experience some ideas and techniques to consider in their work with their teams. The premise is that we all need to be more digital Рso how might we go about it.

During the session there was discussion about technology integration programmes in organisations and the fact that they are often pitched as transformation efforts. This, in turn, lead to exploring the notion that ‘being digital’ is not really about technology¬† – or that, technology alone is insufficient for real digital change. Technology programmes can generate efficiencies, speed and lower cost (they can also deliver none of those things, at their worst). But they probably won’t change the organisation much, and are less likely to change it in the far-reaching ways ‘transformation’ promises.

Some of the most significant elements of a digital mindset are how groups plan, behave and organise. Being digital is about people more than it is about technology (or at least as much) – hence the significance of culture. The ways and means of systems implementation will not support or sustain a digital mindset. Don’t be fooled by systems implementation houses that pitch this as an outcome from use of technology.

Anyway, with that in mind, this post is about organising for digital. Again, in no strict oder of priority, here are some of the most important features of digital organisations or teams. They are:

  • Flat (or flatter). This is not to say that there is no hierarchy. Some people are in charge and need to be (some decisions will need a ‘buck stops here’ approach). A flatter team or organisation will, however have shorter routes between a decision and action. It will also have less mediation and introduce less confusion between a decision and the enacting of a plan to carry it out. (Empowered and accountable teams can get things done with less fuss. as explored in Post 2). From my personal experience, the BBC is not a flat organisation – it is lumpy and bumpy in arcane and vertical ways. Time to and from a decision to action is best measured in planetary metrics. Spotify, on the other hand, is pretty flat and swift in movement and action.
  • Open (or tending to openness). This goes hand in hand with flatness and trust. It is easier to get things done quickly if access to information and to people is more open. Open document stores and open access to performance data are principles that digital organisations have been energetic in adopting. Team members are trusted to use data responsibly, making the apparent risk of open sharing lee problematic. (Organisations with a parental leaning will struggle to adopt digital ways, I believe. They are better suited to programmed waterfalls and the committees needed to steer them).
  • Accessible. Teams working in an open environment are easier to access – and anticipate ease of access in turn. This is partly a facet of openness and the access to information that results from it. It is also a cultural feature that allows for access to expertise and experience throughout an organisation. The structure and model of Stack Overflow echoes this across technology disciplines, being built around the expectation that access to expert guidance is readily available. Tools like Slack and Trello facilitate open access.
  • Small. A productive digital team tends to be a small team. Or, not too big. It will be large enough to get stuff and be self-contained but not so large that it becomes unwieldy, slow and over complicated. Jeff Bezos still stands by the principle of Two Pizza sized teams at Amazon. The optimum size of a team is one that can be fed by two pizzas (probably in the range of 8 to 10 people, depending on pizza size and appetite). It is easier for this size of team to take decisions and to communicate those decisions and share relevant information. Big is not beautiful but a large organisation can have many two pizza teams within it.
  • Multidisciplinary. Those small, self-contained teams are made up of the required skills and capabilities to be self largely self-sufficient and productive. A productive team will have the ability to:
    • Gather and analyse data and communicate information and usable insights from it
    • Design, test and improve a good user experience (this will include but not be limited to user interface and visual design)
    • Develop and test code – or at the very least, have access to and control over developers
    • Manage a the activity, inputs and outputs of the team, most often in the form of an agile project manager
    • Take responsibility for marketing, communication and distribution. Otherwise known as “if you build it they really might not come”.
    • Manage the product and define the roadmap around user needs and priorities
    • Manage the product and define the roadmap around commercial needs and business outcomes
  • Flexible. These small and multi-disciplined teams are easier to form and reform around shifting priorities. There is less organisational heavy lifting required on behalf of the business. Similarly, extended and complex orientation is less likely to be needed as new teams group around their objectives. More mature digital organisations will also have developed production tools and infrastructure which supports this flexibility and can be applied across many or all areas of business.
  • Clear.¬† Whilst the objectives of the team are clear, this is equally true of the individuals of the team. A smaller team is easier to direct in this respect. The daily stand-up of the agile world supports an open sharing of the activity and next steps of all team members. Accountability is individual and well as team based, as is responsibility.

There are many ways to get things done and no set of guidelines can simply be applied to the unique circumstances of any organisation. Unlike systems, these ways of working cannot be implemented to a preconceived plan. These things take time and effort to bear fruit and find the right shape and size for the circumstances. They are worthy of consideration, however and it is relatively easy to give them a try and adapt them to your needs. Easier and cheaper than a technology programme that is.