I had the pleasure to have had a 6 months sting with a digital tech startup – it looks and feels very different from the previous company I was in. From the size, people, to the culture, operational priorities, they are all different. But there are common things below the surface– revenue bottom line, customer value as a key driver and back office support functions such as HR, Finance. What is fundamentally different is the pace it operates, its responsiveness, use of data and the capacity to transform concepts from ideas to products at an amazing speed (GTM).
Managing two priorities
The very nature of digital means that you constantly managing two competing priorities – constant and speedy innovation vs. the achievement of long term strategy – or as a respected CIO put it in analogy – growth pain of a teenager wanting to party hard but also grow up. While in traditional environment, balancing tactical and strategic decisions is not a new concept, in the new digital age, this must be done ‘on the fly’. Much of the short-term innovation (tacticals) actually helps solidify/confirm/reinforce the longer-term strategy and the ability to quickly pivot becomes a key ingredient for success.
This is where aspects of Agile and Lean methodology I believe is the underlying factor. And I believe it’s an irreversible trend. It helps to deal with this constant change and being agile becomes a way of thinking and way of work, rather than a simple project management methodology.
Trial and error and de-risk
Underneath all great innovations is a common thread, which is the meeting of a demand of a customer. Because customer needs change all the time, the ability to innovate must adapt to it. What drives the success of a tech company is this concept of minimum viable product – being able to deliver incrementally and quickly, but also shut down those not meeting the needs. Forget about elaborate planning, business casing, projection etc, get the hands dirty and trial, test, de-risk, iterate and refine.
Not all projects survive because not all of them were good ideas to start with. Baby steps and thin slices make achieving something tangible easier, make decision making easier and worst case it makes the failure feel less painful and costly. The company I was in had a half yearly ‘hack days’ where all employees are encouraged to down tools and collaborate with anyone they like and work on a mini project for whatever the problem they feel passionate about solving. The end result is one that surpasses all expectations – lots of great ideas, lots of happy employees, lots of team building and lots of commercialised products.
Agile culture and risk culture
Arguably building this sort of culture is harder to do than building a risk-aware culture – yet I believe a collaborative, transparent and agile culture will embrace concept such as risk just like anything else. I’d go further to say that digital environment will foster a risk-aware culture faster and more effective than traditional management environment.
The culture that fosters innovation ultimately is the culture that allows for experimentation and failure. Whilst superficially it sounds not so rosy and presents challenges to risk professionals – because failures actually can result from a lack of risk consideration and can mean the eventuation of the risk you want to prevent at the first place, I believe it can be managed because the ingredient of a risk aware culture is there – collaboration, transparency, value driven. In this sort of environment, its more likely that whatever the decision made is actually a risk-informed decision and the team is conscious of the risks involved in getting down to the path we chose.
Another driver behind digital success comes from a deep-rooted concept that is cross-functional collaboration. Sales, marketing, finance and aspects of IT all become part of an extended team. To bring all these personalities together is a monumental challenge. The tech teams are not motivated nor challenged in the same way that Sales or Marketing teams. I had been to standups, inceptions, townhalls and retros and everyone has something different to contribute. How does risk present itself amongst all of these dynamic people remains an interesting challenge for me. But one thing for sure. Risk people need to be physically present, and only being present you can demonstrate that you are trying to understand the problem at hand, the thinking, the approach and the solution adopted. From there, maybe a well-thought out risk advice can be provided.
Different dynamics in IT
I also happen to have spent a lot time with our IT community. My take is that IT has a totally different definition in a digital environment. Using agile, the boundary between IT and business is ever blurred. IT is ‘actually’ the enabler to execution of the strategy. Nowhere else I saw IT being so value driven and collaborate with the rest of the business community so seamlessly. Via delivery leads and technical leads, real collaboration happen and everyone focus on one common delivery goal – customer.
In many businesses the IT team are purely infrastructure and or operations as a service function. However in digitally centric businesses the IT teams are your conduits to execution. And, much like how sales and marketing staff are evolving so are these IT teams. Even within IT community itself, evolution occurs as we speak, concepts such as scaled agile framework, scrum, lean, devOps, extreme programming are being trialled, adapted and matured. Logical organisation structure such as squad, tribe and guild are created to allow for one thing – better collaboration.
Digital is the buzz word now and disruption to the existing business is what most fear. As many embark on the digital transformation journey, risk management can play a unique role in making sure the end objective is achieved. Having a risk view to the whole digital landscape provides a balanced view on the pros and cons. Importantly, it ensures the adoption of a technology or digital initiative is not made independent of the benefit it can provide. A conversation (risk assessment) on the ‘value’ from moving to digital can save millions on what otherwise would have been spent on just another ‘feel good’ solution. Technology is an enabler, risk professionals need to remain objective and inform management that the customers forever sit at the heart of the solution and technology is there as merely a conduit.