5 Adaptive IT Principles to Get Digital Transformation Right
By Steve Thair, CTO at DevOpsGroup
Adapting to the digitally disrupted world is high on the agenda for organizations everywhere.
From handling savvy customers armed with smartphones to fully exploiting the opportunities presented by cloud computing platforms like Amazon Web Services (AWS), businesses need to adopt new ways of thinking and working.
Yet all the books, case studies, and keynotes about digital transformation point to one common theme: it’s hard.
Outdated systems, models, and applications—often referred to as legacy IT—are one part of the problem. Aging technologies are often deeply embedded in business operations, but they are rarely able to deliver what the business needs for digital economy success.
They predate innovations like cloud, infrastructure-as-code, software-defined networking, improved version control, and collaboration tools. They’re also organized into distinct technical silos such as development, testing, and administration that hamper the cross-functional collaboration essential to rapid innovation.
Businesses that continue to try and deliver product and service innovation in this siloed way face major difficulties when trying to achieve higher rates of change.
DevOps is a response to this challenge. It lowers internal transaction costs, flattens hierarchies, and makes the IT function more responsive. This empowers the wider organization to constantly adapt to the ever-changing needs of customers.
Today, DevOps is becoming increasingly mainstream. Yet, while pioneers constructed their own methodologies and built toolchains from disparate open source products, the current wave of adopters want expert guidance and proven methodologies.
DevOpsGroup, an AWS Partner Network (APN) Advanced Consulting Partner with the AWS DevOps Competency, is addressing this need with the Adaptive IT Framework. It draws on learnings gained helping organizations implement DevOps methodologies, as well as established best practice principles.
In this post, I will outline how the framework can be applied so organizations can change and pivot to meet shifting needs in the digital economy.
The Adaptive IT Framework
The five pillars of the Adaptive IT Framework represent core areas impacting an organization’s ability to change:
- Ways of working
Each pillar works synergistically with the others, and encompasses factors that need to be addressed during transformation. Technology is just one aspect of the framework, and it’s on an equal footing with business strategy as well as human factors like culture.
It’s only by acknowledging all five areas that an organization can drive meaningful transformation that delivers measurable long-term business improvements.
We have launched a whitepaper titled Digital Transformation Done Right covering the pillars in detail. You can download the whitepaper, or keep reading for a high-level view.
Figure 1 – The Adaptive IT Framework devised by DevOpsGroup.
Pillar #1: Strategy
Fundamentally, transformation is about achieving dynamic customer-centricity. This demands a new strategic direction, with existing processes surrounding innovation and service delivery reimagined to put customer needs first.
In McKinsey’s How to Beat the Transformation Odds, when senior leaders model behavior changes they’re asking employees to make, transformation is five times more likely to succeed.
It’s important to remember this when encountering the obstacles that will inevitably arise. Encouraging people to tackle problems proactively, instead of allowing them to halt progress, is essential.
At the same time, a leadership mindset needs to be nurtured throughout the organization. Transformation is too large a task for one person or team to handle, so devolving responsibility really helps. Amazon’s Leadership Principles are a useful reference point.
Everybody impacted by the transformation needs to clearly understand the rationale behind it. Regardless of how complex the initiative becomes, it should be rooted in a simple goal. Most of the time, this will be a variation on “excite and delight” customers with products and services they really need.
The OKR (Objectives and Key Results) model outlined by John Doerr in Measure What Matters is an effective way to tackle ambitious transformation goals. Organizational objectives are purposefully aligned with those of teams and individuals, encouraging people to stretch capabilities and aim high.
Use language that people are familiar with, and then position it in a way that is relevant to them and geared towards a tangible outcome.
The overarching goal of the business strategy is customer satisfaction. To measure this effectively, you need to focus on outcomes, rather than outputs. That means figuring out how your actions change or enrich customer experiences. It’s not about what you do, so much as the benefits it delivers.
Collecting, storing, analyzing, and presenting this data has never been easier. Cloud-based solutions like Amazon Kinesis make the streaming and ingestion of real-time data available and affordable to every organization.
Combining this with data lake services like AWS Lake Formation and business intelligence (BI) solutions like Amazon QuickSight enables organizations to share real-time insights into customer behavior and the health of their business.
Pillar #2: Organization
This pillar looks at organizational design and structure, considering what needs to change and how to create a more dynamic, collaborative and responsive environment.
Traditional organizations are built around the linear metaphor of the product line, following a unidirectional flow of value. Today, a more appropriate model is that of the ecosystem—a complex community of internal and external individuals and organizations.
This lends itself to more fluidity in the way skills, knowledge, and expertise are sourced, internally or from third parties.
As an APN Advanced Consulting Partner, DevOpsGroup sees this ecosystem in action every day as we work seamlessly with customers, AWS Professional Services, and account teams to deliver great solutions to complex business problems that can no longer be solved in isolation.
The shift in software delivery and operations from project-led models to product-centric approaches is a core tenet of DevOps. Multi-skilled teams take full responsibility for products, from inception to retirement.
Working in this way focuses everyone’s attention and effort on the product’s target outcome, which must be measurable and geared toward delivering customer value. It fosters a collaborative spirit where the team holds collective responsibility for success.
Some organizations have demonstrated that aligning people to a specific service that delivers customer outcomes enables better adaptability. Advances in cloud technology and automation help here, reducing wait times and enabling closer alignment between different functional roles in a team.
Amazon famously works to the concept of “Two Pizza Teams” as described by Stephen Orban’s blog post Transitioning to DevOps and the Cloud. If it takes more than two pizzas to feed a team, then the team is too big.
Product teams of this size have the accountability and authority to deliver customer outcomes and comprise all the necessary roles to achieve their goals. Wider capabilities, such as cloud infrastructure, are provided on a self-service basis.
Pillar #3: Culture
Organizational culture has strong links with business performance. There are enduring factors, such as the need for psychological safety, that every business must keep front of mind during transformation.
As Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson puts it, psychological safety is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
Transformation is hard on employees. It pushes them out of their comfort zone and forces them to adopt unfamiliar processes. They can feel exposed, uncertain, and resistant. Steps need to be taken to turn this around and bring out the best in people. This is the single most important factor in creating a generative, performance-oriented culture.
An adaptive business requires two types of learning. Development of employees’ skills and capabilities through training and mentoring is one aspect of this. Continual product-centric learning is also vital; customer feedback on new features must be quickly assimilated and used to refine ongoing work.
In a responsive, learning culture, teams expect to improve products continually over time. They understand product development is a journey, not a one-off project handed over for someone else to manage and maintain. Eric Ries, author of Lean StartUp, calls this the “Build-Measure-Learn” cycle.
Inspiring teams to create, collaborate, and generate ideas from the ground up is the best way to solve problems encountered in business today.
One benefit of this approach is that it increases ownership and commitment. It decentralizes decision making to foster a collective sense of responsibility. In doing so, it improves capacity to respond to complex change.
Pillar #4: Ways of Working
Traditional organizations are characterized by siloed working practices, but a DevOps approach focuses on the system as a whole. This requires new ways of working, building on proven concepts such as Lean and Agile.
DevOps transformation draws on various modern ways of working to create a new model emphasizing fast and effective flow of work.
Systems thinking is an important aspect of this, ensuring adequate attention is paid to the entire application and product lifecycle. In fact, this is one of the principal components of the Three Ways of DevOps championed by Gene Kim, co-author of seminal DevOps text “The Phoenix Project.”
Lean teams typically focus on delivering small batch sizes, with new features released on a “little and often” basis rather than with a big-bang launch.
The central focus is delivering value to the end user, so feedback is looped in and embraced quickly with iterative product improvements. This is a major factor in the “fail fast, fail safe” DevOps ethos. Individuals and teams are encouraged to consider how their role and actions impact the wider system.
Standish Group CHAOS reports comparing Agile software development to projects using traditional waterfall methods show that Agile success rates can be almost four times greater.
Yet, while Agile improves productivity, it doesn’t go far enough to drive transformation. DevOps extends Agile philosophies to encompass the whole IT organization and its relationship with the business, rather than focusing solely on software development.
Pillar #5: Technology
Accelerating software delivery and innovation is a key part of digital transformation. But this can’t happen at the expense of overall system stability and reliability.
DevOps can help organizations achieve the right balance of speed and stability, rather than the traditional view of “one or the other.” Creating the right technology platform is critical to achieving this balance.
Cloud computing has revolutionized IT, unlocking new possibilities and opportunities. The cloud has fundamentally shifted the underlying economic model from large-scale, capital intensive models to “pay-as-you-go” models like the per minute billing in Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), or the tenth-of-a-second billing in AWS Lambda serverless compute.
However, moving to the cloud is not enough in itself to underpin transformation success—you need to do cloud right. There’s more than one way to go about this, and AWS offers clear guidance via its Cloud Adoption Frameworks.
A platform-based model allows teams to develop, run, and manage applications without the manual labor associated with building or maintaining the underlying infrastructure.
This self-service approach reduces the number of handovers and potential delays that can hinder progress. It also rationalizes the work, so delivery teams can focus their skills and attention on the outcomes that customers care about.
As the diagram in Figure 2 shows, numerous delivery teams can be supported by a single self-service platform. Foundational elements such as data, continuous delivery, security, and test automation are provisioned by a dedicated enablement services team.
This enablement services support comes in the form of templates and best practice guidance, so delivery teams can quickly assemble the undifferentiated aspects of their product.
Similarly, the delivery teams’ work benefits from specialist support from site reliability engineering (SRE) colleagues. As well as providing operational support for individual products, this team helps manage and maintain overall site performance.
By rationalizing and streamlining processes, this approach increases the velocity of software production. It also allows delivery teams to put more energy into the creation of innovative product features that boost competitive differentiation.
Figure 2 – Delivery and platform team model.
Introducing automation via software ensures monotonous tasks are handled in a consistent, reliable, and repeatable way that reduces the risk of human error.
This applies equally to both the Dev and Ops elements of DevOps. Software developers can use continuous integration (aka build) systems like AWS CodeBuild to compile and test their software.
On the Ops side, infrastructure-as-code, configuration-as-code, policy-as-code, and application release automation combine to automate previously error-prone and laborious tasks. For example, AWS OpsWorks provides enterprise ready configuration-as-code solution Puppet as an easy to use software-as-a-service (SaaS) service.
So, this final piece in the Adaptive IT Framework connects all of the other pillars. Technology facilitates modern ways of working and enables employees to focus on creativity and product improvements which boost customer satisfaction.
Determine Priorities and Start Small
It would be easy to feel overwhelmed by the scope and scale of digital transformation. Accomplishing this immense task will take years for many organizations. Harvard Professor John Kotter offers some great practical steps on how to go about transformation in his eight-step change model.
But where to get started?
We recommend three key foundational building blocks from the Adaptive IT Framework as the best starting point.
Figure 3 – Three key foundational building blocks from the Adaptive IT Framework.
The first building block, as per the Kotter model, involves great leadership—setting out a clear vision on where the organization needs to go, grounded in the needs of its customers.
The organizational leadership needs to “create the climate for change,” otherwise change programs will get bogged down in business as usual work and organizational bureaucracy.
The second is adopting an Agile mindset, along with Agile software development techniques. Again, taking a cue from Kotter’s model, there is no need to “boil the ocean” and move the entire organization to Agile in one massive change program.
Start small and generate quick wins by taking one team, one product, and introducing Agile, continuous delivery and other key practices to demonstrate how the delivery of value can be accelerated.
The third foundational building block is the adoption of public cloud computing services like AWS. The speed and flexibility offered by cloud computing is critical in enabling teams to move at their own pace.
What’s more, the vast breadth of AWS services empowers these teams to create new platforms for internal users, and new or improved services for customers.
To succeed in the digital economy, you need to give customers what they need when they need it, before a competitor does it for you. That means working quickly and effectively to develop or improve digital products. It’s about being adaptive and responsive to ensure ongoing relevance in a rapidly evolving environment.
For many organizations, this demands an entirely new corporate mindset which can only be achieved through full digital transformation.
The beauty of DevOps is that it’s inherently holistic. As per the Adaptive IT Framework, it encompasses business strategy, organizational design, culture and ways of working as well as technology. The different elements are interconnected and work synergistically. But it helps to consider them individually so that digital transformation can be deconstructed and tackled with purpose.
Digital transformation is not easy, but it’s not impossible, either. Organizations that acknowledge the complexity of the task, and then break it down into manageable pieces, have a better chance of driving meaningful change. It’s a long journey, but every step enhances performance and plays a part in delivering tangible competitive advantage.
To learn more, download the DevOpsGroup Adaptive IT whitepaper: Digital Transformation Done Right.
The content and opinions in this blog are those of the third party author and AWS is not responsible for the content or accuracy of this post.
DevOpsGroup – APN Partner Spotlight
DevOpsGroup is an AWS DevOps Competency Partner. They work with global enterprises and offer digital transformation services based on DevOps practices and principles underpinned by agile software development to develop high performing IT teams.
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