The Real Meaning of Software Transformation for Businesses Today

October 5, 2015 Siobhan McFeeney

sfeatured-transforming-customerThis blog is part of joint work performed by Stephen Casale and Siobhan McFeeney.

As companies and industries embrace the full logic of open communities, automation, and services-oriented architectures, software creates a trajectory that has and will continue to radically transform how we do and consume things, and how we run our lives and businesses.

In this new calculus, protecting legacy strengths by adding complexity, or squeezing more from well trod sales channels no longer works for many enterprises. Software and the legions of open communities who wield it, adapt it daily, and can run around and through traditional barriers to entering markets, changing the ways of making, selling, and running companies. Software companies have fundamentally and permanently changed customer expectations to the extent that all companies must become digital or digitally enabled.

We know why good companies with good intentions come to Pivotal. They want to become great at building software—to make it their talisman that helps them become tomorrow’s great company, or to tap into and preserve the domain expertise that they have worked so hard to achieve.

Software is deeply connected to change. But I’ve talked to customers at Pivotal who cite how they’re retooling how they do software, as a time-to-market exercise. And I ask, is this what it’s really about, does it stop there? It doesn’t.

It’s more than a software platform that ties in a great data fabric and the analytics, more than microservices, and more than developers and IT teams who embrace DevOps, agile, and twelve factor app processes. It’s all of that. But the decentralization and autonomy this creates affect how the connected parts of the enterprise will function to make the rate of app development, new workflows, and new processes succeed in what will be a reinvented company. At the end of all this technology, processes, reward systems, are clients who have customers who buy and renew services. Digital transformation puts these customers at the beginning of the conversation, not at the end.

Get Everyone Curious

Many companies tick through their compliance, overhead, and governance processes. It is rare when anyone questions why these things are in place and for what purpose. Curiosity across an organization is a big part of success in this new calculus. When an entire organization becomes curious, you’re on the path to change. One of the things that triggers people across organizations to be curious is that they feel included. They think, “hey, we can connect to this change and I understand my role in it.” They also learn to frame every question with the customer or end user in mind. When we work with our clients we too need to be curious and ask the right questions. One of our early transformation clients struggled for months to build out their engineering team despite our support and guidance. For months the lack of progress baffled us until we asked some different questions, took a different approach than before and realised they had outsourced their sourcing and recruiting and were struggling with a new approach. Taking time to sometimes ask the obvious question of our clients can be the most efficient path to solving problems. Don’t assume.

Shipping code every day gives developers and IT teams a tangible sense that they’re doing profound work. And once new code cycle is set in motion, it impacts working relationships across the organization. There is more demand for facilitators over lone heros, leadership and coaching over command and control.

There needs to the same sense of reward for an executive sponsor, or line of business owner, or for those who have to retrofit facilities to allow for a agile development. And security and compliance needs to become a true friend and ally. When we reinvent the HR, Finance, and ops roles, and deeply connect this new work to the overall transformation, we give a sense of purpose and inspiration to an entire company. Having said that, it is hard work and a long road but the beauty of the agile way is that while the road is long you get to see progress at every turn.

It’s Really Not About You

When I started 11 years ago in AAA—known for its towing services—we built built an entire software operation around speed and volume, keeping extra tow trucks in reserve so we could hit the speed metric. The only problem with this was our sophisticated Net Promoter scores—our key tool and process to measure customer satisfaction—went from average to average.

Someone finally asked: “Is it really about speed?” It turns out that we were all about speed. The customer, as we found out through an intensive listening process, was about accurate time of arrival. Long story short, I led a big shift in software and operations around accurate times of arrival. It was cheaper, but more importantly it changed us entirely as a company. And our Net Promoter scores went way up.

This is a classic hurdle. A lot of big customers believe they have a sophisticated understanding about what customers need. The lesson for transformation and any company is to unearth the real thing that is driving the company and business, and not to drive what you think it is.

The lesson for transformation and any company is to unearth the real thing that is driving the company and business, and not to drive what you think it is.

The difference between doing what customers want, and listening and getting to what they need is world’s apart. If you can articulate this, and be religious about it, you have something special. In Pivotal Labs we have wonderful fail-safes to avoid going down rabbit holes of what our teams could do as opposed to what they should do. Most companies don’t have these fail-safes, to remind them that it’s not about them. Show me an executive team who does not believe they are key to the success of the company. They are in fact a part of it, but if they really empower and educate their teams they become less critical. In my last role as a COO the executive team, while attempting to introduce a new culture tried a few surprising approaches. The most effective experiment was shutting down email for all VP’s and above for two weeks. The amount of planning and risk assessment around this activity was insane and the results were…..yes, nothing broke, in fact things moved just a little faster.

It starts with a simple user story. At the end of the day our purpose is to ensure the customer has a good experience, and that’s true whether you’re producing software or selling Tide. As we say at Pivotal, make the right thing—not what is dear to you or makes your head spin, but the right thing for the end user.

In the end, if you strip down all the things that surround us, the processes and the titles, they’re essentially comforts. The minute you flatten organizations, you become vulnerable, and that understandably makes many people uncomfortable. It’s very brave, and honorable to make leaps to do the right thing. Over time it always pays off.

This holds true for software transformation. It requires multiple shifts in order to stay coordinated through change, but people have been doing industrial-size change for hundreds of years. Most people do find the path to reinvention surprisingly refreshing. Let’s make sure the changes that software transformation relates to are practical things, where folks are included, and have a basic roadmap.

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