Nearly 4 out of 5 digital transformation efforts fail.1 When they do, organizations wonder why their technology investments did little to improve outcomes.
If a government digital transformation project is unsuccessful, it is often because technology was prioritized without devoting equal attention to people and process. We identified elements of successful digital transformation programs: leadership, product, development, architecture, and operations. Weakness in even one of these areas can reduce the value of transformation or derail the effort entirely. Planning government investments with these elements in mind helps prevent common failures and produce demonstrable mission outcomes (Table 1).
Table 1. Elements of a successful digital transformation
|Capability||What failure looks like|
|Leadership||Actively support new ways of working||Teams are afraid to try something new|
|Product||Have a strategy to define the right thing (software that users need, want, and can easily use)||Software does not support the mission|
|Development||Build the right thing||Software does not meet defined mission requirements|
|Architecture||Build the thing right||Software is inflexible and does|
|Operations||Keep the thing running||Ongoing outages and incidents|
Governments that build competencies in each of these areas can more quickly adapt to evolving mission needs and increase user satisfaction. These same competencies help accelerate authority to operate (ATO) by discouraging behaviors that can slow the process.
Elements of a successful digital transformation for government agencies
Promote a culture of experimentation and collaboration. Encourage transparent and honest communications and make the shared mission everyone’s goal.
Model and reward good behaviors. Attempts to create a new culture through meetings, memos, or retreats will not work without the right incentives. Reward behaviors that support the new culture, such as:
- Creating common purpose and vision.
- Pushing decisions down the chain of command to the people doing the work.
- Breaking down unnecessary barriers between departments.
- Investing in and encouraging continuous learning.
Shift the focus from projects to products. Projects are planned upfront, development stops when the plan is completed, and ongoing maintenance might not be funded. In contrast, products evolve continuously as missions or user needs change. The product plan includes ongoing development and operations.
Treat the product as an experiment. Formulate a hypothesis and then build a prototype to test it. The experiment succeeds when it proves or disproves the hypothesis. A civilian agency might experiment with a new interface to improve the user experience. Special Operations Command might test a new machine learning model to predict an adversary’s plan more accurately. Product plans rarely remain intact after user testing.
Do not hesitate to discontinue failed experiments. If the product does not do what users want—or is too difficult to use—try a different experiment. The idea is to fail fast, fail often, and learn always.
Develop empathy for other teams and users. Product teams tend to specify excessive details (including implementation), while operations teams often want to slow down to avoid problems. In a culture without trust, this dynamic leads to duplicated work and friction. To build trust, encourage frequent communications between teams so developers understand the consequences of coding decisions. Automate checklists for policy and acceptance criteria.
Aim for rapid feedback. Get the minimum viable product (MVP) out quickly and resist the impulse to over-analyze or over-engineer. An MVP delivers value and can immediately be deployed to production. With short feedback loops, product managers and developers know sooner if they are off course and can swiftly make corrections. MVPs also allow teams to demonstrate new capabilities to get funding.
Foster a culture of curiosity and inquiry. Talented developers thrive when given the freedom to solve hard problems creatively. Creating an environment where people can develop their skills builds better talent and helps improve outcomes, recruiting, and retention.
Commit to technical excellence, testing, and continuous integration. When developers are freed from repetitive work, they can focus on innovation and quality. Automate testing and deployment pipelines to improve code quality and throughput. Encourage developer creativity while holding everyone to high standards.