Businesses got ahead by failing fast – How to balance risk and reward

Strategy and Digital Transformation

Photo of Ian Sheen

Ian Sheen

Technical Lead - Strategy and Transformation, Telstra Purple LinkedIn

“COVID-19 has shown what can be achieved if you release the shackles.”

This was the key takeaway from one attendee at Telstra’s recent Accomplish More community speakeasy event, where technology leaders swapped experiences and insights about innovation and culture that emerged during our recent period of enforced change

Despite our events traditionally being held in-person, the community has been connecting online lately and using a virtual whiteboard to share ideas.

Our most recent session explored the relevance of failing fast in innovation, the challenge of finding the right balance between risk and reward, and the emergence of an enhanced level of integration between IT and the broader business.

The flexibility to fail fast proves invaluable

One of the foremost themes of the discussion was how COVID-19 gave IT leaders an unexpected opportunity to try things they might not have had the leeway or authority to do before.
Many found that being willing to move fast and, most importantly, “fail fast” served them well when flexibly aiming to capitalise on opportunities.

One CIO highlighted how rapid decision-making and IT implementation enabled his brand to cash in on a massive surge in online demand for sales. To accommodate the boom, the brand opened its first ‘dark store’ – pivoting to use stores closed during lockdown as warehouses to facilitate online orders.

“After some initial disagreements with leadership, within about three weeks we were able to change tack to reappraise those stores, stock them, and get the software capabilities in place,” he said.

Among the key learnings were that sometimes you have to do something totally new to be able to move fast. “We made a very immediate decision to build something new and not try to fiddle with what we’ve got,” he said.

A big part of the initiative’s success came from convincing the business that they could not wait for perfection – and making sure they chose a project manager with a record of “being agile and getting things over the line”.

“The business had to be convinced that they were just going to get a minimum viable product with bugs as opposed to a perfect polished system. But the alternative was that they would have been waiting six months for a solution,” he said.

It became clear the effort was worth it when the team saw sales numbers averaging around double – and in some cases as much as eight times – what they were before COVID-19.

Similarly, one CIO at a professional services firm described how he quickly trialled a couple of different remote working approaches to empower his employees in the most effective way.

“Our attitude throughout was to focus on delivering early and often. We tried a couple of different collaboration products to experiment with what the team found worked best for their needs. You need to fail fast and show you can deliver.”

Another attendee described how he had maximised the opportunity COVID-19 provided to try new things and gain an unprecedented amount of trust. “Whenever anyone mentioned something was COVID related, doors were opened to us to make the change we needed,” he explained.

This, in turn, kick started demand from teams throughout the organisation for IT to come in and innovate around their current processes. Within three weeks the entire staff of his organisation, consisting over more than 200 employees, was working from home and legacy on-premise infrastructure rapidly began being digitised. Microsoft Teams and Office 365 were implemented, along with e-signatures to enable documents to be signed remotely. As a result, huge efficiencies have been achieved, including reducing one process that previously took seven days to just seven minutes.

Realising the right balance between risk and reward

Against this backdrop, risk is re-emerging as a focal point. While COVID-19 allowed IT to move fast and achieve things that had been on the to-do list for years in some cases, there’s now a need to rein in risk that may have gone beyond acceptable norms, according to one Chief Information Security Officer (CISO).

“For us COVID caused a drop in terms of control, even in security risk and compliance. I’m now starting to see many of my fellow CISO’s trying to catch up with all the decisions that had to be made over the last six months to make sure that risk is being appropriately managed again,” he said.

This is particularly important, he noted, given that cyber-attackers have clearly taken advantage of this moment to launch attacks and exploit vulnerabilities.

Some attendees, however, highlighted how COVID-19 has seen a change for the better in their approach to IT risk management. One CIO said that he found the key was to integrate innovation with risk management. “We’re building the new apps along-side the security team so we can get things done quicker instead of fighting against them.”

Another approached transformation from a different perspective. Moving to Microsoft Azure from an on-premise data platform had led to a massive increase in security. “Microsoft spends $100 million a year on security and we don’t, so the move from old school data infrastructure to Azure made things safer for us,” he explained.

What many attendees agreed was that the role of IT has changed, almost beyond recognition, with integration between IT and the broader business now at an all-time high.

“We had gotten lazy and put IT in a box. Now the tech function has become more trusted and engaged with the business, giving them scope to do more exciting things that benefit a larger proportion of the business at once in a holistic way,” he said.

In summing up the evening the group agreed that a tight relationship between the Business and IT has been the key to delivering change throughout the COVID crisis. The common goals that have underpinned successful adoption of new ideas have reconfirmed what it takes to change an enterprise. This is why tightly coupling Business and IT goals is at the heart of Digital Transformation “We have proven we can do it in a crisis – the big challenge is now maintaining that clarity of focus as we move away from ‘Crisis Management’ and back to ‘Transformation programmes’.”

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