Successful Digital Transformations Require a Clear, Concise Vision

Jim DuBois
Former CIO

In part two of our four-part series (part one) dissecting former Microsoft CIO Jim DuBois book on IT leadership, Six-Word Lessons to Think Like a Modern-Day CIO, and how it relates to digital transformation, we dig into the importance of establishing a clear vision so everyone knows where you are and where you want to go.


Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. In your book, Six-Word Lessons to Think Like a Modern-Day CIO, you talk about the importance of establishing a clear vision for digital transformation so everyone knows where the organization wants to go. My first question is how do you define what a vision is?

It’s a good question. Sometimes people try to do a vision statement like a mission statement. That’s not what I mean here. What we’re trying to do for teams that are going fast is make sure that they’re all going in the same direction, towards the same place. So, the vision is a clear picture of what the future looks like — in enough detail so people can understand what it looks like when we get there and be able to explain it to others.


Can you give me an example?

It depends on the type of company that you have. Let’s use a relevant current example like healthcare: If we’re going to transform healthcare to something that will work in the future, the vision statement will have elements of what care for patients looks like in the future. How it is different from today. How doctors will operate differently. What’s the role of insurance that transformation? What medical research do we want to happen in order to make this vision come true? … It would be that picture of what transformed-healthcare looks like along those different dimensions.

The conversations we’re having about being a “modern-day CIO” are really about digital transformation and how you use vision to achieve that goal. So, could an example vision statement for healthcare be: “We are going to embrace telemedicine and personalized medicine in order to better serve rural patients in these areas,” or is that too specific? Too narrow?

When you shrink it to just rural patients, it probably became too specific. In this case, you’d want to talk about what how healthcare is going to look different and it would include things like placing more emphasis on preventative care. How you do that probably includes research, some use of artificial intelligence. It may include what I’ll call self-diagnosis using tools like wearables. There’s research you’ll need to do on the technologies you’ll need to achieve your vision. There’s a whole number of things that we could brainstorm on but we would want to paint a complete picture in enough detail so that the consumer of the vision would understand what that vision is going to look like and how it will feel different than it does today and what some of the elements of that will be.


And then you bring in the tools, right? So, if we’re going to become a preventative care organization, then the digital tools we deploy would support this idea that we want to help people stay healthy, not treat sickness?

Yes. And there’s an assumption in this vision that it is more effective to do healthcare that way. You have to have some assumptions that help frame up what that future will look like when we complete the steps to get there. There are a couple important things: One is that we’re clear on what our assumptions are and, two, we’re clear to everyone that we’re going to learn as we drive towards this vision. And then we’ll update the vision with what we learn. If everybody thinks of it as a fixed thing, then they’re going to spend too much time trying to get it perfect before they get started. It’s more important that we get a vision out there that’s clear enough that people can start working towards it. And that we have a process that, as we’re learning, as we’re testing some of the assumptions, as we’re making progress towards the vision, we’ll update the vision with those new things. Then we have to communicate to everybody the current state of the vision as we go. Everybody has to understand that it’s going to evolve so that they don’t feel like there’s any failure to learning something new and making the vision better. That should be treated as a positive.


Let’s take the example of an energy company. The energy industry is transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewables and it’s happening much faster than anyone anticipated. So, if you’re an energy company, you have to figure out where you’re going to be five years, 10 years, perhaps, maybe even 20 years down the road.

When you’re creating your vision, you would need to make some assumptions about how quickly you’re going to get there. Some of what we’re going to learn on the way is how fast that’s going to happen. That is going to influence what the vision looks like — including how we would prioritize what to do first in order to get there.


Outside forces have to be accounted for as well. Public policy in this case and how quickly governments may change their point of view when it comes to energy sources and other factors. But you can go…

When you’re creating the vision, you have to make some assumptions about those things as well.


But those are course corrections. If the vision is correct, that renewables are the future, then the vision really hasn’t changed very much, right?

Yes, except the vision for the renewable future has a timeframe so you might have to change how you’re prioritizing things in order to get there. The vision can’t just be what the future’s going to look like. It has to include a rough roadmap for how you’re going to get from today to that vision.


If you create a pyramid with vision at the top, then strategy sits just under that, and then tactics?

Yes. The approach that we’re going to take to get to the “Shining City on the Hill” is the strategy, the tactics are the specifics that are going to go into the roadmap on how we get there.


What if your vision is just completely wrong? What happens at that point?

The biggest difference in the whole vision-strategy-tactics discussion today is being able to move at the pace that everything’s going, which is fast. Even though it’s the same words that were used 20 years ago, in the past the vision was more of a fixed thing. Today, vision is something that is continually evolving. We can update the vision anytime we learn something that’s material enough to change the vision; anytime we learn that our assumptions may not be holding.


How does that work? Doesn’t it make the vision a bit of moving target?

In the world today, we divide work into time-bound sprints. What we’re going to do in the next sprint is the set of things that fit into that timeframe; the things that are the highest priority to get us closer towards the vision. And we’re going to learn from that sprint and adjust what goes into future sprints based on what we’re learning. We’re adjusting the roadmap as we go. And even adjusting the vision sometimes as we go so that we can make the fastest progress.


What you’ve described is the Waterfall to Agile to DevOps transition we’ve been seeing in software development and IT operations, which is a reflection of the times. Agile didn’t come about because Waterfall didn’t work. Agile came about because of the speed of change customers were demanding, right?

Today we need to work in this Agile way not just in building software, but in how the whole company works. Every company needs to transform to work this way. The ones that can’t transform quickly to work in this manner, let alone transform what they’re working on, are going to be left behind. They are going to be the ones that are disrupted. And frankly, the pace of change is happening faster and faster. The amount of change that’s going to happen in the next five to 10 years is going to be even more dramatic. Therefore, it’s even more important for people to figure out how to work in this way than ever.


Underpinning all of that is this idea of digital transformation, right?

And working in very, very different ways. I mean, the biggest hotel chain in the world today based on the number of rooms for rent is Airbnb. And you know, they did that way faster than any of the big chains did because they did it differently.


Recently, I got on the phone to book a hotel because I want to make sure the room I found online was available. It had a nice lake view. They said, “Well, you know what, we don’t have that in our inventory, but the web updates faster than our terminals here on site so go ahead and book it online.” I found that fascinating.

It’s all part of the algorithms that they use that decide what part of their available rooms are available through what channels


So, if their vision is to be the most customer responsive, the most flexible, the most customer-friendly what would their vision have to say in order to make the investments so that I can do more online than their agents could do in-house? What would the vision be? How would that read?

In order to get to this point, I would assume that part of what they’ve defined in their vision is, “Our future is online”. Not a bunch of people in the call centers. And we’re going to make that experience the best experience for customers. It would also have to include how they’re going to be more successful than their competitors by doing this. I’m not a hotel expert, but it would include the kinds of experiences that they want their guests to have in order to improve their reach and scale and profitability and customer service and whatever the measures are that they have around their vision.


Perhaps, the beginning start of that vision statement would be, “Our customers are getting younger, our customers are more mobile, our customers expect a digital experience” …

“Therefore this is the kind of digital experience we’re going to create for them that includes these capabilities.” It may even be one of the tactics to tell their phone agents that it’s okay to tell customers they can get a better experience online. That’s part of training your guest to always go online rather than call.


So a vision doesn’t have to be overly complicated, does it? It doesn’t have to be grand. In fact, maybe it should be as practical as something like we’ve just discussed?

Exactly. Maybe grand is not the right word, but it has to have something that inspires your people and even your customers in what you’re going to do, but you’re right. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be something that’s beyond the realm of what people can imagine. And in fact, it shouldn’t be.


So now that you’ve defined your vision, it’s flexible and changeable, but that can mean it’s always a little out of reach. Do you ever achieve the vision? Because, at that point, you’re done. You’ve achieved your goals.

If you’re continuing to evolve it, you may not ever achieve it You may, however, launch additional visions within the same company so that you may accomplish one and have another big vision that you’re working on. Even within Microsoft, there were multiple visions as part of the overall mission of the company. When some of those were achieved then the company would pivot. Like Windows 10. Part of the vision was that it was the last release of Windows ever and would just become something that could iterate and get additional updates as time went on, but there would never need to be a whole new version of Windows. As part of that, they don’t need a big Windows team that’s going to be working on the next big version of Windows anymore. And they were able to redeploy resources towards the cloud that helped that vision advance even more quickly.


That was one of the things I was going to bring up, the Azure vision, which is very successful.

There’s also an end-user experience vision that includes Office 365, that’s different from the other vision. And there’s some small business stuff that includes the Dynamics products. There’s a gaming vision that includes the Xbox and all of those kinds of products. And then there are capabilities like virtual reality, augmented reality with HoloLens that could be part of business solutions or gaming solutions.


So, does the vision inform the mission statement or does the mission statement informs the vision or do they just live side by side? Or is it just a matter of semantics?

I think they live side by side, but the distinction, I would not have more than one mission statement for a company where I think they can have multiple visions.


How do turn a vision from an idea into a reality?

What I found trying to get teams to do this is when you force them to create a roadmap of how you get from today to the vision, it helps them understand the things are a part of the vision like, for example, inventing something that’s going to make renewable energy be more efficient than it is today, is a necessary part of getting to the vision and we have to do that at some point.


So, you start with the vision and work backward?

I’ve found that to be the most effective way, but it’s an iterative process.


So, you come up with a vision, go back, do the roadmap and that roadmap maybe re-informs or clarifies the vision. When you’re done with that exercise you have a much more complete picture of where you’re going to start and where are you going to end up?

Yes. And when you start, you’re going to start learning some things that will continue to make it better. So it continues to iterate. Hopefully, you’re not changing the vision very often, but if you’ve learned something material enough, then you should change the vision and help everybody understand that change.


»Read next, on Apptio:

  • Five cloud computing predictions for 2019
  • Forrester’s “Transformation is Pragmatic” report: What to expect in 2019
  • Five cybersecurity predictions for 2019
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