How to De-risk Innovative Projects Across the Data and Analytics World for Powerful Process Transformation
Last week, I had the opportunity to present at the Gartner Data & Analytics Summit, which took place from the 22nd – 24th of August in Orlando, Florida. Despite the proximity to the Kingdom O’ Magic, the real magic happened in the conference rooms.
After two years of mostly social distancing, sitting in a room with hundreds of other people still felt daunting. At the same time, it felt fantastic to be among people again. There is an intangible quality to in-person events that doesn’t translate to online meetings.
If I had to define the event in one word, it would be “transformation”. After attending multiple sessions, it became clear that change is considered a constant that is not only here to stay but to be embraced.
More importantly, the data and analytics world is inadvertently gravitating toward business process transformation. CIOs and CDOs see themselves more and more as agents of change. Data and analytics experts used to focus on the creation of better insights. Today, they discuss how they can create the conditions under which businesses can act on those insights.
In this post, I will share some of my impressions and key takeaways from the event, how I ended up talking about the de-risking of innovative projects, and I will also share a great example of applied data-insights.
Gartner Data & Analytics Summit Keynotes
“Unleash Innovation, Transform Uncertainty” – Conference Slogan
The keynote featured a flurry of ideas: perpetual uncertainty is the new normal, and innovation goes beyond projects, including the whole organization. In other words, data and derived insights are only as good as the value they create within an organization.
Big data isn’t called big data any longer, it is just data. Instead of obsessing about quantity, there is a clear push toward quality. Small but high-entropy data is beautiful. Meta-data is still too often missing, and synthetic data is the flavor of the month.
Gone are the days of maximizing for the best possible solution, satisficing is the new hotness – which might not yield optimal solutions but a lot more happiness, given real-life constraints. Too many projects were killed by sentences like “great idea, but can we clean the data first” or “I like it, but can we get our current process right first?” – a new kind of pragmatism for real change and transformation has taken hold of the industry.
Pragmatism does not mean that data and analytics have lost their appeal. It just means that the automation of insights and the subsequent decision-making meet business realities. Instead of hoping to automate everything, the new emphasis is on the decisions themselves.
There is a new interest in how decisions are being made, the so-called decision design and the meta-decisions. The core considerations are: how to accelerate decision processes, embed analytics where they matter the most, offer composable apps to enable non-developers to improve processes themselves, and connect decisions across all value flows.
To summarize, the keynote was pretty to look at, pumped up the audience and left everyone wanting more. Exactly what you’d expect from a keynote.
The sum of outcomes
For me, the main insight was that (big) data’s challenges from the past can teach us a lot about the challenges we will face with digital process transformation. Being right is not enough. Digital transformation is an end-to-end endeavor that should be democratized, and the result will be judged by the sum of its outcomes, not its parts.
Gartner’s Research Board and my contribution
We were off to a great start at a conference I hadn’t planned to attend. But my podcast on De-Risking Innovations had put me on the radar of Gartner’s Research Board (GRB). After reviewing our work at SAP Signavio and a couple of preliminary calls, I received an invitation to present our de-risking approach to the GRB in Orlando.
The Research Board is Gartner’s premier subscription tier, open only to CxOs of non-tech companies with more than $10B in revenue. My session was hosted by Tom Stanton and Mario Faria, both fantastic entertainers and erudite thinkers alike.
The timeslot for my one-hour presentation was Tuesday morning at 9 AM, which translated to 6 AM L.A. time. But nothing a coffee couldn’t fix. My talk started with the connection between general digital process transformation and the de-risking of innovative ideas in service of SAP Signavio’s overall mission.
Willing the future into existence
SAP has been incredibly successful and changed the world over the last 50 years by providing efficient digital B2B processes. But efficiency alone is not enough anymore, and other goals like resilience or the ability to quickly execute new business ideas are now more in focus. What is needed is process agility.
I like the quip that you shouldn’t force your customers to make hard changes but instead make change itself easy, which is incredibly hard, and then let your customers do the easy change.
The main content of the presentation was the modern de-risking approach we developed at SAP Signavio. The building blocks are simple enough. First, ensure that all risk dimensions are covered. Typically, teams over-emphasize either desirability, feasibility, viability, or stakeholder management. Or, as the saying goes, with a hammer in your hand, the world is nails and not nails.
Why talk about the future if we are always wrong?
Second, our approach clearly communicates the efforts needed to take the next de-risk step. Projects can easily span orders of magnitude in terms of effort. Anything from something you ideate on the whiteboard for a couple of hours, all the way to running elaborate PoCs with customers.
Third, instead of checking off work artifacts, our approach compels teams to negotiate with all relevant stakeholders to define what positive progress means for the organization. Everyone involved needs to agree, or at least disagree and commit, on what the definition of ‘done’ is in terms of de-risking. Otherwise, the goal will be an ever-moving target, forever out of reach.
This way, we establish feedback loops, improve transparency, and enable the leadership to decide what risks to mitigate. Evidence-based feedback loops are the key to successful process transformation.
But most importantly, any innovation will always fall short of its potential if you hand it over to a small group of specialized employees, regardless of their competency. You need to enable the organization itself to get better at innovation.
In practice, this means that members of SAP Signavio’s Innovation Office & Strategic Projects (IOSP) team never own projects. Instead, they support the organization to bring the best ideas. That’s also why the IOSP is a farm team, meaning that every team member is encouraged to become a part of the bigger organization as projects move out of the de-risking stage.
The long tail of the appendix
What was especially rewarding for me was the lively debate with the attendees, who didn’t shy away from asking for details about operationalizing our de-risking methodologies.
I got the impression that the best leaders in the field have a deep understanding and high appreciation for the crucial link between digital process transformation and the ability of an organization to incorporate new collaboration models.
The intense debate and the strong engagement made it clear to me that SAP Signavio is exactly in the right field. The biggest future value that SAP can unlock is the ability to make change for its customers easier.
Applying data to the real world
Before heading out, I visited our colleagues from the Analytics Cloud and the Data Warehouse teams. SAP’s booth was exemplary in its engaging experience of real-time insights. The MOVE2DONATE team created– hands-down, or better feet-down – the best showcase.
The challenge: three minutes of biking on a stationary bike while trying to be as constant with your speed as possible, hitting exactly 770 meters of distance. What sounds easy was made difficult by the odometer only showing very rough telemetric data.
The more detailed data was sent to SAP’s BTP and analyzed via an SAP tool. In this sense, the experience mimicked limited operational data with insights only ex-post but having to make decisions on the spot. Doing the same exercise with the SAP solution on big screens in front of you and with detailed telemetry changes your ability to hit the goal completely. The experience is felt in your legs, not abstract knowledge.
The biggest insight for me was that successful CDOs see their role not only as the arbiter of analytics, data, and governance but that they also have a strong desire to push for change. They want to make change happen by creating better boundary conditions for the decision-making itself.
The path forward will be navigated by empowered and data-enabled leaders who understand the risks and opportunities of digital process transformation.
It has been an incredibly rewarding experience to have this platform to engage with the leading CDOs and to talk about our de-risking methodologies. I am proud that our approach at the IOSP is recognized as world-leading and best in class and am very optimistic about SAP Signavio’s future influence on digital process transformations across the industry.
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