Rethinking Digital Transformation

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It’s time to shift focus from technology to people.

I’m tired of hearing the phrase digital transformation, I really don’t like it.

That might sound strange coming from a design leader at a major technology corporation known for digital solutions that kickstart transformation in organizations around the globe. But it’s true.

The problem with “digital transformation” is that it locates “transformation” in the “digital” realm. As if tools and technology–as opposed to people and processes–drive new outcomes for companies. Businesses and customer-bases are made up of people, after all. And it’s only in the culture and behaviors of an organization that true transformation can occur.

I spent the past seven years at Salesforce leading the Ignite team. Ignite is a pre-sale design and innovation consulting group that helps companies around the world connect with their customers in new ways. In short: we work with our customers to collaboratively imagine the future of their business, and craft the roadmaps to make it real. Our job is to help define strategies that foster innovation within organizations, and inspire the “customer-centric transformation” (a phrase I prefer) that’s required to execute on big visions.

So, what needs to happen to bring “customer-centric transformation” to life? How can teams and organizations combat the inertia that comes with legacy processes, systems, and entrenched ways of working to spark cultures of innovation that put customer relationships at the center of business?

Like all good relationships, it starts with listening and empathy.

Deep Listening

To create the conditions for customer-centric transformation, it’s essential to put mechanisms in place to listen and be in conversation with the people who buy and use your product or service. This seems obvious, but can often be overlooked.

Paying close attention to the shifts occurring in the world, tracking the changes in customer expectations, and investing time and resources to understand what customers need (and how you can meet those needs) is required to foster a customer-centric culture within organizations.

At the end of the day, it’s about deep and proactive listening.

Sometimes companies are stuck in what I call ‘send mode’, especially those that are heavily product-driven. But without setting up the infrastructure to sense and respond to changing market conditions–as well as changing circumstances within the lives of their customers–organizations can miss crucial signals that might impact the relevance of their business.

Setting up an organization to be responsive to an ever-changing world requires absorbing and interpreting both quantitative and qualitative input. This means implementing digestible (and therefore effective) analytics solutions that can help employees make real-time, data-informed decisions.

It also means taking the time to continually engage customers directly. Conversations are at the heart of all relationships, and conversations with customers are the backbone of successful customer engagement strategies.

For example, we helped a global consumer products company envision a mobile app to capture ideas and new possibilities from their employees, partners, and customers. The concept came from the realization that inspiration for new solutions often strikes when people are going about their daily life: preparing a meal at home, or pushing the shopping cart down an aisle of the grocery store. Though at first the mobile app was only available to employees, the app has already been expanded to select customers, partners and suppliers to contribute ideas as well. The goal is to make it easy to share and absorb signals that can help produce insights that ultimately create the best experiences and products for customers.

Some ways to activate deep listening in your organization are:

  • Taking the time to listen to customers needs before developing solutions to address them, and following up with customers as time goes on. People change all the time, and their needs change with them. Understanding how to meet those needs will require ongoing commitment to evolve with those changes.
  • Approach social media as an opportunity for listening, not just broadcast. Companies can learn a lot about their customers and prospects by tracking the signals shared on social media channels. Learn about how OneUnited did just that.
  • Bring customers, especially those loyal to your brand, into the ideation process. We often use “solution calibration” labs or working sessions to get real end-users to interact with future-state designs. It’s important to both listen and observe people in everyday settings.

Knowing where customers are at–what they care about, what motivates them, and what obstacles they experience–and then activating those insights at the strategic level can drive a customer-centric culture.

It also provides the foundations for customer relationships to thrive in the behaviors of your organization.


When organizations value the insights gained from conversations with customers, they can also create opportunities to incorporate those insights in collaboration with customers themselves.

Finding ways to bring the people you seek to serve into the development process is the activation of deep listening. This co-creative spirit and process also encourages trust, and builds customer relationships that last.

A great example of customer co-creation is Dreamforce. It’s revolutionary in terms of a tech product conference because it’s not your typical ‘product comes down from on high and becomes the center of everyone’s universe’ event. It is the culmination of our ecosystem experimenting and pushing the limits of our platform all year, and then coming together virtually or in-person to share those stories and get inspired by what’s possible.

These Dreamforce experiences provide direction to our own leadership and decision makers about where we might go with the platform. It’s a mechanism that brings to life how customers, community, and the influence of product experimentation, shape the direction of the company. The decision to acquire Mulesoft and it’s world-class integration capabilities, to provide an example, was the result of listening to customers at Dreamforce express their desire to create more value for organizations by surfacing the right data through the right channels– allowing them to move faster to the future.

Beyond Dreamforce, we also created a forum called IdeaExchange for members of our ecosystem to contribute product ideas and suggestions directly with Salesforce product managers. The ideas are pitched, continuously voted on by community members, and prioritized for integration into the product development roadmap. IdeaExchange helps us stay connected with our users and their needs, with 10% of our product updates resulting from the ideas shared there.

There are lots of ways that organizations can be more intentional about extending a hand of collaboration with customers and users. For example:

  • Invite a group of your most engaged customers to participate in a workshop, and provide them with the opportunity to offer ideas for ways to improve or expand your company’s product or service experiences. Be sure to compensate them for the value they’re bringing to your organization.
  • Periodically publish a list of top business and employee challenges to a select set of collaborators or innovators. This provides an exclusive opportunity to collaborate on prioritized challenges by senior leadership.
  • Implement Development Operations (DevOps) ways of working to ensure the team acts as one, and be sure to include direct input from customers and users into the process.
  • Whatever the process, objective, or outcome desired from customer collaboration, ensure that the goal is to create something tangible, that people can visualize or touch or interact with to show any idea’s potential.

Foresightful Learning

Deep listening and co-creation help organizations prepare for a constantly shifting, always uncertain future. And asking smart questions can help bring clarity to the road ahead.

Asking questions about the future, and formulating hypotheses about what that future will hold lets organizations become more anticipatory–and therefore more nimble.

Asking questions about how things will change, and how those changes will impact our business, allows organizations to learn with purpose. I believe every team and organization should begin with two or three questions to investigate each year, and then formulate hypotheses to test along the way.

For example, you can ask questions about:

Unlocking new value: “What is the greatest asset of the organization that is currently underleveraged?”

Industry convergence: “What industries are going to converge that we can get ahead on and why?”

Data integration and automation: “If I had a crystal ball as the leader of the organization, what would be the first important question that I would want to answer (and why)?”

Returning to the office: “What’s going to get people comfortable coming back to work in office buildings?”

If you agree with the idea that life is a continuous learning journey, then every year at least–regardless of your mission, job, or function–you should have a couple hypotheses that are important and relevant to the company. By the end of the year, you and your team should be smarter about those questions, which often leads to identifying other important questions and hypotheses.

Many organizations, understandably, were optimized for efficiency. The most adaptable teams will instead be optimized for learning.

Deep listening, co-creation, and great questions all help companies build trust with customers as key stakeholders in their business, and encourage the expansive, flexible thinking within organizations that is essential to maintain long-term relevance.

Moving forward, we need to identify more metrics that account for the impact and progress of relationship-building, and adjust to accept them in the decision-making realms of business. For now we can track user adoption and engagement, customer satisfaction and likelihood of further promotion (NPS).

But increasingly, business cases should not only include expected financial benefits but also potential impact on society. We need more expansive frameworks to evaluate the “value” we bring to our customers and the world.

Within organizations we need to ask ourselves: How might we measure trust that we build with customers over time? How do we want people to experience us? What are we really selling and how are people buying? What is something that someone never would say about your company or experience? We need to bring an obsession to knowing our customers: what concerns would a customer never share about the company, products, and people, and how can we relentlessly address those concerns?

Products and services come and go, and technology is legacy the day it’s implemented. That’s why it’s so important to focus on people: customers, employees, partners, and the public. And to invest time, energy, and resources into building relationships that can persist as the environment and opportunities continue to change. If you focus on digital transformation, will you still be relevant to the world and to customers, it’s risky. But if you focus on building relationships that endure, then you have a real chance to be meaningful to the world.

Thanks to Madeline Davis, Teddy Zmrhal, Justin Maguire for the trust, partnership and inspiration to share these perspectives. Thanks to Leyla Farah for being a great thought partner and collaborator when I led Ignite over the years. And grateful to the many people (clients, colleagues, friends, family) who have helped me better understand how organizations can be more human, as a result of the 38 countries I have been privileged to lead projects and client work in.

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