Digital strategy? Delivery is the strategy

By Rob Tarling

10 September 2015

Learn how to make progress quickly and effectively through iterative delivery rather than just strategic thought.

These days, I am less and less sure of the value of comprehensive digital strategies and roadmaps and the need for excessively detailed planning up front. Digital simply just doesn’t work that way, and a different mindset is needed.

Digital strategies

For example, since its inception in early 2011 I have closely followed and been an outright supporter of the UK Government Digital Service – the in-house digital service of the UK Government and originator of GOV.UK, and a “digital by default” strategy for the central UK government.

And whatever you think of the results, the leadership challenge that they faced was little short of extraordinary, shifting the focus of public digital services to putting user needs rather than policy at the centre, and a focus on delivery across a sector that was reckoned to have upwards of c. 750 individual web sites and c. 1,000 transactional services.

So I am in genuine awe at how they successfully introduced agility to what is a highly complex and somewhat rigid organisational environment, one characterised by multiple stakeholders, politics, competing priorities and an over-reliance on documentation.

See, for instance, this comment by Mike Brackin (formerly the Director of Digital for the Cabinet Office, and Head of the GDS): "One of the many lessons in my 18 months in Government has been to watch the endless policy cycles and revisions accrue – revision upon revision of carefully controlled Word documents, replete with disastrous styling…rarely, if ever, does user need get a look-in. User need, if referenced at all, is self-reinforcing, in that the internal user needs dominate those of users of public services."

It would have been genuinely interesting to have been part of that journey as I am sure it wasn’t easy!

There are obvious parallels here with the challenges of being digitally agile in any large organisation, moving from carefully formulated strategies as the start point to a new approach where delivery is the strategy.

The GDS approach: delivery is the strategy.

As such, the GDS is truly inspiring example to all digital service teams – whether public or private, client-side or agency – as to how to make progress without trying to define everything carefully upfront, and illustrates just how transformational agile iterative processes and an approach centred on user needs can be. It also shows not only the way that teams can and should work, but also in the way they can deliver effective – though never perfect or finished – digital services to the end-user.

So by all means establish your digital direction and consider carefully the future vision state of your organisation, but equally try to adopt a different mindset and aim to make progress quickly and effectively through iterative delivery rather than just strategic thought.

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