The SIMPLE Answer to Digital Strategy

Ernst F. Schumacher quote: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent.  It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

This is the second of a two-part series exploring how digital strategy is evolving and what companies can do to stay competitive. Read the first article, Digital Strategy is Dead, here

If the demise of enterprise digital strategy is due to complexity, then the answer obviously needs to be simple. A fundamentally different mental model and approach also provide a way to think and act strategically, without getting wrapped around the sticky wicket about what is and isn’t “Digital Strategy.”  

We call it SIMPLE Digital: a simple name for a simple way to digitize strategically. If you need to understand the acronym first, you can skip down a few paragraphs, but the approach is three basic steps:

  1. Ask SIMPLE Questions
  2. Do SIMPLE Things
  3. Find SIMPLE Answers

The hardest part is always to keep things simple. Most of the challenges you’ll face will be with folks trying to make this bigger (because that’s easier), slower (because that’s easier too) or stalling (because that's easiest).  

Ask SIMPLE Questions

Anybody who’s done—or tried to create—an enterprise digital strategy quickly learns that the questions and areas of inquiry become endless. Answers beget more questions, details beget more details.

The result is bloat: a digital strategy that continually gets bigger, more complex, less effective—and less likely to ever be acted upon.

The first step in keeping things simple? Keep the questions you’re trying to answer simple. We recommend two:

  • Are We Doing the RIGHT THINGS? (To achieve our company’s vision and goals)
  • Are We Doing THINGS RIGHT? (To deliver the expected outcomes from our actions)

In practice, the questions become an interdependent loop where the RIGHT THINGS (that should deliver on your company’s business vision) can only be answered by doing THINGS RIGHT (tactical actions that deliver desired outcomes/value) and vice versa. The loop is continuous because what you do, how you do it, and what you learn needs to be constantly evolving and accelerating.
Image: Enterprise Vision and Tactical Action Loop
This is different from traditional strategy/roadmap approaches in a variety of important ways:

  • It’s fast: start by thinking in terms of hours or days to run the full cycle, see results and deliver value.
  • It’s flexible: the approach works the same if you really need to think in terms of weeks or months. (Years? Yes, but don’t.)  
  • “Doing:” It’s the most important element and is required to accomplish anything.
  • No chevrons: you’re welcome.
  • No start point: you can begin anywhere on the continuum.  
  • No end point: this continually evolves because the goal is momentum and improvement, not completion.

That’s the whole SIMPLE model. A loop. Boom.

Do SIMPLE Things

"What should we DO?"

That’s the most common question we initially hear, and the driver for most, if not all, digital strategy work. There’s no doubt that this question can be incredibly complex and difficult to answer, mostly because it has become the wrong question.

The better question is “How should we start (doing things)?” The SIMPLE principles are key to identifying the right things to get started. It also provides an important filter and guide to evaluate how you’re progressing.

SIMPLE Principles

Do things that help achieve your company's vision and goals. If your CEO wants your company to grow, then you should do things to help your company grow. If it doesn’t or you’re not sure, then don’t do it.

Web analytics, KPIs, and other metrics are great, but those are just measures, not strategic objectives. They should not be the reason to act.

Do things impossibly and uncomfortably fast. Iterate early ideas and prototypes in minutes, not months.  

Do things that seem magical, exciting, maybe even a little crazy. Think bigger, start smaller, move faster. It’s too easy to fall into a trap of safe little steps incrementalism that often just waste time and money. Make very small bets very fast about really big ideas.

Do things. The most important part is taking action that proves or disproves what you believe about the future. If you can’t get agreement about what a “good” outcome looks like, then don’t do it.

Do things in ways that build organizational and operational learning, excitement and momentum. Sometimes that can be small groups executing little parts of big things (think thin slice). Other times, it’s creating tiger teams to operationalize innovative or disruptive new ideas.

Keep doing things. Learn to embrace the learning from mistakes along the way. Agility is your only sustainable business advantage. The best things aren’t for very long, and always need to get better.

Find SIMPLE Answers

We keep the questions and actions SIMPLE because we want simple, clear answers. The two most obvious answers to these questions are:

  • It succeeded! Congratulations! You’re really smart—or lucky. Most likely, you’ve learned from past experiences and results. Now what?
  • It failed! Congratulations! You’ve learned and are a step ahead of where you started. Maybe you’re doing the RIGHT THINGS the wrong way or doing the wrong THINGS RIGHT. Both are great outcomes that provide valuable learnings.

What’s important to remember is that the only way you can know the answer to either “Are we doing the RIGHT THINGS?” or “Are we doing THINGS RIGHT?" is by asking and acting on both.  

Of course, those are not the only two answers you’ll hear. The other most common are:

  • "We don’t know” because there is: 1) no or an unclear connection between doing the RIGHT THINGS and doing THINGS RIGHT or 2) nobody is even asking.
  • Declaring success, when it failed. This typically happens when the priority for the 'doing THINGS RIGHT' group is delivering on time and on budget. The result is usually a thing that is successfully “done” on a status report, but delivers limited value, may even make a situation worse, or again, nobody really knows.
  • Declaring failure, when it succeeded. This is an example of the 'doing the RIGHT THINGS' group being disconnected from the 'doing THINGS RIGHT' teams. It happens when the assumptions and measures are misunderstood or just wrong. Retail provides a common example: digital merchandising efforts are not driving desired online sales, because customers are suddenly finding great new products online and heading to the store to buy them.

SIMPLE Beginnings

As we explored in Digital Strategy is Dead, the need for an enterprise digital strategy is “often triggered by a common set of challenges that can basically be summed up as getting unstuck." Leadership’s understandable response is to get their arms around all the confusion and complexity and define a clear long-term path forward.

Our recommendation: DON’T. You can’t know the future, and (digital) change happens far too quickly for any long-term holistic enterprise approach to work. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Even if you can develop a comprehensive enterprise strategy and path forward, the existing culture of companies have a long history of slowing—and usually stopping—large-scale, big-bang change.

Instead, just try things. Very small things, very fast, and learn very quickly to build momentum.

Every company is filled with countless ideas. Some are good, some aren’t. What really matters is that it’s far easier to debate what to do or not do, and end up doing nothing. In most cases, you don’t really know which ideas are good—or even great—until you try.

So, start simple. Resist the urge to overthink, overplan, and overdo right out of the gate. Instead, very quickly do the following:

  • Prioritize existing ideas. The SIMPLE principles provide a fast, simpler way to do this. Think in terms of hours or days, not months.
  • Of the few selected, do the very least (prototypes, MVP, sock puppets) possible. If it can’t be live in eight weeks or less, don’t do it.
  • Get results and improve or kill it—in four weeks at most. If you kill it, be ready with your next idea to try.

Some Final THINGS

While this approach is simple, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It requires deciding, acting, and learning in ways that can be different and rather uncomfortable in many company cultures.
There’s also the risk of overdoing either side of the equation: overthinking how to start or being overly focused on action alone. Progress can be frustrating and sometimes even confusing. “Embracing failure” is always much easier said than done. ​

No matter how great your ideas are, your competitors can quickly copy—and often improve on—them. The only way to ensure sustainable competitive advantage is by building the business, operational, technical, and cultural capabilities to consistently move and change faster.

By learning to act and iterate quickly in small ways, companies build their most sustainable competitive advantage: agility.

The key to success isn’t just about doing the RIGHT THINGS, or doing THINGS RIGHT. It’s about getting good at doing both, focusing on progress and building the positive momentum to digitize strategically.