Digital transformations, steam engines and butterflies

When your company makes the move to digital or undergoes any transformation in that sense, a lot more is going to change than people anticipate. To give a better sense I will use an analogy to explain what I see. In nature you have the caterpillar that is slow and has a small world, but then transforms into a butterfly. The butterfly can fly and has a far bigger world to explore than the caterpillar. But what does it do with its new-found freedom? Will it choose the same behavior as the caterpillar or will it explore and experiment? Its survival depends on one of the choices and in my opinion, this also applies to the success of any (digital) business transformation.

Why Transformations fail

Unfortunately, I see it all the time; transformations fail. They do not accelerate the business as hoped. They see that the more that changes, the slower the acceleration goes; this is called the productivity paradox. The problem is that companies are not prepared for the actual change. You could change technology overnight, but people will need time to adjust before they can improve their productivity. It is safe to say that any change will result in an initial loss of productivity. There is a learning curve in a new way of working. So, if people do not change the way that they work they will not have the full benefits of the transformation. People lose interest and go back to their old ways and return to the status quo; the transformation failed.


Transformations are disruptive, and you cannot expect it to give you gains right from the start. Take the steam engine when electricity was introduced; it took 20 to 30 years before the industry could really adapt to it and make factories more efficient and safer. People had to learn, they had to see and experience that you did not need one big engine to power the whole factory, but you could power individual stations. And then it took time to learn that if you do not have to power your factory with one engine, you can completely redesign the layout of the factory.

This same principle holds for a successful digital strategy. We keep calling it a transformation which means; transform from one thing into another. But we should call it a metamorphosis which means transform from one thing, into something greater. More important we should be treating it as such. This brings us back to the butterfly analogy. Once a butterfly, there is no going back. For the mind it works the same, if we have a new better way of thinking, we cannot and should not go back to the old way.

If the old way is the caterpillar and the end result of the digital metamorphosis is the butterfly, everything in-between is the cocoon phase. We cannot stop a complete company with what they are doing and transform. However, it is also almost impossible to transform in parallel with the work that is already there. How can we make this happen and keep the risk low?

Design Thinking

We cannot foresee the future, so make changes smaller! If we divide the company in different “caterpillars” and use Design Thinking and Lean Startup methods, I know we can and will be more successful faster. Use and learn from them sooner and adapt. Take the Lean Startup mindset and build, measure, learn and repeat. Early success will show the benefits and people will be more accepting of the change.

The new-found freedom is where the innovation and Design Thinking comes in. As a result of building and using as soon as possible, we do not have to wait until we are finished to start generating new ideas and new ways of doing things. Listen to the users and learn right from the start! People are good at identifying problems, but not always as good at finding solutions. Design Thinking can help solve those problems by involving a wide variety of people to co-create new innovative solutions. When collective strength and prototyping are combined to prove the hypothesis, the risk of failure is reduced before bigger investments are made.

Combining all these ways of working will help us learn what we can do before the metamorphosis is finished, instead of starting to learn when we are done. Embrace the metamorphosis, learn from the steam engine and start exploring the possibilities as soon as possible.

So, you want to accelerate your business!? You want to do it as quickly as possible? Do not rush, learn from the changes, innovate and adapt as needed and make your metamorphosis a success!

Contact Tom

‭+31 6 54 73 17 16‬

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