Minimum Viable Digital Strategy

As we discussed in the first of these linked posts, a digital strategy is a high-level plan that details how digital media and platforms can be used to achieve the goals of an organisation.

A digital strategy should help an organisation deal with three main challenges:

  1. User behaviour – it should help the organisation better understand digital user behaviour.
  2. Technology – it should help the organisation integrate technological innovation.
  3. Structures and processes – it should help define new structures and processes to manage digital development more effectively

Many people now believe that digital strategy is a key to competitive advantage.

However, while around 50% of businesses have some sort of digital strategy, and many others are working on one, many organisations struggle to develop a digital strategy that works across the organisation in a way which helps them meet the needs of users and respond to opportunities and challenges in a structured and timely manner.

There are three main reasons for this:

  1. Multiple stakeholders – there are few parts of the organisation that aren’t impacted by digital technology – diverse views and goals often make consensus difficult.
  2. Ownership – as a result there’s often little sense of who should lead the strategy.
  3. Structures and processes – traditional structures and processes designed for a non-digital world compound many of the issues.

However, perhaps the biggest problem is that digital is a big problem, i.e. it impacts everyone. This means digital strategies often take a long time to develop because everyone rightly wants to do a thorough job, and here lies the rub: by the time the process of developing a digital strategy is complete, the output is obsolete – some new technology or user behaviour has changed the landscape completely.

To quote the MIT Sloan report:

If companies could give their relationship to digital transformation a Facebook status, it would be “it’s complicated.”

So what’s the solution?

How do you develop a digital strategy that is detailed enough to help the organisation respond to the challenges of changing technologies and user behaviours in a timely manner?

Minimum Viable Digital Strategy

The idea of a Minimum Viable Product was developed and popularised by the likes of Eric Ries, in his book Lean Startup, in which he applies thinking from Lean Manufacturing, as developed by the likes of Toyota in the 1980s, to the world of software development and startup. The Lean Startup approach is based on user testing and feedback built into an iterative development loop that continually tests and improves a product.

“The Minimum Viable Product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”

In other words, don’t over engineer or overthink a problem, design and build a solution that solves the need or meets the opportunity as simply as possible. Make it good enough to get some usage, then solicit feedback and improve rapidly based on that feedback. If the MVP resonates with customers then build on it, add other features, stretch the business model.

It’s a model that embraces the possibility of failure and more importantly the ability to improve and iterate. There’s more to Lean thinking than this, and the approach has it limits – MVP is not something that your really want to see applied to certain industries or organisations – but the idea of starting small and iterating is perhaps the key philosophical difference between digital startup and traditional corporate culture – where the desire to make the perfect product every time dominates.

The Lean approach is typified by native digital companies like Facebook, whose motto,

“move fast and break things”

gives staff permission to launch things that might not be absolutely perfect in every way, but that deliver some desirable core functionality that can be tested and built upon.

And it’s not just Facebook, if you look at most of the giant companies that dominate the web, many started as MVPs. Take Groupon, for example, which started as a few lines of markup on a WordPress blog, or Amazon or E-Bay…

Applying Lean and MVP thinking to digital strategy

Despite the differences in approach between startup and corporate culture, I believe that aspects of Lean thinking can be applied to the corporate strategy level.

I believe that the best way to develop a workable digital strategy that helps move the organisation’s digital activity forward is to develop a minimum viable digital strategy, which I would define as: “a high level plan that maximises the organisation’s digital capability for the least effort”.

A minimum viable digital strategy is high-level, flexible, rapidly developed, user centred and cross functional. It aims to identify broad trends and insights and quickly to develop them into high level aims, objectives and plans that can immediate move the digital capability of the business forward. Something that helps provide a shared vision, key objectives and key tasks as well as a development roadmap, resource plans and a measurement framework to track process. It should be something that helps ‘join the dots’ between existing and projected activities, not a prescriptive and detailed plan for the next 5 years that everyone should follow. That plan may be desirable at some point and long-term thinking is required for a minimum viable digital strategy to work, however, more often than not these types of detailed plans are rendered obsolete by new technologies or users behaviours before they’re delivered. A minimum viable digital strategy is a start point. It’s a place to iterate from. It’s the minimum required strategy to move things forward in the organisation. Something that can be developed in a matter or weeks not months.

In the third and final post of this series on how to develop a digital strategy, I’ll look at the process of developing a minimum viable digital strategy in more detail.

TL;DR

The diverse and rapidly changing nature of the digital landscape can make developing a digital strategy difficult. A minimum viable digital strategy is better suited to addressing the digital challenges most organisations face.

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