Thursday 15 November 2018 3:22 pm

The Royal Air Force can teach business how to do digital transformation right

When my dad asked me, “What do you do?”, I said “digital transformation”. I described it like this: “I work with teams, and we ask ‘why’ a lot. We help companies to shape ideas and gain the confidence to change their direction.”

His response surprised me: “I used to do that, or something very similar. So many times I asked ‘why?’ and heard ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it’. Making real change comes down to the people, son. It did then, and it does now.”

Ready for take-off

Today, digital transformation is about preparing companies to cope and grow in the digital era. But for my dad, squadron leader Peter Slawson, who was in the RAF from 1963 to 1983, it was about preparing his team to cope and grow in the era of telephones and faxes.

For example, when a piece of equipment was found to be impractical, his squadron gathered insights, developed ideas, and rolled out solutions. The RAF called it “critical examination”. Using structured stages, my dad’s team spotted problems and developed tools (and cultures) to fix them.

And although the terminology has changed in the decades since his time in the RAF, it’s remarkably similar to what we do today. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that there were some key lessons anyone working to find digital solutions could take from the RAF.

Asking the right questions

The first is to think about which questions to ask. The initial phase of a project is asking: “Why exactly do we need to bring about change?” With the RAF, it was about making the equipment more efficient. For businesses, it is usually about staying relevant and competitive.

The next stage is research – known as the “primary question phase” in the RAF, the “discovery phase” in the Government Digital Service, and “insight generation” at my company, Fluxx. The point of this is to gather insights that will help build solutions to the problem.

At that point, you need to ask “How might we enable change?”, and come up with some potential solutions. Only then can you test them out and evaluate which ones work.

Finally, you get to implementation. For my dad, that meant rolling out his new equipment. For a business attempting to stay relevant, it means continually testing, learning and adapting.

Time of change

The 1960s were the time of the Cold War. Countries were trying to out-innovate each other. Staying the same was not an option – they couldn’t afford to be afraid of change.

Today, the same applies.

Organisations are being “attacked” (or disrupted) by companies with “test and learn” innovation at their core. Get that kind of culture sorted and, within reason, the rest takes care of itself.

If businesses want to succeed, they need to resist the “big plan”. Transformation doesn’t come from an overly detailed strategy; it comes from adapting – experimenting with new ways of working that spread if they are successful.

The frontline RAF must respond quickly to challenges and share good ideas. In business, the key is to test, learn, adapt, and transform.

The world is changing – but then, it always is, and it always has.

Without an innovative culture that motivates people to make change, encourages them to try new things, and that promotes “failure is okay”, businesses simply won’t survive.

It worked for my dad in the RAF, and it can work for you in your business today.