“We have to automate.” This is the statement I’ve heard from countless automation team members and even leaders over the years. It is usually the result of a top-down mandate from a chief information officer (CIO) or another leader in IT, from an architecture team, or from a long-running digital transformation program. Rarely is it rooted in strategy and alignment with the business or the objectives of the larger enterprise. I equate it to giving someone a hammer and telling them they must use it as much as possible. Without the “why” clearly defined, an automation program can progress for years with team members frustrated at finding processes to automate, engaging with business stakeholders, and proving a significant ROI for the business.
We should not even talk about “how” until we understand “why” we’re automating in the first place. Today, I will go through a prescriptive and simple formula that I’ve seen work time and time again in the most successful automation programs. It starts with a clearly defined “why” and gets to a prescriptive “how” to achieve significant business outcomes.
If you didn't know your destination, would you get in the car and just start driving? We must ensure automation programs, which are significant investments, are not aimless.
Is your automation team trying to “sell automation” to various business stakeholders to build an automation pipeline one process at a time? Sorry, but that would mean that your automation program is aimless; the team is in the conundrum of trying to sell a tool versus value to the business.
We do not need to create new goals as the result of having automation. In fact, we just need to connect the program to pre-existing business objectives.
Is your company looking to grow top line revenue this year? We should be connecting automation into processes (new and old) that can accelerate revenue-producing teams.
Are we looking to launch new products or services to market? We should connect automation to any process that is a critical path to launching new products and services.
You get the point.
Automation is only strategic if your pipeline of automation opportunities is directly connected to the strategies that your company is already targeting. These are the strategies you hear in your company’s earnings calls; it’s what your C-level executives are talking about in employee all-hands meetings, and it’s what your CEO is talking about when interviewed by various third parties.
It is not difficult to find these objectives—you just need to know where to look and be bold enough to position your program as a lever with executives in your organization.
I have witnessed some automation programs struggle for years to build demand for their automation programs. Consistently, I see that the problem is a lack of connection back to the most critical business priorities, as I described earlier.
The other problem is a lack of capacity to go and build the automation pipeline through proactive gathering efforts. I usually witness this in the form of the automation team (usually IT) marketing automation to various parties and hoping that the business will self-submit automation opportunities. While this “marketing approach” may generate some volume of ideas, the ideas rarely are large, impactful, or important enough for executives to notice.
The reason is that usually individual contributors, who see only a portion of the process, submit ideas that are narrowly focused on their experience. This results in an automation idea that doesn’t involve an end-to-end process that would add up to significant value. I call this a “bottom-up strategy” and, while it is easy to start this way, an automation program will only scale if it is also paired with a top-down strategy that connects back to the highest-level company strategies and priorities. Here is the simple formula to a successful discovery capability for an automation program:
There should be multiple pipelines of automation opportunities—one pipeline per business priority or one per business unit
There should be dedicated (full-time) employees whose sole role is to work with business leaders within an assigned organization to identify high-value automation opportunities that align back to the business unit’s core strategies and goals
Eventually, as a program matures and those three elements are working within the organization, your automation users and citizen developers in the organization will also fill your pipeline with automation opportunities.
“How many people should I hire in my center of excellence (CoE) to run a successful automation program?” That's a common question I hear from both executive sponsors and automation practitioners across the industry. My answer is always: "that’s the wrong question."
Let me give you a simple analogy. Imagine that you are running a company that will sell laptop computers. Would you start this endeavor by deciding how large of a warehouse you need to purchase to produce these laptops? Or would you start by forecasting the number of laptops you will need to produce based on global opportunity and business targets?
The same concept is true for automation programs.
If your organization is aiming to get new products to market faster to grow revenue by 20% over the next two years, or if your organization is looking to take out $100 million of cost, you will need to size staffing accordingly to allow you to hit the target.
Once you understand the higher-level business objectives and have executive alignment to use automation as a lever to deliver against those objectives, you can begin to identify how big of a “factory” or CoE you are going to need.
Another point of clarification: the CoE does not—and should not—lead strategy for where automation is used in the company. Just as a warehouse manager does not decide what products are produced.
The CoE is the ‘factory’—it is a critical organization to deliver automations quickly, efficiently, with quality, and with the ability to quickly scale up to address growing demand.
Too many times, I have seen CoEs “stuck” with a large automation backlog and no ability to scale. Those issues are due to a lack of advance planning about how to scale delivery when new business units come onboard (or where there is a mission-critical initiative that needs automation).
Without getting into the weeds here, the best practice is to not rely solely on in-house talent because doing so can become cost prohibitive as well as difficult to staff up quickly.
Leveraging third-party delivery partners with a robust bench of business analysts, developers, and architects can give you a lever that can be pulled quickly to ramp up significant delivery capacity within a matter of a few weeks. Additionally, many delivery partners have geographic, language, and pricing flexibility that can be beneficial as the automation program scales globally and you look for opportunities to decrease delivery costs.
I have spoken to dozens of automation leaders who like to boast about how many thousands of hours or millions of dollars they've saved their company.
My response is usually: “That’s great! What does your executive sponsor, such as your chief financial officer, say about this program? I’m assuming they are thrilled with the ROI and are likely to invest more to help you scale”.
That comment usually gets me the “deer in the headlights” look as a response. And I then know exactly what is broken. The automation team is pushing to automate as much as possible, but the business is not engaged in agreeing on the value. Or there isn't agreement on how they will “capture” that value by making changes to their business.
Key takeaway: if your executive business sponsors aren’t agreeing to the value delivered by your automation program and can’t speak about the quantifiable impact, your program is failing.
Like almost any other initiative, automation programs are not meant to be started as science projects. They take significant investments and, like I was saying earlier, are aligned to business goals.
After reading the steps that I laid out earlier, you know that we already should have business goals that are the value drivers for automations being delivered. The key is that we ensure there is solid value measurement and validation governance throughout the entire lifecycle.
Here are the recommended steps:
C-level officers across the enterprise each identify “how the value will become real” within their respective organizations. This means that when the CoE, for example, delivers an automation that offsets thousands of annual hours of employee time, the business has a game plan for how they will “capture” those savings. Will they remove staff numbers from the hiring forecast? Will they reorganize and move employees to other strategic initiatives? My point here is that business leaders must decide those things, not the CoE. I call this the “value realization strategy” and it must be defined up front before the CoE delivers any automations.
Once the value realization strategy is defined, there should be governance to ensure there is “business signoff” on the value of automation opportunities in the pipeline that will soon be delivered. The reason for this is that the business case and value does not come into question after the solution has been delivered. It’s a similar concept to when you buy a car: you don't take delivery of a new car and then decide if you should pay $20,000 or $30,000. The “value”—and the price you will pay—is decided up front.
Regularly report value in pipeline and value delivered to executive sponsors. As business strategies and objectives change, the value drivers and realization strategy may need to change as well.
Automation will change how your organization operates. The people, processes, technology, and information in your organization will be operating much differently five years from now than it does today.
Automation will be a key driver in needing to adjust the type of work your employees do. And you will need their engagement and advocacy for this change.
This makes communication a critical element to automation programs. As I mentioned in the previous section, it starts with ensuring there's consistent communication with those who are setting business priorities and funding the program: the executives.
These communications then need to cascade down. Managers will need to be participants in opportunity identification. They'll also need to own change management when automations go live.
And finally, all individual contributors in the organization will be automation users and thought leaders. They use automation in their day-to-day work as well as infusing new innovative ideas into the automation pipeline. Their engagement is critical.
I've taken you through the core ingredients of a successful automation program: the reason, demand, program governance and execution, accounting, and communications. You may be thinking that this sounds simple, logical, or maybe even common sense. It’s true, the formula is not complicated. However, remember that this all starts with that first ingredient: the reason. It’s critical that you align your automation program to a strategic goal that your C-level leadership is focused on delivering against.
What separates immensely impactful automation programs from programs that get mediocre outcomes is simply that it takes someone with courage and a plan to take a bold approach to C-level executives in their organization. Someone to say, “we can use the power of automation to deliver against your strategic priorities….and here’s how.” That bold visionary can be you.
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