Start-Structure-Scale: Why Digital Transformation Can’t Boil the Ocean

on February 12, 2016

“It’s a really paradoxical thing. We want to think big, but start small. And then scale fast. People think about trying to build the next Facebook as trying to start where Facebook is today, as a major global presence.” – Eric Ries

There’s no question that organizations need to transform themselves for the digital era—and fast. According to IDC, the biggest issues in IT leadership will center on business needs, capabilities and availability related to digital transformation. The data shows that [tweet_dis]two-thirds of CEOs plan to focus on digital transformation strategies for 2016[/tweet_dis] and that CIOs will be major players in leading every department through this shift.

But as the Eric Ries quote above illustrates, you can’t boil the ocean when it comes to digital transformation. If you try to do everything at once and immediately focus on scale, you will fail for two reasons:

  1. It’s too much to swallow at once. The organization simply cannot manage that much change at once. The sheer size of the initiative will inevitably force it to stall.
  2. Change is too disruptive without proof. People are only so willing to change based on hypothetical situations. They need to see proof with their own eyes before committing to large-scale change.

It’s exactly for these reasons that we created our Digital Transformation Roadmap. Drawing from our experience working with hundreds of customers, the framework is designed to help organizations do the right things at precisely the right moment, guiding them through three distinct phases of transformation: Start, Structure and Scale.

In this post, we’ll walk briefly through each of the three phases and why we introduce certain aspects when we do.


The Start phase is all about proof and celebrating success. You want your first project to be a catalyst for additional projects. Other people throughout your organization should come to you, asking you to apply your new approach to their problems so they can share in that success.

For this reason, it’s important to pick the right first project: one where you can deliver business value quickly but at the same time, is significant enough that its impact will ripple throughout the organization. Once you’ve picked the project, you want to ensure that all the necessary perquisites are in place, including infrastructure, business case and the right stakeholders and team. If not, take the right measures to mitigate the risks—and then execute.


The Structure phase is focused on setting up the right processes to accelerate digital transformation. Building out your Mendix team, identifying training needs and deciding on a sourcing strategy are key objectives. It’s also important to formalize the methodology used during the first project to make success replicable. For instance, you’ll want to define a more structured approach to implementing agile and collaborating with the business to prepare the rest of the organization for this new way of working.

As the number of applications grows, other topics become important, such as implementing DevOps to enable fast, continuous delivery and focusing on governance to ensure your apps are maintainable and compliant.

In terms of portfolio, it’s important to define a roadmap of 10-20 applications, including your first mission-critical project, and begin to budget for innovation. And from a Platform perspective, organizations typically start establishing the necessary architectural principles for re-use and component-based development.

What’s important to remember is that the sponsor of your digital transformation initiative will inevitably lean in to their strengths. For instance, sponsors with technical backgrounds tend to focus on the Platform and Process aspects of the 4 P’s—e.g., architecture, reuse and governance. On the other hand, more business-oriented sponsors tend to focus on Portfolio and People, without putting as much emphasis on operations and governance. Neither is bad; it just illustrates why a framework like this is helpful in remembering the bigger picture and what to do when.


The Scale phase is all about applying greater automation in order to realize the efficiency required to deliver and manage hundreds of applications. For instance, provisioning can be done manually when you only have a handful of applications. But once you reach Scale, you need automated provisioning through public or private cloud services. The same applies to governance; you’ll need to apply greater automation so that you can manage by exception via dashboards, versus manually reviewing each app.

In addition, Scale is focused on maximizing value and productivity by creating distributing innovation capabilities throughout the enterprise. To do this, you’ll need to establish a Mendix of Excellence – a core team with the expert skills required to support multiple, distributed teams.

You’ll also need a more structured approach to portfolio management – including how to identify innovative new ideas, prioritize projects, measure business value, etc. In addition, it’s important to establish guidelines for funding digital transformation projects, whether through an innovation budget that allows you to pursue new initiatives that weren’t on the project calendar, or through innovative crowdfunding approaches that allow various departments or business units to “chip in” and help fund a project.

The key here is to create the right amount of structure without falling back into rigid “mode 1” processes, such as needing six months for approval of a prototype.

Scale in Action

One of our customers has applied the concepts of scale to a T. They’ve established what they call “factory lines” – multiple distributed teams throughout the organization that leverage Mendix to build applications.

They’ve defined clear guidelines in terms of when they use Mendix, and they’ve also established a governance board that looks at application components and whether they should be shared in the organization’s private app store to facilitate reuse.

Based on their approach, they’re now able to deliver an application a week, with a vision to deliver as many as 200 applications by 2017-2018. And thanks to our Roadmap and guidance, they’re successfully addressing topics like DevOps, QA and continuous integration as they go.

It’s All About Timing

Our Digital Transformation Roadmap is all about timing, both in terms of not doing everything at once but equally important, not doing certain things too late. For instance, if you forget to address governance in the Structure phase, you’ll create a mess later on that’s costly to clean up and will hinder further development.

We’ve guided hundreds of customers on the path to digital transformation and have the best practices to help your organization do the right things at the right time.

For more insight on specific topics within each of the phases, visit our Digital Transformation page.