Management Technology

How To Succeed In Digital Transformation When All Around are Failing – published July 21 in


The success rate in digital transformation is horrendous. Research puts the failure between 70[1] to 84%[2]. And yet becoming digitally-driven has become essential for many organizations not to thrive, but simply to survive, in today’s turbulent business environment.

The broad reason why digital transformation is proving so extremely difficult for leaders is that it’s not just about transforming their organization but the identification and integration of new technologies that can result in the restructuring of their whole business model.


Leaders need to identify today forward and future back. “Today forward is the term for using digital technology and management approaches to make a business better, faster and cheaper today. Future back is about positioning the company to compete in 10 or even 20 years.” – World Economic Forum.

The key emphasis in the World Economic Forum statement, is the combination of digital technologies and management approaches. Very few previous strategy implementations have had such a dramatic impact on the organization, as digitalization. To succeed when all around you are failing requires rapidly identifying what digitalization means to your customers and your business, identifying which aspects of digitalization to address and swiftly implementing them so as to create a better customer experience and improve the way the business operates.

As part of my research the publishing World’s Best Bank – A Strategic Guide to Digital Transformation[3] that tells the story of how DBS became the world’s best bank by leveraging digitalization, I researched[4] 1,847 across three continents to identify why digital transformation was failing. The top three reasons are, failure of senior managers to change their mindset, struggling to change the culture and failure to transform the whole business model.

My focus in this article though is not to share why digital transformation is failing but more importantly to describe what leaders can do to succeed by learning the lessons for success from DBS Banks digital transformation. It is one of the most successful stories of how a traditional organization transformed to be digitally driven and was identified as one of the top ten digital transformations of the last decade by Harvard.

In 2014, the leaders of DBS were working on their new strategy. During their discussions they reflected on how nobody wakes up in the morning wanting to go to a bank. They summarized that banking is considered a painful experience. This led the leaders to identifying an opportunity to leverage new technology to make banking invisible for the customers and even to make banking joyful! Their successful transformation led them to be awarded the best bank in the world for the last three years. So how did DBS succeed when all around were failing?

During my two years exclusive access interviewing the C-Suite and researching the bank, one of the first messages that Piyush Gupta, the CEO, shared with me was that organizations need to avoid “applying digital lipstick” – i.e., only tweak their front-end systems. Digital transformation is not about just tweaking your website or building a new app, it is about redefining new business models; rewriting the rules of competition; rewiring the way employees work and reshaping how value is created and captured.

To achieve this in DBS the leadership created three strategic principles.


  1. Become Digital to the Core

It is key to transform your technology approach to create the core platform for the digital transformation. Becoming ‘digital to the core’ means that core platforms, legacy systems, networks, and data centers all need to be redesigned.

The bank visited leading tech companies such as Google and Amazon to identify how digital native organizations operated. To change the way the bank framed the digital transformation and to think like a tech company, the bank considered how Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos ran his company. This knowledge then led to adopting the question across the bank, “What would Jeff do?” It meant employees would shift from thinking like bankers—thus turning to banking approaches as solutions—to thinking like a tech company that creates digital-driven solutions, as Amazon does.

A catchphrase alone, however, is not enough. To support employees in adopting digitally driven solutions, the technology across the bank needed to create a rock-solid foundation of core systems. The bank also came up with an acronym that captured the technology transformation—GANDALF. GANDALF is the wizard in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings novels by J. R. R. Tolkien.

In this acronym, G is for Google—using open-source software like Google. A is for Amazon—running on Amazon’s cloud platforms. N is for Netflix—using data and automation to scale and provide personalized recommendations as Netflix does. A is for Apple—designing systems as Apple does. L is for LinkedIn—pushing for continuous learning, and F is for Facebook—becoming more community focused.

What about the D? The bank, DBS, would be the D in GANDALF—the digital and data bank of Singapore.



  1. Embed yourself in the Customer Journey

DBS focused on embedding itself in the customer’s journey. The goal was no longer about the product or service but about being customer obsessed—to make banking invisible by leveraging technology and adopting customer journey thinking throughout the organization. This approach drove every employee toward becoming customer obsessed.

DBS leaders became even more customer obsessed by constantly asking, “Is this change making banking joyful for our customers?” From that core question, they adopted design thinking and solutions based on their customers’ perspective.

Design Thinking, called “4Ds” in DBS’s terminology, guided employees to know what needed to be done. The bank designed solutions that improved the “jobs to be done.” The overall job to be done in the Digital Wave was Making Banking Joyful, which involved stepping back from the day-to-day business to identify the customer journey and continuously improve upon it.

Today, the bank continues to enhance customer journeys by developing APIs as part of its ecosystem strategy while continuing to collaborate with ecosystem partners.


  1. Culture by Design, and Think Like a Start-Up 

Creating a startup culture is a rally call that has reverberated across many traditional organizations. This is because they are looking to be more agile, faster in changing and having a more dynamic culture.

In DBS, the bank wanted to imitate the culture of a start-up organization. To develop its culture, the leadership team critically defined five characteristics, captured under the acronym ABCDE, which have been thoroughly woven into their DNA. They are:

Agile – Teams in traditional organizations often move slowly, operate bureaucratically, lose sight of customer needs, and require too many meetings and layers of approvals. The agile methodology counters these challenges.

Be a learning organization – Building a growth mindset among its employees is critical so they could continuously learn, grow, and adapt. This belief translated into continual innovation, growth, and resilience across the organization while building individual career resilience.

Customer obsessed – Being customer obsessed is not simply a slogan at DBS bank; it’s embedded into its DNA. Everyday operations and efforts to resolve challenges start by thinking about the “job to be done” for the customer and employs customer journeys to find new solutions.

Data driven – The bank identified how it could use data to scale in the digital experience and how to leverage data to improve the number and frequency of “wow” reactions from customers, the same way technology organizations do. The organization’s overriding theme in transforming to a data-driven culture has been to maximize value using data for the customer, for determining risk (both credit and operational), and for revenue.

Experiment and take risks – In traditional banking, the idea is to mitigate risk. But as part of DBS’s transformation and any digital transformation, its leaders wanted to encourage risk—to behave like a start-up and be open to experimentation. Employees who typically want to protect their jobs and their bonuses have learned to play safe—the opposite of what was required for DBS to transform to a digitally driven organization.

This article is partly extracted from the authors new book World’s Best Bank – A Strategic Guide to Digital Transformation


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