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Ever heard of the “Ship of Theseus” problem? It’s relevant to anyone faced with digitally transforming their business today.

Popularised by the Greek philosopher Plutarch, it states: Theseus sets sail on a brand-new ship. Over a long ocean-going voyage, its wooden planks rot, its iron nails rust, and its fixtures and fitting like mast and sail get torn and broken. All are replaced, piece by piece. So many repairs are made that when Theseus returns to port years later, not a single piece of the ship is original. It’s 100% different.

What’s been puzzling philosophers for centuries: is it still the same ship?

Here’s the Strypes answer: yes. Because although every component has been upgraded and improved, the “idea” of the ship – a vehicle for Theseus and his crew to go sailing in – stayed the same over time, a recognisable object with a unique identity. Theseus and his crew didn’t build a new ship; they “transformed their business infrastructure”, continuing to operate as they adapted to changing circumstances. Because when you’re on a risky voyage of discovery, downtime isn’t an option.

Digital Transformation Pillars

Sounds familiar?

Today, business transformation means digital transformation. Making better use of information, streamlining processes to become more efficient, squeezing every gram of performance out of resources. That’s why we think a lot about digital transformation here at Strypes, no matter which of our various European locations you’re connected to. Because it’s the core of what we do for you: custom software and services that help you adapt and compete effectively.

But to get the most out of your digital transformation, you need a plan. And a plan needs to rest on a few non-negotiable principles. Let’s look at what those principles are.

Interested in doing digital transformation with Strypes? See how we do it here.

1. Start where you are – with a plan

Wherever you are now, that’s where you start. Even if that’s a 25-year old mainframe with customer data on magnetic tape! The best way to begin is to know your Situation A (where you are now) and picture your Situation B: the desired situation. Once you know both scenarios, you can start plotting the passage between them.

After six months at sea, Theseus knew his ship needed new woodwork. But with the price of planks and carpenters high, he needed a plan first – what percentage of the ship needed replacing, how this might change in the next six months, how many materials would it need, and could he get better prices by buying in bulk? Once he knew 20% of the hull was rotten and there were 200 nails to each plank, he had his Situation A.

A useful first step is to draw up a top-level view of your IT infrastructure: all the applications and databases, how they interconnect, utilization rates and who uses them. Plus, of course, how much it all costs! It all gets easier if you start with the numbers.

2. Avoid “more of the same” thinking

“Tech debt” is a big thing. Many companies have a large amount of existing technology infrastructure, costing money and resources to maintain – costs that go up as that technology gets older. But too many of them think the only way forward is to keep that old infrastructure going because replacing it would be too disruptive.

Theseus’s ship, like most ancient Greek vessels, used human power: it sculled from island to island with oars. But when he needed to make it faster, he didn’t add more oarsmen – because there’s a point of diminishing returns. Instead, he made a transformative decision: added a sail. And over time, he needed fewer oarsmen, freeing his crew for more value-added work.

Instead of doing the same thing a bit faster or cheaper, look for opportunities where you could do that thing in a completely new or innovative way. Perhaps one source of data would be helpful across silos, or an application your users enjoy should be expanded to standardize four others. The best digital transformations are deeply creative.

3. Always see value from the user’s perspective

Next on our list is to critically assess every app and item you listed in your digital infrastructure, and treat each as a cost center. Countless companies pay for SaaS, licenses, and leases “just because”: nobody’s using those apps anymore, but inertia means all that money keeps on draining from your budget every month. What matters here: see your IT infrastructure in terms of what it delivers for your workforce, not just because it’s always been there.

After a few years of sailing, Theseus noticed the ship was bulging with food stores. It took him time to realise: with fewer hungry oarsmen to feed, he didn’t need to buy food in every port! – his “users” would be perfectly satisfied with less.

Also make sure you know what each user is adding in value. Lots of hours are wasted filling in timesheets that never get checked, collecting data that never gets used, repeating actions already done by others and handling busywork that doesn’t need to be there. Start with the users, and build them the IT infrastructure that lets them answer your business goals in the easiest way.

To go further into digital transformation, take a look at Strypes’ website.

4. See transformation as proactive, not reactive

If every piece of technology you transform is just a reaction to a sudden situation, you’re doing it wrong. Constant firefighting in the present makes you miss opportunities in the future. Effective digital transformation is about looking ahead and forecasting what might come up further out – risks, threats, and opportunities too.

When Theseus’ weather-spotter reported dark clouds over the horizon, his response wasn’t to wait until the ship hit the storm. He took action now: packing away the delicate sail, preparing the ship to take on water, and instructing his navigator to steer a course further west to avoid the worst of the storm.

So always look at digital transformation as a strategic approach to future success, not just a way of fixing everyday problems. The market will change, new forms of customer will emerge, and your products and services will need to adapt – and there’s no better time to think about this than now.

5. Consider when to take a step back

So it’s important to look further ahead. But there’s a flipside: it’s also worthwhile taking a glance over your shoulder. Because if you see digital transformation as a single pathway leading forward, you’ll miss any chances to acknowledge when you made a wrong turn.

If you’ve been sailing for a solid month and your crew is tired, it’s a difficult decision to turn back and find a different route. But sometimes, going forward in the absence of evidence you’re right just creates more trouble later on. And your employees may have thoughts of mutiny!

Being stuck in the same groove forever was explored in the classic book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Harvard’s Clayton Christensen. Briefly: once a company has a set strategy and successful product, it will pursue that course forever, focussing on incremental improvements to its existing products rather than developing new and disruptive technologies that could cannibalise its market share. And they’ll continue doing this even if it becomes clear that the market is going in a different direction.

As your digital transformation unfolds, acknowledge that it may sometimes be necessary to retreat and regroup. You haven’t lost anything from this step back – you’re using what you’ve learned, all your experience, to make a sensible decision about what you do next.

6. Make sure your approach is flexible

Technology is diverse and fast-moving – which means there’s more than one way to get things done. But the method matters, too. A rigid, formalised project management approach may not be the best for your business, since it requires you to make too many decisions in advance.

Theseus faced a huge range of challenges in his long voyage: hostile people, treacherous seas, magical monsters. But like many military units today, he did not make detailed plans in advance, because he knew how unpredictable voyages of discovery can be. Instead, he formulated a basic approach that would work in many situations: small teams, a mix of skills  in each, and agreed-on ways to communicate and make decisions.

(The Strypes approach, if you weren’t aware, is DevOps: a launch-fast, learn-fast method that aims for early deliverables, fast rollouts, and a process of constant testing and improvement. It often means putting a team of business analysts onsite with the client – they’re expert in gathering business requirements – plus a technical team at one of our European outsourcing centers, a model we call Nearsurance. It means projects are fast to get started and show constant progress at every milestone.)

Six pillars of digital transformation

There are countless good ideas in digital transformation – but we believe these six are non-negotiable. Consider all six, and your journey’s likely to be smooth.

CONCLUSION: In your digital transformation voyage, set sail with Strypes

A last word: modern business is a bit more challenging than in Theseus’s time. When Theseus got back to Athens after 25 years, they were still building wooden ships with sails and oars. Today, the speed of change has accelerated – and massively.

With digital technologies often rising or fading in mere months, digital business transformation is a constant, ongoing process. And that’s not a bad thing – because it leads to a never-ending stream of new opportunities to grow, compete, and provide ever-better products and services to your customers.

If that sounds like something you’d like for your business, get in touch with Strypes here:


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Download our Software Modernization whitepaper and read more about the process.

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