Personal blog. Day job: Customer services, digital and data in Hackney

Digital transformation beyond exemplars

Digital strategies start with exemplars in the public sector. There are good reasons to do this. Deliver value to users quickly. Start small, fail fast. Learn through doing and build advocates. 

But the more the tactic is used, the less effective it becomes (as with any tactic). Some exemplars manage around rather than confront legacy technology. Starting with users and working backwards can produce duplicate technology rather than reusable components. Working around leadership and cultural barriers doesn’t defeat them. Creating shadow IT (Slack, GitHub) isn’t sustainable. These things not only need to be done but become bigger risks if they remain. 

So how to understand what to do next? In Hackney, our API strategy and then our DevOps programmes helped us tackle more aspects of legacy IT. Now our work on common components is helping us build better technology quicker. But it’d be generous to suggest that was part of a coherent strategy. We evolved to tackle the next challenge we identified. 

Whilst wondering this, I was watching a game of American Football. I don’t really understand it but the central part of the game is simple enough. Two teams line up opposite each other. The team in control of the ball has four attempts to get the ball 10 yards up the pitch. They begin by passing the ball backwards. If they make progress, they then line-up again for the next play. 

All this drew me naturally to digital transformation. You have a set of players on your team, trying to make progress against the ‘opponents’ (things, mostly) by either getting in behind or just blocking them (and your opponents have similar intent). If you don’t make sufficient progress you lose distance and then, ultimately, control of the ball. And to stretch the analogy too far, the ball always moves backwards first, as you step back to understand user needs. 

Imagining strategy as a map has worked well for Simon Wardley. And for some time, I’ve wanted to be able to re-create the dynamism of a Wardley Map, whilst also considering the multiple dimensions that exist in transforming an organisation. 

So, how can that help you visualise a digital strategy?

Start with seeing the whole field, and measuring progress towards the goal.  Transformation can only be achieved by working across the different attributes of an organisation. The image below also divides the field up into five channels – a simple Target Operating Model.

We then look at the ‘players’ for the offense (those advancing transformation) and those for the defense (those forces trying to prevent transformation). Your model might contain different versions of these – perhaps names of various teams or organisational units. 

Then picture a play: this one is the ‘exemplars tactic’, It demonstrates that exemplars can be designed to tackle elements of technology and data, culture and mindset, skills and capabilities and products and services but by no means all. 

Three head-to-head battles created by an exemplar tactic

In this play we’re assuming that:

  1.  We’re redesigning a service but still accepting the starting-point – eg. A better school admissions service within the constraints of the 40-page DfE guidance
  2. We build a small team with some exposure to digital skills, developing a handful of advocates in one department
  3. The team is empowered, with psychological safety but is working in temporary project-based structures
  4. The business case and procurement has accepted the waterfall paradigm
  5. We’re adopting cloud infrastructure for the service, but it works on top of legacy tech

And the combination of all these factors would still represent a pretty good exemplar, by most standards. But it’s important to see what gaps it leaves. A second, tenth or 50th exemplar will make greater distance in these battles, but also leave them more exposed. In an organisational context that might mean a change of leadership leaves then more vulnerable to re-organisation or that they’re dragged back by a failure to make more progress on the other parts of the operating model. 

Three head-to-head battles advance but are left isolated up the pitch

You might not like American football. But hopefully the idea of taking a strategic, dynamic, three dimensional look at how to transform helps you think beyond exemplars.  I’d love to learn more about your experience of playing with these tools and the insights it gives you when developing a strategy.


  1. Steve Dungworth

    I really like this. I’m very interested in engagement tools. We have previously connected via LinkedIn, Matthew, but would be interested in having a conversation about similar tools including our own:

    This is not a sales tactic, I’m more interested in influencing colleagues and current clients.



  2. Andy Parker

    I get what you mean, the whole thing with American Football is that it is built entirely around exemplars.

    The playbook is a lifetime of things that were tried, were highly successful and so there’s a belief they can be repeated with the same level of success.

    When I was working with RBKC, we were able to win over the departments by having that one department that was willing to change, and using the entire approach as an example of how the web team wanted to work, and what the vision for creating digital services was. Back in 2014 this was still pretty revolutionary in councils.

    What the real power of having that one department on board came from a web lead who was amazing (without her, none of it would have been possible) and quite honestly, competition. With the performance of that one department dramatically improving within 6 months of moving content and applications from PDF to web pages, it created a literal queue of departments wanting to be next.

    Where am I going with this? Exemplars, is just a word. It doesn’t really mean anything different to prototype, pilot, pick a tacky word to use, it’s not important. What is important is understand how you need something to do that promotion of good working and change, and sell it, sell it, sell it.

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