What Johan Cruyff Can Teach Us About Digital Transformation Strategy


The late Dutch soccer great Johan Cruyff was almost as notable for his wry aphorisms as for his on-field wizardry. Of the former, gems include: “Before I make a mistake, I don’t make that mistake,” and, “If I wanted you to understand, I would have explained it better.”

Commenting on the paradox of the game he revolutionized as a player and coach, Cruyff once said, “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.” Applied more broadly, Cruyff’s observation is that we tend to overcomplicate things to our detriment.

This insight is relevant to businesses pursuing digital transformation.

As my colleague Jaime Palacios discusses in a new column in Future of Sourcing, the idea of “Digital Transformation” can be intimidating, as it involves advanced technology and dramatic and high-stakes changes. The intuitive assumption is that the process has to be complicated. As a result, businesses often agonize about priorities, objectives, where to start and how to proceed. And rather than actually driving digital innovation and business improvement, they end up in a state of paralysis by analysis. A specific complicating factor is the constraints posed by legacy systems and entrenched process inefficiency.

To break this impasse, Jaime suggests to first of all to keep it simple – rather than endlessly assessing options and scenarios, just get out there and identify business problems and apply digital tools to solve them.

Equally important, you need to make sure that a tactical problem-solving approach is tied to a broader strategy. Otherwise, as Jaime points out, you’ll solve lots of problems, but they won’t be problems that matter.

To get the appropriate tactical/strategic balance and set digital transformation priorities, Jaime suggests focusing on problems that impact the customer experience. In other words, if you’ve identified a problem related to the customer experience, then solving that problem by definition supports the broader strategy.

For example, a service desk that focuses on improving incident resolution is likely spinning its wheels and solving irrelevant problems. Meanwhile, an initiative that analyzes service desk issues to identify and eradicate the source of those issues is strategic.

Jaime also defines three ways to drive a customer-centric strategy of digital transformation – one that moves the needle through tactical steps and measurable outcomes, while at the same time advancing towards a long-term vision.

To summarize:

  • Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Every business says their customers come first. But the internal dynamics of organizations can distract businesses from focusing on what’s actually important to the customer, making it difficult to identify the problems that matter. Stepping back can help provide an objective perspective.
  • Use data to gain insight into customer issues. Another obvious one, but the point is that data-based insight doesn’t necessarily require complex analytics. Simply ask your customers what they need.
  • Leverage executive leadership. While everyone agrees that boardroom support is essential to a digital transformation program, execution is often a challenge, largely because different stakeholders have different views on what the program entails. Making it about the customer can facilitate consensus and get everyone on the same page.