Every Digital Transformation and innovation needs a water carrier. That is to say, the successful Digital Transformations and Innovation teams need someone who is prepared to fetch and carry, who is tirelessly energetic, who operates with the end in mind, who is prepared to do the unbeautiful stuff, who believes that a strong melody carried by a powerful rhythm is worth a thousand grace notes, and whose overall performance, season after season, sends out the message of devotion to a cause.

In my experience the most successful Digital Transformation delivery teams are like winning sports teams. They are made up and depend on a diverse array of skills and expertise which in some cases may be thought of as unglamorous. But it’s these often overlooked and potential undervalued players that are the glue in the delivering the success.

Every Digital Transformation will be unique

Digital transformation is not a new concept – recent years have seen the rapid evolution of technology in business, from the Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain to chatbots, machine learning and virtual reality. Digital battles are waging across all sectors and industries. Control over what data is gathered, and how it is used is one of the fiercest fights in the 21st century. We are all participants whether we like it or not, or whether we know it or not. When you consider, there are already an estimated 25 billion devices around the world that connect to the internet with suggestions this will grow to over 75 billion over the next six years or almost around 10 devices for every man, woman and child on the planet.

There is no getting away from it, that businesses have to change to survive but now more than ever it is easier to get caught up in the shiny new emerging technologies, and yet difficult to confidently predict what will strike a chord. The challenge is about figuring out the problem you are going to solve for your specific customers or customers you are looking to be going after. It is important to be explicit as possible when thinking about customers as some may be Generation Z retail consumers and others may well be back office operations managers with legacy applications. Having identified these acute needs, you can then start considering the technologies as a tool to help.

The real part of the challenge is that your Digital Transformation will not be a one-size fits all scenario. It will not be a case of do this, this and this and you are digitally transformed. Very much more bespoke tailoring as opposed to off the peg. It is about working out what is best for you, along and across your value propositions. In order to be able to draw that unique picture and determine the roadmap and plan that will deliver the prizes you seek I would recommend going through a detailed discovery and audit.

Digital transformation and innovation are team games

For any organisation of any size, shape and sector the undertaking of a Digital Transformation is large and complex. They are fraught with challenges across all parts of the business and require a multiple array of specialist expertise to really get right. These organisations will need to consider the business services, applications delivering those services and the underpinning infrastructure that goes into enabling the organisation to function. Finding leading expertise all under one roof is challenging and hence why real success comes in creating high performance partnerships that can operate equivalent to a championship winning team.

For us at Intergence our team or ecosystem approach to Digital Transformation gives us the opportunity to have players such as Silver Peak and NTT Communications on the team sheet.

Manchester United’s Class of 92

I’m a big Manchester United fan and one of the clubs most successful periods under Alex Ferguson’s management involved a group of Fergie fledglings known as the ‘Class of 92’. This group of players recruited as novices and trainees progressed to the first team during the 1990s. Many of these players were part of the Manchester United team that won the 1992 FA Youth Cup, including future United regulars David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt.

It is Nicky Butt’s position as the groups holding midfielder that I would most like to draw attention to as I recognise many of the attributes he brought to the team being necessary to deliver the most successful Digital Transformations.

Another common description of Butt’s role is was what is described as a box-to-box midfielder. Box-to-box midfielder is a traditional football term used since the 1990s-2000s, to categorise a player, generally a midfielder who can attack in the opposition box, as well as defend in his own box.

The box-to-box midfielder is the toughest position to master in the modern game as it requires both defensive and attacking diligence. Coaches love a gut-busting midfielder who can cover every blade of grass on the pitch and can influence the game at the front or at the back. To be considered a truly great box-to-box midfielder, the player must possess incredible fitness, stamina, tactical astuteness and a certain degree of skill to excel in such a role.

Every team needs a Nicky Butt

Every football team needs a Nicky Butt. That is to say, every team needs a midfield player who is prepared to fetch and carry, who is tirelessly energetic, who operates without thought of personal reward, who is prepared to do the unsexy stuff, who believes that a strong melody carried by a powerful rhythm is worth a thousand grace notes, and whose overall performance, season after season, sends out the message of devotion to a cause.

Supporters, because they share that devotion, come to love such players. Although they may initially be sceptical of the worth of a team member who has no tricks to show and who scores few goals, over time the truth makes itself plain. These players often become the club’s symbolic figure, the one who most clearly embodies the character and the ambitions of the team.

Eric Cantona dismissed one of the best of them, Didier Deschamps in his Juventus days, as a “water carrier”. But someone has to carry the water or everyone dies of thirst. Last summer, Deschamps joined the elite company of Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer as winners of the World Cup as both a player and manager.

It probably fair to say that because of his inherent modesty, and because, unlike Scholes, Butt didn’t score many goals, he was easily overlooked. Of the players who graduated successfully from United’s FA Youth Cup-winning team of 1992 he didn’t generate the back-page headlines in the same way as the others. However, his 12 years in the first team resulted in winning six Premier League titles, three FA Cups, four FA Community Shields, the UEFA Champions League and the Intercontinental Cup. Not bad for your basic ‘water carrier’.

Valuing the water carriers

Author Joshua Wolf Shenk illustrates the importance of Nicky Butt characters in any innovation and transformation effort in his latest book Powers of Two. He reminds us that whilst Apple evangelised the crazy ones that so aptly captured the essence of Steve Jobs, the early success of Apple was just as much down to the unflashy genius of Steve Wozniak.

Shenk illustrates his point with numerous examples through history, from Ralph Abernathy’s work alongside Martin Luther King to Theo van Gogh’s crucial role alongside his brother Vincent. We like to position innovation and transformation as the sole preserve of the flamboyant, charismatic leaders who bend the world through the sheer force of their will and vision, but throughout history those forethinkers have nearly always had ‘water carriers’ alongside them who were happy working in the background, doing the unsexy implementation work that revolves around details and nitty gritty. Just as with Nicky Butt, these people are often happiest leaving their colleagues to take the limelight, but we should nonetheless be under no illusion as to their key role.

As Tuck Business School’s Chris Trimble and Vijay Govindarajan aptly reminded us a few years ago, execution is just as important as ‘ideation’, yet the execution side of the equation rarely gets equal footing. It’s not glamorous, it’s not always exciting, and it’s unlikely to attract the ‘flair players’ in your team, but it’s vital to the success of any kind of transformation. Thankfully, it’s the kind of work that gets the Nicky Butt’s of this world out of bed in the morning, so make sure you have plenty of water carriers in your team alongside the charismatic flair players if you want digital transformation to succeed.