4 Things Harry Potter Can Teach Business Leaders About the Transformation to a Digital Enterprise

We all know the story: an unloved orphan discovers he has magical powers, joins a school of wizardry, and is thrust into a life of magic, adventure and friendship. Quest by quest, we see the ‘Boy Who Lived’ defeat his enemies, protect his school and his friends and overcome evil.

While muggles, magic and mystery don’t have a place in the boardroom, I would argue that there are some good guiding principles within the Harry Potter stories that can be applied to business change projects. I amused myself with this thought the other day while waiting for my own delayed train (apparently where J.K. Rowling conceived the idea for the first Harry Potter book).

The quest for many organizations today is how to become a digital enterprise, an exciting–yet often daunting–task for many. So, here is a slightly tongue-in-cheek look at the four lessons Harry Potter can teach us on our path to get there:

#4: What’s the End Goal?

From the beginning, Harry’s intention to defeat Lord Voldemort is crystal clear, and this gives the whole series purpose. By the end of the seventh book, the plot twists and characters that seemed arbitrary in earlier stories suddenly seem to fit into the bigger picture. All loose ends get tied up.

I’d argue the same is true in business.

Doing battle with a centaur in the Forbidden Forest is reckless and stupid, unless Harry’s victory serves a greater purpose. Similarly, investing time and energy on small integration projects, isolated upgrades and one-off deployments will only deliver limited results.

The bigger picture is essential.

If your aim is to become a digital enterprise, every project you undertake should be in service of helping you get there. A joined-up, enterprise-wide strategy is critical. Anything else is just distraction.

#3: Who are the Key Players?

Identifying the players needed to make a project successful–wizardly or otherwise–is paramount.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry is not a superhero saving the world single-handedly. Rather, he is the reluctant trailblazer of a diverse team of skilled individuals. Harry recruits help from people more senior than him (Snape), his peers (Hermione and Ron) and even those outside of his organization (Muggles).

Identifying the people who have the skills or experience you lack will help you build a successful team. Similarly, reaching beyond your immediate group to connect with other stakeholders within the business can help build powerful alliances and break down barriers that might otherwise hamper your success.

#2: What are the Milestones?

Orphaned as a child; saving Ginny Weasley; destroying the Basilisk; the death of Cedrick Diggory; the battle of Hogwarts.

Milestones like these serve several purposes in the novels. They bring into the spotlight other characters with the skills to help Harry achieve his quest, they highlight the complex codependency of character and plot that makes such a gripping read, and they keep us–the external stakeholder–glued to the narrative and hungry for more.

Milestones in large projects are equally as important.

Mapping them out in advance helps us identify the key players we need to bring into a project at particular times to ensure success. They offer the opportunity to evaluate and course-correct as the project evolves. We learn lessons and apply them on the next stage of the change journey, just like Harry.

Milestones also help retain executive sponsorship.

As they are achieved, incremental business benefits should be delivered. External stakeholders, business sponsors and the board see a return on investment in time, money, faith in the project team, or all three. The stakeholders or sponsors remain interested and invested in the project–even when the ultimate conclusion is still months or years away.

#1: How do they Fit Together?

The threat of Voldemort is so great it forces Harry to learn lessons quickly and react to change dynamically. It also makes unlikely groups band together, even if just temporarily.

Voldemort is defeated, and along the way, the traditions and practices of the wizarding world are dismantled, with Hogwarts’ physical ruin at the end of the battle a powerful symbol of that change.

It’s not all doom and gloom; the final book ends optimistically, with a new generation ready to establish a modern order of wizardry that takes lessons from the past, but is dynamic enough to survive the future.

What better analogy can there be for the digital enterprise?

As external forces of customer demand and technological change create an urgent need for organizations to evolve, survival for many businesses will depend on the leadership and vision of an experienced Dumbledore–I mean, CEO.

It’s their role to empower the CIO and the wider leadership team, giving them the freedom to experiment with new technology and processes and allowing them to adapt to changing market influences through interpretation of company principles and by developing new ways of doing business, rather than working to strict rules and processes.

As you see, Harry Potter and his lightning-bolt scar has definitely left his lasting impression on me. The Wizarding World and the real world of business aren’t so different–but on the quest to become a digital enterprise, the one thing you can count on is there always being a sequel!