Digital transformations often start with some common rules of thumb:
- “Start small.”
- “Lift and shift workloads to the Cloud.”
- “Create a proof of concept for your Agile initiatives, and then scale.”
But in one of my favorite talks from DOES Europe 2022, Pieter Jordaan, CTO at TUI Group, describes how they accelerated their digital transformation during a global pandemic by breaking these rules.
COVID’s impact on the travel industry: calamity or opportunity?
TUI Group (TUI) is the world’s largest integrated travel company. They operate in 15 countries, have a fleet of 165 airplanes, and their pre-pandemic revenues were nearly 20 billion euros annually.
And while COVID-19 ground the travel industry to a halt, TUI seized this opportunity to make a massive and profound change to their business model. They unified and re-platformed the majority of their critical business applications to the cloud. Last year at this conference, Pieter walked us through the beginning of this shift, and this year, he offered an update on how things are going and the lessons they’ve learned.
TUI’s transformation journey had begun before COVID and initially followed a fairly traditional path of migrating small workloads to the cloud and transitioning to Agile, first locally and then globally. Quickly they began to recognize the need for a more significant shift. They wanted the transformation to deliver a global product-driven organization powered by a single digital platform.
When COVID hit, TUI Group recognized the opportunity it provided to accelerate the transformation. They quickly began federating their existing IT to support better flow and value for their customers.
Breaking the rules
TUI Group didn’t start small; in fact, they began by rewriting their entire aviation platform — a critical line of business that touched inventory, plane routing, pricing, sales, ticketing, seat selection, and even crew management.
TUI also chose not to execute its transformation through a more traditional “lift and shift” approach or to use small proofs of concept. During the pandemic, TUI rebuilt and rolled out not only an entirely new flight platform but also an entirely rebuilt package platform — combining accommodations and flights.
Adding to the complexity were the new realities of local and international travel dictated by COVID rules and the importance of customer experience within these shifting norms. TUI recognized that their ability to push information in real-time about things like flight cancellations, delays, and baggage updates (to name a few) could make or break a customer’s experience, and so completely digitized these experiences.
A new view of risk
One of the key factors that enabled TUI to make this enormous shift was changing the way they looked at risk. Working on an aviation platform when no one is flying is a very different thing from working on it when travel started to pick up. Resolving the emerging conflicts between recapturing revenue and driving for a better platform became possible, said Jordaan, when TUI began to understand its flow and how it contributed to business value. He compared their mindset to one of extreme climbers, who are constantly resetting the bar for success. Risk, he said, looks very different depending on where you stand.
Pre-pandemic, it may have seemed impossible to make so much change. Shifting from a project mindset to becoming a product-driven organization with a global, remote workforce was an idea in a PowerPoint presentation. But now, two years later, with new platforms created and maintained by global, remote teams who work collaboratively, TUI has an entirely different view of what is possible.
Instead of pursuing a specific goal or a milestone, TUI chose to pursue a new version of what was possible, breaking barriers and creating a new mindset. And while Jordaan doesn’t downplay the risk inherent in such a proposition, he did note that doing nothing is the riskiest option of all. The brave thing, he said, is to “make a decision fast and start moving.”
Make things less wrong with fast feedback
One of the most important lessons the TUI teams learned was understanding that their systems would contain design flaws from the outset. Jordaan says he encouraged his teams to think about “how they could make it less wrong” as opposed to striving for the perfect design before moving forward. Realizing that you will make mistakes (in fact, you probably already are) is one thing, but staying where you are is the worst mistake of all. Fast feedback loops enable the natural evolution of digital transformations, allowing you to change and repair over time.
Jordaan credits TUI’s success to the leaders who understood how to make those decisions and to the motivated and focused teams who executed the work. This mindset of continuous improvement has enabled their “new normal” and is allowing them to continually transform their business and their platforms.