25 January 2023

Expert Profile: Ayman Assaf - Tech & Digital: Strategy, Transformation & Innovation

Ayman Assaf

Over the course of a successful corporate career, Ayman owned and led countless major transformation programmes, built innovation ecosystems from scratch, and was - and remains - an active champion of Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace. Freelance since 2021, Ayman is currently developing his own start-up initiatives and advising a wide range of cross-industry clients. 


An expert navigator of complex change environments, Ayman talked the Choix team through some key tips for delivering transformation and cultural shift; and discussed the importance - for all businesses - of embracing disruption, innovation and experimentation in the current climate. Here's what he had to say:


You spent most of your career in industry before going freelance?


Yes, apart from a 5-year stint in transformation consulting, it’s been industry all the way - and quite a journey! I started out as a software engineer at a bank. Fast forward to 2020, and in my last corporate role - a CIO for Energy Trading at BP - I led international teams, at times of 500+, and had full accountability for vision, strategy and delivery across tech and digital, plus global responsibility for CX and digital innovation! 

What was it that made you decide to go independent? 

I was working from home in the pandemic, and I just started to think a little bit differently about the future! I had a fantastic role - everything was going brilliantly at BP -  but I also had business ideas I wanted to try, other things I wanted to do... So I made the leap - it was a great decision! 

I’m my own boss, I choose when I work and what I work on and I can be completely objective in the advice I give - no caveats! There are very few downsides to being independent - as long as you’re prepared for the fluctuations in work. 

Can you give us a flavour of the projects you take on? 

A real range! A lot of exec and board-level advisory work in terms of vision and strategy development, helping businesses to understand and leverage new tech; and I’m always happy to support / steer implementation - I’ve got an extremely strong delivery track-record, particularly in digital and business-model transformation. 

Innovation’s a key area - setting up teams, processes and structures, and using innovation techniques / ecosystem-creation to help firms make shifts in culture and mindset. I’m trained in leadership coaching and mentoring too - I’ve done that throughout my career and it always gives me great pleasure! 

I work with all scales - from start-ups to corporates. Industry-wise, energy is obviously a sweet-spot (oil and gas and renewables) but I’ve done projects in agriculture, tech, logistics, investment banking…my skills are very widely applicable!

In terms of my own projects, I’ve recently done some very exciting work in the blockchain and AI space. I can’t talk about some of it just yet - NDA - but watch this space!

How would you describe your approach? 

Principally I’m a disrupter - I’m known for bringing a different perspective, implementing different tools and approaches. I’m always learning, reading, participating in events - making sure I stay on top of new trends: I’m a big believer in experimentation. And I always speak my mind!

I start from the premise that anything is possible. It drives me nuts when people say things like oh, we tried that before. It didn’t work. It’s just not possible… If something didn’t work, ask why not? Dig in, be curious - there’s probably a different angle of approach! 

And what’s your ideal project context? 

Broadly, I’m happiest working with executive and board level clients who are clear about what they want (or know that they don’t know!) and are able to stay open-minded, willing to listen, and prepared to take action!

More specifically, I love the energy of early-stage start-up environments - the fast decisions, the dynamism; and I love the quality of the relationships / connections you build: the charge that’s there when you’re working with a small team, or just a founder, and you’re really living it with them. Plus there’s a wonderful sense of personal satisfaction in looking back and knowing you were instrumental in helping to lift a great idea off the ground.

You won the "Inspiration of the Year" award at FDM Everywoman in Technology Awards 2015?  

Yes, that was a lovely moment! To give a little context, the award was for encouraging, advancing, sponsoring and championing the progress of women working in technology. I’m passionate about diversity and gender equality - about creating inclusive cultures and working practices that nurture a range of perspectives, backgrounds and ways of thinking. Diversity is essential for high performing teams. And broader social progress. It’s an absolute top priority!

And it’s everyone’s job. The worst thing we can do is to tag diversity as a responsibility of HR or D&I and forget about it. Leaders, managers, employees: we should all be thinking practically about how we can create more inclusive, flexible cultures and structures; and we must make sure we’re communicating externally too. Details matter: the way you articulate a role in a job ad, for example, will have a huge impact on the diversity of talent that comes forward. 

I’m still very active in the space - right now I’m an ambassador for an amazing organisation called iSAW ​​that aims to achieve a 10x acceleration in reaching workplace gender equality worldwide.

You’ve overseen countless transformation projects over the years: what makes the difference between success and failure? 

Leadership. You have to have the right person / people in charge. They need to have the right experience, background, track record of course, but the vital element is cultural fit. A great leader in the wrong culture will fail. And getting the right fit isn’t about bringing in someone identikit who won’t challenge the status quo - disruptors can be great! It’s about understanding in detail, precisely how someone operates, how they’ve achieved their goals in the past - and then asking yourself whether that approach is going to fly in your context. And if your gut says something isn’t right, pay attention to it!

A clear and transparent strategy and a vision that everyone is part of. Every team, every individual should feel connected and necessary, should understand how what they’re doing links back into the bigger picture.

Simple structures. Clear roles, responsibilities and accountability. You can add a lot of complexity with a poor structure, so don’t rush - focus on nailing it from the start. I like to work with what I call unstructured structure: essentially a framework that gives support but is also flexible. And it’s super important to set up triggers, so that any issues are flagged as soon as they arise, and you can address them immediately.

Transformations often require major culture change, how do you address this? 

Culture change is perceived as hard and expensive. It doesn’t have to be! Start simply. Think holistically. Be methodical. 

Ask what characterises the current culture, and what do we want to shift? Look at the landscape - company size, locations - are there different countries, different offices? Can you use the same approach everywhere / do you need to tailor it to different contexts? Handpick a set of key individuals, and build the network around them: form ‘cells of change.’ And think holistically about all the comms channels - social, events, education - the small interventions as well as the large ones.  

Setting up an innovation programme can be a great way to kickstart a shift to a more agile, nimble culture - because you’re creating a live model that’s visible to all parts of the business. When I set up an innovation ecosystem in my previous corporate role, it was a great opportunity to hook the business up with academics, start-ups and major tech companies - as well as a chance to design internal capabilities around a fast, decisive process (8 weeks end to end - from idea, to review, to producing minimal viable product (MVP).  

What three key pieces of advice would you give to large corporates?

Build agile, flexible cultures

The current pace of tech development is a major challenge - particularly for larger firms. But it’s not going to slow down! Companies need to adapt to the new paradigm: be agile, transform cultures and mindsets, set up ecosystems and partnerships that will enable them to cope with constant disruption! In terms of how to do this…Traditional consultancies typically don’t have blueprint solutions anymore. I’d say the best approach is to hand-pick skilled independents with direct experience of facilitating this kind of change from within. It’s cheaper, far more likely to work and means teams really can invest in and own the change themselves, rather than having it done to them.


Bring in people who have an experimental mindset - and trust them! In the early days of AI, when nobody was using it, I’d been asked to build something which ordinarily would have been done with time-consuming complex spreadsheets, and I thought, hang on, there might be a way we can harness AI. So I pulled together a small team and we came up with a solution - at pretty much zero cost - that completely blew the exec team away, and was rolled out across the business. 


Focus your leaders on developing others

I always used to say that my main job was to find my successor - to constantly create new agents of change and success. I’ve run many $100m+ programmes that have come in ahead of time and under budget, and to a large extent that’s because I developed the people around me. I think developing others is the thing you can do to make the biggest difference in an organisation: it creates an atmosphere of expansion, togetherness and possibility. 


What are your tips for clients in terms of buying consulting services? 

In my opinion a ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ approach with independents is the way to go for most projects. It’s cheaper and simpler than going down the traditional consultancy route. You can select experts with decades of experience and proven track-records. And you can work flexibly - you might start with a couple of scoping / advisory conversations, and if there’s a good match you can engage longer-term. Essentially you can ‘try before you buy.’ It’s super lean. You just can’t do this when you’re hiring a traditional consulting firm. 


What’s the single most important thing a freelancer can do to develop their career? 


Keep learning. Never take your eye off the ball. Read! Go to events, conferences. And - as far as you can - select the projects where you think you will learn the most! 


And finally, what’s going to be big in tech in 2023 - what are the exciting developments? 

AI (especially generative AI) will be big news of course - with more and more applications, in healthcare for example. And personally, I’m hugely excited about quantum computing - there’s a fair bit of scepticism surrounding it at the moment, but I think 2023 is going to be a transformational year. Also, with  Apple and a number of tech startups moving into this space, watch out for satellite technology!


Choix connects the buy and sell sides of consulting, providing fair and transparent choice for all. If you want to talk to us about a project, or you’re looking to connect with our network of high quality freelance consultants and experts, please email hello@mychoix.com

Companies need to adapt to the new paradigm: transform cultures and mindsets, set up ecosystems and partnerships that will enable them to cope with constant disruption!