What Digital Transformation Is Not About

#WAODigital18
I’m hearing a lot about testing multiple small things and spreading what works – rather than investing in single Big Bang solutions. The world is moving too fast…

— Chris Bolton (@whatsthepont) June 14, 2018

“How ambitious can organisations be in using digital technology?” was the theme of two recent events I contributed to for the Wales Audit Office Good Practice Team. 

It served as both a reminder of the issues our organisations are grappling with – as well as unearthing some opportunities we are yet to exploit.

Here’s a round-up of my post-match thoughts:

Success in digital transformation depends on mindset, not technology

The problem is that digital change requires a completely different mindset, not just skill-set. The consumerisation of IT means we are forever playing catch-up.  Employees are using popular tech and devices at home and then introducing them in the workplace, whilst customers are using better tech than most of our organisations can hope to provide.

Redesigning our services around this is cultural rather than technological. It means we need to adopt very different organisational behaviours.

Stop talking, start experimenting

Organisations are still over-thinking digital and being cautious – waiting for the landscape to settle before they decide what they do. Arguably this ‘wait and see’ option is more ‘wait and die’.

When you don’t really know the way forward the best strategy is to spread your bets with small experiments. It’s these low-cost practical tests that show whether the fundamental assumptions are correct and what they mean for your business.

A focus on cost-cutting is a danger in transformation plans

Focusing everything on cost savings is outdated and will ultimately have longer-term implications for business in the digital era. There’s a huge opportunity for companies to broaden the lens and widen their ambition:

  • Rebuilding organisation’s as a platform – enabling people to select the suppliers and services they themselves want
  • Rewiring your organisation for the network era – stripping out hierarchy and management and making a transition to decentralised decision making
  • Automating everything that can be automated. But not before stripping out legacy protocols and systems.  Decommissioning old world services as you launch new ones, reserving your people for worthwhile jobs that add value to their lives and those of others.

In reality, many of us are delivering the same services as we did in 1970,  just with shiny websites and ‘customer portals’. That’s not transformation, that’s stagnation.

Technology cannot solve your organisation’s deep problems

If someone gives you the digital sales pitch as a golden bullet for systems that are fundamentally broken my advice is, don’t believe themShirley Ayres

The problem I have with digital cheerleading is two-fold:

  • The implication that all our problems are easily ‘solvable’ 
  • The subsequent rush towards technology – as if digital is the only solution.

The evidence that technology makes us more productive is weak at best. There’s an ever-increasing gap between technological sophistication and work actually being performed.

This is because we are simply taking existing ways of working and digitising them – effectively just transferring today’s problems to another platform.

‘Digital transformation’ is rarely about digital, or transformation.

It’s actually about the processes by which you change your business model or approach. Some of which will have digital elements.

We need to talk about leadership in a digital age

Digital illiteracy will get you fired long before a robot does. Digital is now not just part of the economy — it is the economy. Rather than it being the responsibility of an elite few surely anyone in a publicly funded role must be digitally literate?

Perhaps leadership in the digital age is less a set of skills and more a set of behaviours.

The challenge for current leaders and public sector organisations is the legacy thinking and a business model disconnected from citizens living digital lifestyles.

What is digital transformation anyway?

If your transformation doesn’t significantly change the customer experience of interacting with you, then it is not a transformation.

Indeed, the first rule of digital transformation is not to talk about digital transformation.

As Tony Colon writes – most employees wouldn’t be confident and nearly a third would be “extremely uncomfortable” in explaining what this concept actually is:

Let’s think about that for a second. The concept that businesses are betting on is something that the general population just doesn’t understand – even though they need to play a part in that transformation at work – and the entire premise of digital transformation relies on people.

Making the opportunities of digital real for people is becoming one of the most pressing priorities for our organisations.

Our biggest challenges are dealing with people’s belief systems, addiction to legacy processes and cognitive biases.

Digital transformation is not a ‘thing’.

It’s a race you can’t win with no end destination.

 


Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

 

 

Why Small Teams Win

In the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos came up with a rule: every team should be small enough that it could be fed with two pizzas.

The ‘Two Pizza Rule’ signalled that Bezos didn’t want more talking, more line reports and more communication. He wanted a decentralised, even disorganised company where creativity and independence prevailed over groupthink and the bureaucracy of management.

A smaller team spends less time managing timetables and keeping people up to date, and more time doing what needs to be done.

These small teams promote autonomy but also a better approach to collaboration. Having lots of small teams means they all need to be able to work together and to be able to access the common resources of the company, in order to achieve their larger goals.

The thinking has precedence in things like Brooks’ Law – which states that “adding manpower to a late project makes it later.” Getting bigger often means your communication overheads grow and doesn’t necessarily yield faster results. As Brooks himself said: “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month.”

Thinking small also avoids ‘social loafing’  – which is where people take less accountability for individual and team performance when doing work as part of a group.

It’s human nature that some of us may take advantage of a situation in which it’s harder to pinpoint responsibility—a situation created by the fact that too many people have a role in the team’s performance.

When nobody’s noticing what you are or aren’t doing, the easier it is to keep doing nothing.

As a leader of a Two Pizza Team, I can firmly say that the high degree of “identifiability” means there is no room for anyone to hide – including me. Underperformance becomes apparent in days or even hours, not over weeks or months.

The Value of Small Teams in Change and Transformation

In many organisations, small teams are undervalued. Like introverts, they can often be overlooked.

Yesterday I facilitated a session for the regulator of social housing in the UK – and its theme was that in an age of big change (and arguably, big failure) – small distributed teams might be an answer to how we balance productivity and innovation.

Buurtzorg, the Dutch model of neighbourhood care started with an initial team of four. The system that evolved deploys teams of up to 12 nurses, who are responsible for about 60 people within a particular area. There are now around 900 teams in the Netherlands. This system balances small team thinking also whilst operating within a much larger framework.  The framework is what provides the scalability, the autonomous team provides the personalisation.

RSH Session (3)

Buurtzorg was very much an inspiration for our model of neighbourhood coaching – which again provides a framework for semi-autonomous small teams to bring solutions together around a community. It puts people at the centre – not housing ‘professionals’.

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The Corporate Rebels have written about the Minimum Viable Team. Start small, get experience, grow bigger only when necessary.  I agree with this but also think there’s crossover with the points Chris Bolton makes in his post on Minimum Viable Transformation.

Most transformation programmes are about BIG ideas (and BIG language), where there is little room for failure.

Most approaches to organisational design are about BIG teams (and BIG resources) – despite no evidence linking these to productivity or innovation.

  • Maybe it’s time to think differently about how we solve complex problems rather than continue the endless annual cycle of calls for more resources and emergency injections of cash.
  • Maybe it’s time for smaller, more organised and better-connected teams to take centre stage.
  • Maybe it’s time to think about what minimum viable teams and minimum viable transformation look like and apply them in practical settings.

At the end of the day, radical innovation only comes from diverse networks, never from big teams.

Failure: We Need To Move From Slow And Stupid To Fast And Intelligent

twitterpeek

In the history of pointless technology, it takes a lot to beat the Twitter Peek.

Aimed at those interested in Twitter, but who didn’t own a smartphone,  it asked customers to spend $100 plus a monthly subscription.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly designed to solve a problem that didn’t really exist.  If you were using Twitter in 2009 you could count yourself as an early adopter – the tech-savvy and digitally engaged folk who probably already owned a smartphone.


Last week we learned a new word from Samuel West, Founder and Curator of the Museum of Failure – Atychiphobia. We were presenting alongside Samuel to discuss why we find it so hard to talk about failure at work.

The Museum of Failure started as a collection of nearly 100 ‘innovative’ products that launched, but in one way or another ended up going horribly wrong.

Rather than condemning the failure – the museum is actually a celebration of creativity. Every item provides unique insight into the risky business of innovation.

It’s easy to laugh at likes of Twitter Peek, or Colgate Lasagne, but if we are honest our own careers will be full of bad ideas and false starts.

credit-dr-samuel-west

Nielsen research suggests that “two out of every three products are destined to fail.” However, this is rarely acknowledged or discussed.  

In the social sector, where projects take years rather than weeks,  and pilots become mainstream services without any evaluation – things are worse.

Nothing publicly fails.

Everything is a success.

Chris Bolton has suggested we need our own Museum – a Museum of Failed Products for the social sector – to share the learning from things that haven’t worked.

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Our Problem With Failing

The truth is that even though the wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible, in most organisations we simply think of failure in the wrong way.

Amy Edmonson has outlined the big difference between knowing that failure is a valuable learning experience and actually making it a core part of your ethos.

As she explains,  every child learns at some point that admitting failure sometimes means taking the blame. Failure then gets inextricably linked with fault – and we learn that it sometimes pays to cover up failure , or even blame it on someone else.

THE SPECTRUM OF FAILURE

There’s a world of difference between deliberately breaking the rules, thinking on your feet in a complex situation and purposeful exploration.

The organisation that implements lots of ideas will most likely have many failures. Innovation only thrives in a forgiving organisation. And if failure is the engine for innovation, our challenge is to make our organisations more forgiving.

Again we come back to culture – and the need for organisations to become places of psychological safety where learning from failure is openly discussed.

When we initially pitched Bromford Lab the number one objective was to create an environment where failure was not just accepted but encouraged. 75% of the things we worked on would fail.

This was not to create a culture that celebrated failure. It was to create a place where people felt it was safe to fail. They wouldn’t get punished for messing up.

Good Failure/Bad Failure

In exploration, Failure is just an alert, warning us about the way work is progressing.

You wouldn’t close down cancer research on the basis of failed trials, you take the learning and use it to continue the research and development process.

At Bromford we are closing down our Starting Well Engineer pilot, but the findings we have are invaluable and will inform the next stage of exploration.  Indeed our Neighbourhood Coaching model was the result of five years of tiny failures.

Where we need to get better is we just aren’t fast enough.  We take too long and we now need to focus on smart failure for a fast-changing world.

Quick, decisive failures:

  • Save you from throwing extra resources at a poor proposition
  • Make it easier to learn – as actions and outcomes are close together in time
  • Mean you can rule out a given course of action and move on and do something else
  • Lessen the pressure to continue with the project regardless because your investment in it is not large

In reality – failure is never one thing. It is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good.

We need to shift our failure from being slow and stupid to fast and intelligent.

Avoiding The Yo-Yo Effect of ‘Corporate Change Convulsions’

Speeches you never hear at a corporate conference: “….. Our Transformation Programme is going to be small and imperfect. We are going to do many small things that probably won’t work straight away.’ – Chris Bolton

In the early 1960s, a New York housewife named Jean Nidetch began a weekly meeting with friends at her home to talk about their issues with dieting. She was a ‘cookie addict’ who had struggled for years to lose weight through a succession of fad diets.

Her weekly meetings helped her lose nearly 10kg in a year. So successful was her personal transformation that she turned the gatherings into a programme and ultimately a company – called Weight Watchers.

This began the commercialisation of dieting, creating a worldwide industry expected to be worth 245 billion dollars by 2022

The idea behind most of those diets is straightforward and obvious: eat fewer calories and you will lose weight.

But that’s not what actually happened: instead the diet trend coincided with mass weight gain and the beginnings of the obesity epidemic.

According to research, most dieters will regain almost all of what they lose – which is why the typical dieter tries a new bright and shiny personal transformation plan four times a year.

Change fails, try a new approach, spend more money.

A few weeks ago I wrote The Big Problem With Change Programmes – my most popular post for a year. It drew a lot of responses and messages. Here’s a selection:

“There’s a sense of complete deja vu – we’ve been here before and because the last one didn’t work it’s hard for even the most positive of us to be excited.”

“Change programmes are an industrialized construct and, as such, they are rarely culturally insightful because they often fail to get under the skin of the deep issues around how a group of people adapts and changes.”

” Our organisation are doing ‘change theatre’ – spending a lot of money on consultants helping us address things that will change the organisation as little as possible. The big complex issues are being ignored.”

The common theme – hired help brought in every few years to sort things out – is well illustrated by Ian Watt who describes regular ‘corporate convulsions’ that fail to transform anything – as predictably as a January diet.

Does Big Consultancy Really Work?

One of the reasons it’s hard to evaluate the relative success of change programmes is very few organisations share what actually happened, how much they spent, and almost none share which ones failed.

Similarly, the use of big consultancy is shrouded in mystery.

According to the main industry body in the UK, the Management Consultancies Association (MCA), for every £1 spent on consulting fees, you can expect £6 in return.

However, a new study by Ian KirkpatrickAndrew Sturdy and Gianluca Veronesi challenges that view.

What if consultancy is actually making you more inefficient?

The study – across 120 NHS trusts – showed that management consulting didn’t make the organisations more efficient – it had precisely the opposite effect.

NHS yearly expenditure on management consultants almost doubled from £313 million in 2010 to £640 million in 2014.

The study shows that in some cases spending on management consultants did improve efficiency, but overall consulting use generated inefficiency, thus making the financial situation of clients worse.

Although the inefficiencies were relatively small it doesn’t take into account the amount of money paid to consultants and – perhaps more importantly – the huge amounts of time and resource involved.

It notes that NHS organisations have been either unable or unwilling to engage in the formal evaluation of management consulting, resulting in an absence of ‘rigorous, peer reviewable, transparent data’.

The study also highlights the active role of management consultants in pushing services when there is no need for them. Change for the sake of change.

Perhaps – as Chris Bolton has written – we should instead be seeking minimum viable transformation, and change should be small and imperfect:

“Most Transformation Programmes are about BIG ideas (and BIG language), where there is little room for failure.”

These corporate convulsions are little more than crash diets, where the weight is almost certainly going to pile back on.

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At Bromford as part of our programmeOne approach, we’ve taken time to look at the case for change, redesigning all 31 service areas and mixing larger-scale transformation with small-scale experimentation.

Part of that included a lot of time spent looking at why previous attempts hadn’t worked and getting deeper into problem definition. As David Anderton has said that means convincing your organisation that you’re not that special, and not creating bespoke solutions for problems that don’t exist. We only need change where it makes a tangible difference to customers.

Amazon, so we are told, have never had a change programme.

Just as a permanent lifestyle change is a flexible, ongoing process that involves body, mind and spirit — so changing an organisation is a journey without end and not a fixed point ‘transformation’.

Why Transformation Fails – And How To Avoid It

The concept that 70% of change and transformation programmes fail emerged in the mid 1990’s. There’s actually little evidence that this is true.

The 70% figure seems to have emerged because of a lack of clarity about what success looks like – and that most people have a bad experience of them.

My contention is that programmes fail for three reasons:

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It

When was the last time you heard an organisation openly talking about what didn’t work? The problem we face is that large scale transformations become too big to fail – resulting in a ‘wall of silence’ when objectives don’t get met.

The irony is that this silence is the root cause of failure – as we become eternally doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (2)

Most organisations exist in a fixed state of transformation – time-limited programmes of change (usually 3-5 years) rather than a flow state. 

Amazon, we hear, have never had a transformation programme. That’s because they exist in a flow state – where the culture is accepting that change is perpetual rather than something that – if we just grin and bear it – will be over in a few years.

The danger with a fixed state is that the driver becomes a business plan focused on implementation not experimentation. 

Accordingly we end up with optimisation not transformation.  Or, as Emma McGowan has said, we end up digitising the status quo.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (3)

Too often we focus on transforming parts of organisations rather than looking at whole system change. This results in the creation of more efficient silos rather than anything fundamentally different.

There are cultural reasons for this. We have a western bias towards individualism rather than looking at the whole picture. Rice farmers in South-East Asia tend to be more collaborative and cooperative as a successful crop requires a holistic approach to nature and irrigation systems rather than just a focus on the self.

Most change programmes do not look at interconnected systems – they narrowly focus on efficiency.

Accordingly , as Andy Reeve said, transformation gets a bad reputation as it often becomes equated with fewer jobs rather than creating a different world.

The End of Change Management

Perhaps we’d achieve more if we gave up on big change. People lose heart, are daunted by the scale and the programmes lose momentum.

We need to get back to basics;

  • We need a clear vision of why we need to change and what benefit it will bring. If you step behind the rhetoric of transformation you’ll see it is usually about reinforcing existing business models rather than truly challenging them.
  • We need influence devolved to people closest to the change. Change is best served when we devolve power, and institutions and hierarchy get out of the way.
  • We need change through small experimentation. We shouldn’t initiate change without a clear problem statement and some evidence that any proposed solution would result in a net positive outcome.

And we need a new honesty about what’s not worked well. Chris Bolton has suggested a Museum of Failed Products for public services.

Perhaps we need a Museum of Failed Change Programmes too?

Surely the best way we can avoid repeating our mistakes is to put our previous ‘failed attempts’ on show for everyone to see.


This is an edited version of a talk that was originally given at #HQNFlight on 11th October 2017

Don’t Let Busyness Kill Your Creativity


Last week I was getting a drink when a colleague asked me “So, you busy as usual?”

I took a second to avoid my kneejerk affirmative response and went for it:

“No – we’ve decided to slow down. Give ourselves some time to really think about things”.

They looked at me like I’d lost my mind.

In the world of work, more and more of us have bought about the prominence of an unusual status symbol: seeming busy.

But we are busier than we used to be, right?

No – we are not. In fact we are working less than we did 20 years ago – whatever it might feel like to you or I.

We are undoubtedly working in a new reality, one where we now have the distractions of machines to add to those of people. Being busy as a status symbol though is a modern phenomenon.

Thorstein Veblen suggested in 1899 that living a leisurely life and not working (the “conspicuous abstention from labour”) was the most powerful way to signal your status.

However a study earlier this year challenges whether that represents our modern reality. It explored cultural differences, finding that busyness at work is associated with high status among Americans, with the effect being reversed for Italians, who still view a leisurely life as representative of high status.

I recommend listening to the Oliver Burkeman shows that explore the way we fetishise being busy. You’ll recognise the stories of people complaining about the size of their inbox and all the meetings they have to go to.

It’s easy to say you’re too busy. Even when you’re the one to blame for it.

As example I’ve kept up a pretty good blogging schedule this year — usually every week or so. I’ve had a gap for the past two weeks —  and I could blame being been too busy.

But just like eating the right food, reading more books and exercising – busyness is often just an excuse for lack of discipline. 

I like not being busy and I’m proud of it.

I resist being busy at every opportunity.

Busyness for me — and telling people I’m busy — is a sign I’m being undisciplined and unproductive.

Worse still — busyness makes you lose self-awareness. Telling other people how busy and important you are means you start to believe it yourself.

Here’s what makes me busy:

Trying to multi-task (there’s no evidence that our brains work well with too many tabs open)

Attending standing meetings (they just create actions rather than focus on being reductive)

Letting people schedule back to back appointments (which kills any time for you to breathe and think)

Sending lots of emails (you just get more mails back)

Letting people “pick your brain for 5 minutes” (It’s never ever five minutes)

Although we don’t like to admit it – we have a lot of control over our own busyness and the busyness of others.

Someone recently told me that they checked their colleagues diaries to “see how busy they were”.

The implication was clear — busyness was being directly equated with productivity.

The colleagues whose diaries were full , a sign that they say yes to everything, were lauded.

Those engaged in purposeful contemplation or those just getting stuff done were not.

In the space of 50 years the workplace has become overwhelmed with management theories on how to run a better organisation.  It can’t be a coincidence that the growth of busyness has come at a time during which there has been a growth in management.

Not for nothing does the world’s most valuable brand eschew management fads and concentrate on getting the basics right. All staff at Google have to learn how to run meetings, have conversations, and set goals.

Great companies only obsess over productivity – never busyness.