32 hours of listening to over 40 expert speakers as well as participating and questioning their positions and insights. 2.5 hours of provocation (rather than presentation) and also chairing Q & A’s. In between, I spent many many hours contemplating and reflecting on the various case studies, insights, lessons learned and the activities undertaken by the great and the good, the large and the small, the commercial and the charitable, public sector and finance. Indeed the full gamut of Digital Transformation activity.

To say that November was a month of travel, intellectual challenge and mindful reflection would be an understatement. So what are the key themes that arose across all of the sessions and conferences I was a party to?

There were basically five themes that recurred time and again in each Digital Transformation event I attended:

  1. People (Culture eats strategy for breakfast)
  2. Collaborative connectedness
  3. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should
  4. It’s the speed of change, not the change itself that’s the challenge
  5. Digital transformation as a term is meaningless, and should be killed off!

In this installment, I am going to look at the first 2, the importance of people and the overarchingly critical nature of their support, involvement and energy. This segues neatly into the need to build collaborative working models that promote cross-department and cross-silo working.

This is not new. This is not even a revelation. From time in memoriam, humans have worked best when they work as a team. One of my favourite sayings of all time comes from the Masai:

The Masai quote on digital transformation

The paradox of a month of “digital” discussions is that the vast majority of the time was spent talking about the need to build your team, to create groupthink and the power of people to block progress.

One insight that, again, repeated itself across the month was that technology is the catalyst, the enabler if you will, but the key driver is simply business change; just like it has been across the millennia. From wood to stone, bronze to iron, the wheel to the printing press to steam, electricity to computers, iPods to the IoT. Our species innovates, invents, discovers, enquires, is endlessly curious and has an overwhelming desire to be better, faster, higher, longer, deeper, and more than the day before. It is both a curse and blessing.

So, if we have been facing this challenge for 1,000’s of years why is this (r)evolution so much harder, so much more involved and causing so much disruption? Hand in hand with the theme of people was the issue of speed of change. In one of the presentations, an analogy was made that really struck home for me.

The speed of change in technology over the next 20 years is equivalent to that we have undertaken in the previous 300. That equates to 12 generations of change in less than 1.

No wonder humans are struggling to evolve fast enough.

This underlines even further the need to get your team's/staff/people onside as early as possible. Those who were sharing success stories were unequivocally clear that the success they enjoyed was in no small measure due to the fact that the people part of the equation was considered, planned, embraced and consistently supported across the lifecycles of the roadmap. I have to say that I enjoyed no small amount of satisfaction in having After Digital’s intrinsic position that a people-first approach is the only way to truly achieve success was so well evidenced as the right one.

Taking this a step further was the second main theme, that of collaboration, the removal of silo mentality and the need to successfully redraw the organisation model of operation.

What is clear from the all of the presenters I listened to, all the questions I fielded and the general groundswell of opinion in every group was that traditional organisations are increasingly not fit for purpose in the digital age. We always refer to this as the EGO vs. ECO paradigm.

Eco vs Ego diagram for digital transformation

The fascinating element for me is that our new digital age is actually better supported by reverting back to a more tribal/communal leadership and team model. Studies of indigenous peoples across the globe have shown that their more collegiate, collaborative and ecology based decision making processes, where everyone has a say and everyone holds accountability, where leaders change as the skills required change and where team success is sought above individual achievement they are quicker, less risky, more flexible and more able to react to the environments they find themselves in. The irony that we are increasingly needing less “tradition” and more “ancient” methods is not lost on me as we approach the highest level of technological advancement our species has ever achieved.

This brings some unique challenges.

Firstly, leaders, who were once “power” centred, now need to embrace consensus over command. They need to re-engineer a hierarchy into a community. They need to accept that they are just one of many voices, not a single voice of the many. In reality, this takes a pretty special kind of leader. They can be hard to find and are often viewed as too Maverick, too (r)evolutionary, too anti-tradition. But, if successful in their ambition, their leadership and “power” becomes a thing of real impact and change. These are pretty special individual's, emotionally intelligent, culturally astute and very comfortable in their own skins.

Secondly, and potentially even more important, is that teams that are currently comfortable being told what to do under a command and control culture need to change. Many will be unconcerned about accountability and little stretched in terms of individual thinking. Their challenge now is to embrace ideas such as persuasion and influence over task completion, of operating beyond the job title versus staying within their comfort zone, managing their “Boss” and peers as much as their teams.

Thirdly, all of this has to happen as quickly as possible, without too much disruption and whilst 'business as usual' is still delivered successfully.

No wonder this to be carefully planned, deeply considered and invariably have some form of an external support structure to help all those involved stay focussed on both the here and now and the long term.

Whilst there are three more key themes to explore more to come, I see these two interrelated themes, your people and their successful collaboration, as of critical importance to allow organisations of any size the chance of successfully evolving into a digitally centred team that can go far together rather than fast individually.

We explored some of these themes in Mel Murphy (Marketing Director at the Royal Academy of Dance) and I's chat at the Digital Transformation Conference 2018. You can watch the 'fireside chat' in full below:

If you would like to arrange for Steve to come and have a chat about digital transformation, then feel free to get in touch.