Over the past month I’ve been fortunate to work with some very capable senior leaders in organisations facing the amorphous challenge of “digital transformation”. At first I struggled to nail this jelly to the wall. I had to account for why, if the change is driven by computers and the internet, the solutions so often involve people and Post It notes. The story below has emerged through the telling as I’ve attempted to herd those human and non-human actors together…
1. The water in which we all swim
Walk down any street in the land and see how quickly you can spot the following:
- A person walking while using a smartphone (give yourself 2 points)
- Free public wifi (3 points)
- A digital display screen (5 points)
- A telco’s fibre broadband street cabinet (8 points)
- A hashtag on a poster (10 points)
A decade ago these thing hardly existed. Now they are so unremarkable that we hardly notice their ubiquity.
“Wired is NOT a magazine about computers or the internet — which is now the water in which we all swim.” — Wired magazine contributor guidelines
With this ubiquity come new user needs and increased expectations: to be able to do everyday things digitally with ease – always on, in the context I choose, wherever I happen to be at the time. The “Martini proposition” has come to pass more completely than the cheesy futurists of the mid-Noughties ever imagined.
How quickly has our wonder at being able to get online without wires given way to indignation that there are still places where this is not possible! Once wifi hotspots were a “value added service”. Today “notspots” are a public policy issue.
But there’s more: a whole new way of relating to the world.
- Less forward planning: “Text me when you get there” not “Meet at noon under the station clock”
- More ambient awareness: “I liked your status update” not “Thank you for your letter”
- The levelling effect of information abundance: “If you liked this video, subscribe to my Youtube channel” not “Coming next on BBC1”
To older generations the new blitheness may seem misplaced, gauche, disrespectful even. The history graduate in me prefers a longer view. These changes mark a natural reversion to human norms, a long overdue riposte to the machine-age tyrannies of clocking in and clerical work and one-size-fits-all mass media.
Old or new, this culture shapes our expectations of all organisations, whether they be businesses, charities, governments, political parties, whatever. As users, we expect digital service to respond with productive informality – spontaneous, personal, collaborating as our equal – just like our real Facebook friends do.
Where am I going with all this? Believe me, it has big implications for organisations’ IT strategies.
2. Sharks Must Swim Constantly or They Die!
With this rising tide of expectations and changing social norms, people demand that organisations of all kinds be always-on and spontaneous, personal and collaborative. In service design and delivery we need to put users at the centre – often diverse, complex, contradictory users. No two days will be the same because the mix of users and their specific needs is constantly changing.
I’m no accelerationist. The direction of social change matters more to me than the perceived advance of technology. But we’ll never be responsive enough if every change has to be made manually or mediated by the cumbersome apparatus of 20th century programme offices and project management.
It is said that if a great white shark stops swimming it’ll die from lack of oxygen. Big organisations that can’t respond at their customers’ pace deserve to meet an analogous fate.
So it’s just as well that the pesky computers and networks that caused this headache in the first place can also help us to cure it.
- The cloud is just a commercial model, a more flexible way of buying access to computing power and storage: “Give me 5 minutes, I’ll spin up a new production environment” not “We’ve raised a purchase order for the new servers to be installed in the data centre next month”
- Continuous integration is a fancy way of saying we run services with rapidly evolving software: “All the automated tests are passing this afternoon” not “we’ve booked 2 weeks of testing just ahead of the go-live milestone”
- Open source software and open standards make it easier than ever to stand on the shoulders of giants: “I’ve fixed your code and raised a pull request” not “We’ll do an impact assessment if you file a change request”
Together these technology patterns form a powerful, automated and efficient platform for more responsive business. By standing on this platform, we’ll be better placed to meet our customers’ demands in the moment, and to shift with them when they change.
So what’s stopping us? Maybe it’s our tools.
3. The Jean-Wearing Post It Note Wranglers
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us” — John Culkin on Marshall McLuhan
In other news, Microsoft Office turned 25 years old last August. Let that sink in for a bit. Big, serious organisations have spent the past quarter century re-creating themselves in the image of PowerPoint, Excel, Project and Outlook. Tragically these tools were forged for a culture that no longer exists – a business world that reached its apogee just a few minutes before the birth of the World Wide Web. No wonder so many workplaces now feel like Life on Mars.
That’s where the sticky notes come in.
Haters gonna hate, but those “jean-wearing Post It note wranglers” have it right. They feel the urgency to harness change for their customers’ advantage. They understand that change means lots of small pieces loosely joined, scribbled, sorted, peeled off and repositioned every minute of the working day.
There’s more to it of course:
- laptops that boot in seconds not minutes
- wall-to-wall wifi for lag-free online collaboration
- big screens to make performance visible in real time
Those things all help too, but by now they should really be hygiene factors. “Technology at least as good as people have at home” was the target when the Cabinet Office chose new kit for thousands of civil servants.
Often we find that sticky notes, whiteboard walls and Sharpie markers are the perfectly adapted tools for this way of working.
They are also an essential common currency within multidisciplinary teams. Business people may struggle to understand a technology architecture diagram; developers’ eyes may glaze over at a P&L statement. But they can all gather round and have a face-to-face conversation about a simple thought captured in felt tip pen on an index card.
4. Dress For the Job You Want
… we have come to value individuals and interactions over processes and tools — Manifesto for Agile Software Development
And so we come full circle: it turns out that the productive informality we increasingly expect of service providers is also a killer attitude for getting things done in teams.
- Planning is best done a little and often: “What’s the next most important thing for us to do?” not “What dependences will impact our Gantt chart in 18 months’ time?”
- Ambient awareness forms a greater part of governance: “I can see from your wall” not “I’m waiting for your monthly report”
- Deference born of information scarcity is dead: “We worked it out together on the Slack channel” not “We saw the CEO’s strategy announcement on the Intranet”
The new culture is a work in progress, and it is far from perfect. The original Agile Manifesto authors were notoriously male and white. We need many more balanced teams in which diverse voices are welcome.
This matters because members of high-performing teams bring more of themselves to their work. Suits must mix with t-shirts, uniforms of all kinds considered harmful.
The broader its collective perspectives, the more empathy a team can build with all its users. What if users were in the room with us? Would they feel at home? Would they understand the words we use? Would they feel valued and respected?
Because workers are users too. And if the way we live our lives is changing, then so must the way we do our work. We can’t truly deliver one without the other.
This is the water in which we all swim.
- The customer expectations
- The automation and efficiency
- The new (old) tools
- The working culture of productive informality
If our organisations are to succeed, we can’t pick just one or two of them. Like Pokémon, we’ve gotta catch ‘em all.
Flickr Photo credits: Gareth Williams and Elen Nivrae. Thank you!