Learning the cultural language of digital transformation

Find a burning platform. Set a rhythm. Hire rule-breakers.

These aren’t phrases you’d normally find in a digital transformation blueprint. Yet they are what an organisation needs to translate a new complex strategy into a cultural language that its people can understand. Unfortunately, this is also where many organisations stumble.

Digital transformation is driven by advancing technology and higher consumer expectations but any organisation pursing this agenda knows that the real change lives not on its digital platforms but among its people and their way of working. It is here that the biggest shift needs to happen.

“Organisations are made up of people, culture, processes and governance that serve to reinforce a way of working,” explains Cameron Gough, general manager of Australia Post’s Digital Delivery Centre.

“The moment you decide to go outside that way of working, those four things act like an auto-immune system that kicks in to kill off the unfamiliar.”

“So if you really want to change the way you work then you must also focus on changing the things that stop you from being different. This could mean everything from internal processes and governance to your rewards system and how people move within the organisation. The new reality is constant change.”

Here, Gough talks about the value of small, multi-functional teams, why digital transformation shouldn’t be an organisational goal and how to recruit based on skills and needs rather than job titles.

What does this new reality mean for internal collaborations, particularly in government?

The traditional internal structures and management models for large organisations today have evolved from an era that focused on managing for efficiency. They revolved around control, hierarchy, measurement and managing people doing relatively repetitive process-based tasks.

That focus has now shifted with many modern organisations now wanting to tap into people’s creative capacity. And a different organisation model is needed. This means having to shift to a model of work that suits the focus and needs of the fast-changing digital world we now find ourselves in. And this will look different for every organisation and industry.

One effective model of work involves setting up small, multi-functional teams of people from different parts of the organisation and empowering them to pursue a market opportunity or business outcome. The key to unlocking the full potential of these teams lies in the degree of autonomy they enjoy. Setting these teams free can be an unsettling learning curve for an organisation, especially those organised along traditional functional lines. But the benefits of autonomy will soon shine through in terms of innovation and agility.

Is it possible to bring together people with varying levels of technological skills to support a digital transformation?

Yes, provided they have an open mindset and willingness to learn and change. It’s not about everyone working in the same way. Focus on establishing a cadence, or rhythm of work, and introduce regular synchronisation points to keep teams aligned.

Set a cadence of two-week cycles, six-week cycles and three monthly cycles, for instance. This provides opportunities for people to synchronise the work they’re doing and prevents them from going on divergent courses. Introduce feedback loops to reinforce continuous learning and improvement.

Don’t prescribe how they should work but make it clear they need to come together on certain points and work to these cycles. Over time, you’ll find that this cadence and synchronisation gets people working more cohesively.

What’s an ideal starting point to digital transformation?

Don’t make it your goal. If your goal is digital transformation, then that’s the wrong starting point. For example, your goal might be to create an organisation that meets and exceeds consumer expectations, is innovative, has high levels of agility and drives the business forward.

Find an area where there’s a burning platform for transformation and the organisational support to drive it. That’s not the only way to do it but it’s not a bad place to start. And looking back, you’ll realise that you just pursued digital transformation.

Is there a point in that trajectory where things run the risk of going pear-shaped?

There isn’t usually just one point. There are many points along the way. Transformation is never going to be a smooth process and you need to mobilise the right people who see their role as dealing with the hurdles. The key to transformation is getting leaders who know the right way to think.

What are the giveaway traits of such people?

We look for people who are very curious, non-hierarchical, non-traditional and always questioning how things are done. People who are rule-breakers but in a good way because they often question the rules that reinforce a way of working that doesn’t allow for change.

We also look for people who are highly collaborative. Change is not a bull in a china shop. It’s a group of people who carefully nurture others along the journey, and get them to believe in the vision of where we want to go and how we’re getting there.

Another important trait is being comfortable working on things that may not be immediately part of their position description. In fact, position descriptions can be the enemy of change because you want people to be open to evolving what they do and how they do it as the organisation changes.

So what interview questions do you ask?

Tell us about the latest thing you’ve read that interests you. What do you do in your spare time? If the person is a developer, ask about the latest trends or a language they’re interested in learning.

Their answers will give you a very quick indication of whether they are truly curious or not. Also ask them to talk about something they’ve recently worked on. You’ll get a lot more colour there than if you asked what they would do if they were hired.

Often you’re getting people to do things that haven’t been done before and because you don’t know what the next challenge is, look for general traits and a learning mindset rather than specific experience.

Let’s have you answer a slightly different version of that first interview question - what three books would you recommend to someone leading digital transformation?

Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux, The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford, and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.

And finally, what top three things should organisations think about before starting on digital transformation?

First, recognise that creating sustainable change at scale is more important than simply changing the way a team works. It's just as important to change the culture, people, processes and governance models of an organisation to ensure they support the new way of working.

Second, accept that sustainable transformation often needs a change in culture that sometimes means different leaders and people.

Third, recognise that digital transformation is not something that you start and end. It’s establishing a new way of working in an organisation around constant change and evolution.

And if I can slip in a fourth, don’t overthink it. Take a starting position and learn and adapt as you go along.

This article is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to be specific advice for your business needs.

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