Unpacking Transformation 2020, Part 8: Contradictions

A Guide To Subverting Digital Transformation Hype And Clearing Your Path To Discovery, Ignition & Growth

We’re a few weeks into lockdowns spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. The disruption to people’s lives and economies is massive. This opportunity is once in a lifetime (hopefully). S/N ratios are momentarily inverted but noise grows exponentially. It’s up to you to either block it or open the door.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” — Blaise Pascal

Building Immunity To Panic

Marketing contradicts logic and targets emotional triggers in order to create desire. Fear is the most powerful motivator and, in the B2B space, fear bundled with a promise is a reliable formula. As the world reacts to COVID-19 panic, marketers just got lucky. So did you.

Here’s the pitch: you are lagging in digital transformation and that’s why your business is going off the cliff during this global pandemic. Also, that’s why your distributed/remote/WFH teams are struggling.

Here’s the reality: we just got blasted with a dose of humanity and a chance to reflect on what important vs. what’s bullshit. Reflection and clarity lead to better decision-making.

Here’s the opportunity: every one of us is thrust full speed into change. The kickoff to change is the hardest part — and the part we usually fumble. The kickoff already happened and the ball is in play.

Pragmatism vs. Trends

Thought leaders have been selling an academic fantasy of digital transformation for decades. It doesn’t work. Here’s what does: stealthy, small scale initiatives that start with a wide berth. Determined non-conformists on a mission. Cross-pollinating, multidisciplinary teams of fewer that 5 people. Organic opt-in over forced buy-in. R&D in controlled-environments over spray & pray ‘org-wide.’

Transformation is about change leadership. There’s no “digital” that can fix human nature’s innate fear of change. Yesterday’s NYT ran an informative op-ed, “What 9/11 Taught Us About Leadership in a Crisis,” about leadership on a war footing.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Chris Fussell of the McChrystal Group share their experience with crisis leadership in a March 23, 2020 NYTimes op-ed (image: Declan & Company for NYT)

Mantra: Digital Transformation Isn’t Digital

Digital is like potential energy – businesses that embrace and implement technology effectively can unleash that stored energy. The humans are the keys to ignition. Further, digital is inevitable — even if it means waiting for the older workforce to age out and technology to mature.

The second point ignites fear and fuels the irrational notion that it’s possible to spend our way out of the hole. A consumption mindset. You don’t build organizational change on top of a consumption mindset any more than you’d build a health & fitness regime on top of a fast food diet.

Here’s a great piece of advice that just doubled in value:

Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead – through sloth, envy, resentment, self-pity, entitlement, all the mental habits of self-defeat. Avoid these qualities and you will succeed. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there. — Charlie Munger

3 Contradictions

  1. Slow down to speed up: there’s been a tendency to make fast technology purchasing decisions and ignore human roadblocks. Deal with human hurdles first to help your technology investments deliver on their potential.
  2. It’s non-linear: think in terms of an infinite loop and not a timeline. If your teams are planning with timelines/chevrons, it’s practically a guarantee of failure.
  3. It’s not digital: there’s 1 critical sticking point in the domain of digital transformation – change makes people wrong. If I’m asked to change the way I’m doing something, my default feeling is that I must be wrong. And my default reaction is to resist that possibility. Digital band-aids can’t fix human flaws. You have to identify & develop your rebels.

One great resource for decision-making strategies and dealing with our higher-level (logical) & lower-level (emotional) selves in a business setting is Ray Dalio’s recent book Principles: Life & Work. Along with being an enjoyable read that’s packed with wisdom and insights, it serves as a welcome contradiction to soundbite culture as he outlines the depth & breadth of creating systems for human cooperation while weaving technology into the fabric.

Try slowing down.

ICYMI here’s the introduction & article index to the Unpacking Transformation 2020 series.

Thomas Irre is the founder of HK5, LLC, Practical Business Technology and Mental Self-Defense for leaders & teams.