Coffee & Change

Coffee & Change
SparkOptimus Team
Written by
Adrian Hornsby
The SparkOptimus Blog Team
December 15, 2022

<div class="insights_cta-component">This blog was inspired by chapter 7 (“People Change”) of our new book Disruption in Action and the online panel discussion with 20 woman business leaders on leading the people change in digital we hosted based on it.</div>

Angie is a digital leader at a large multinational. Every two or three months she meets for coffee with a group of peers in different industries to catch up and share change stories.

Angie: Hi everyone, and good to see you all again. Is it ok if I start, because I’ve got something I’d like to get your thoughts on. This quarter we did a survey at our company asking people what pain points they were having with digital, and the responses were pretty challenging. The top ones were all things like, ‘Where do I start?’ ‘Do I need to reinvent myself?’ ‘Do I need to learn super-complicated stuff like neural nets?’ There were also a lot of concerns about digital really being used to police people, or replace them. We thought we’d get specific problems, but this was more a general feeling of fear! We’re trying to reassure people, but that doesn’t make it go away, and I think it’s really slowing down our transformation efforts.

Bea: Right – there’s a lot of fear out there. And with these kinds of existential questions, you can’t answer them because they’re bottomless! But I think they all come from people having an essential story of tech being scary and squeezing people out, and that’s what you need to change. You need to give them a story of tech being great and helping people succeed.

Angie: Right. But how do I do that?

Bea: Well at our company, we recently did a survey too, but we asked people what were their pain points with the current business, not with digital. Then we did a 24 hour hackathon to see what solutions we could come up with using tech, and already, people were really interested. Next we piloted the best ones, and when we started getting positive customer feedback, that really nailed the story. People wanted the solutions, and they wanted those happy customers for their own operations.

Charlie: Yes, to counter fear, you need to give people something concrete. Solving problems they know already is great, or something really simple we did with our new e-commerce platform was to make this funky little visualisation. It just showed a map of the world, and every time we made a sale, it popped up live on the map with an animation. It was of no practical use really, but it got managers going, and suddenly they were much more interested in the platform, and the data, and learning about what they could do with it. Which is funny because a few months earlier, we’d offered training on data analytics, and we’d struggled to get people. So I think it’s important to bring a little fun. Don’t just talk about algorithms and updates – share the beautiful part. Because it can be beautiful.

Daria: I love that. And it really shows how as digital leaders, we can only achieve so much by pulling people along. For change to happen, people have to feel inspired themselves, so it becomes self-propelling at ground level. That’s also why we now always do our digital projects inside the business with mixed teams. We used to have teams of digital specialists working on cool stuff, but like that, it was too easy to become a clique and for everyone else to think, ‘Oh, digital’s not for me.’ But now we always create teams with some specialists and some corporate veterans. And they’re great because they really know the business and the customers and the pain points to focus on, like Bea was talking about. And they also give us credibility in the main business, because they’re the ones people look to when they’re thinking about their own jobs. It’s the veterans that make the story.

Bea: Exactly! We do mixed teams too, and we make a real point of shopping the stories round. We have two people in comms who have the job of getting personal stories from teams and customers in the digital pilots, and putting them out through all our channels so people hear about them.

Angie: I see – it’s a real story-telling effort. Well that’s amazing advice on how to get a groundswell moving, but what about leadership? I get the feeling they’re scared too, but what do they need?

Charlie: I think you have to be concrete with them also. Digital means new ways of working that senior management simply didn’t experience when they were making their way up. So in our company, every year we do a leadership exercise where we put our senior management in charge of an e-store for two days. It’s a real eye-opener for them, and it does two things. Firstly, they see how much faster things move in digital, and how, to respond at that speed, people have to be making decisions much lower down. It just doesn’t make sense to be going back and forth to a boss who isn’t in front of the data. Our senior managers of course have all been schooled in how digital organisations have flatter hierarchies and push operational decisions down, but it’s another thing to see it first-hand. Then the second thing is that it puts senior management up close with customers for those two days. I think it’s very easy when you’re at the top to become more and more involved in higher-level problems and abstractions, but when you’re running an e-store yourself, and faced with a customer who just wants their widget – it’s a great reality check! It’s funny though, because even though we all need these reality checks, and they create a lot of value, they’re always the first thing to get dropped from peoples’ calendars.

Bea: Ha – that’s true! And I agree it’s important leaders stay grounded in reality, but I’d also like to add something about vision, because I think that’s important too. I know in our company, a lot of our leaders have come up internally, and been part of building it in a certain way, and that means it’s not always easy for them to embrace doing something radical to it. But if you don’t have that desire for change at the top, nothing happens. The next level down gets the signal to stay in the comfort zone, and that gets passed down and down through the company. So something we do to keep the vision fresh at the top is regularly send our leaders to visit to tech companies and round tables, and they even did a trip to Silicon Valley. That’s a terrible cliché, I know, but they got some meaningful things out of it. In particular, I can remember our COO coming back and saying, ‘Wow, there really is a very different way to run a global company.’ And it was things like, they have five layers to their hierarchy, and we have 16; or, they have a strategy with three points, and we have 20 strategic priorities, as well as six key pillars and nine drivers and what not. It’s fundamental stuff, but like Charlie was saying, it’s concrete. So I think leaders need that concrete example of a different kind of company to really build the vision and the desire to change.

Daria: I agree with that, but also, I know for my board at least, there have to be concrete business numbers in there too. Maybe we’re more conservative, but as soon as I start talking about vision, the senior leadership is bound to say, ‘Show me the money!’ So for all our C-level meetings, I make sure I go in with a clear business case. Something like: here are the opportunities for AI in our industry, here’s how we can use it to lower costs and drive sales, here’s the 5 year plan with projections, and so on. So I just want to add that to the mix, because for us, that’s what gets the funds, and gives us the licence to play.

Angie: Alright! So to sum up, I just need to convince leaders to take a reality check, form a new vision, and show them the money! Easy!

Daria: That’s right! No – as we all know, it’s very complex. And even though we’re supposed to be digital leaders, the real challenges are always in these kinds of people questions. But that makes me think of one last thing – and I wonder if anyone else has experienced this: when leading a digital transformation, I find it’s often best to lead from behind. By which I mean, there are so many different people involved, and different functions and moving parts throughout the company, that if you try leading on all fronts, you end up leading on none. But if you give parts of the transformation away to people, and lead more from behind, while letting them feel like they’re driving it and getting the wins, it works much better. But it takes a slightly lower-ego leadership style. Does anyone recognise that?

Bea: Yes, definitely. In fact I think lower ego goes for a number of aspects of digital: you have to listen to data, let go of opinions, push decisions down, empower others.

Charlie: Using tech to empower people is exactly what digital is all about!

Daria: They just need the tech and some positive stories to believe that it’s for them.

Angie: This coffee should be one of the stories!

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