Digital transformation : Building organisational courage

“I learnt that courage was not the absence of fear but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid but he who conquers that fear.” Nelson Mandela

 The feeling of constantly and courageously stepping over your fear can be applied to all manner of transformation or change: a child walking into the classroom for the first time, speaking out in a meeting, telling someone you love them, or taking on a hugely challenging job. We all have these experiences and tell ourselves the stories that go with them. Courage means different things to different people. The word comes from the Latin ‘cor’, meaning heart, and was originally understood to mean ‘speaking one’s mind by telling one’s heart’. Translated into real life, this means being vulnerable and walking the talk of turning up as ourselves. If we think about that at an individual level, we can all relate to it, but what does it look like collectively and how can we do it?

Creating future ecosystems

Building ecosystems has become one of the biggest concepts not only in today’s corporate arena, but also in the much larger global economic and social conversation. In a relationship economy, there are new notions being developed around this concept, but what do they mean and what do they look like? There are three pivotal aspects to agile ecosystems:

–      a shift from ego to eco – from ‘I’ to ‘we’; this is happening all over the world with a move to more regenerative and sustainable models such as kate Raworth’s doughnut economic model, or the UN sustainable goals, and emphasises the collective over the individual

–      continuous learning and learning agility – the capacity to hold and manage different perspectives, for which we are not trained at any stage of our education; we must learn from failure to manage uncertainty and constantly grapple with new skills.

–      the human reaction to change – a change in mindset as well as understanding our reaction and immunity to change in a fast-moving world; this is evident in the conundrum of opposing cultures, e.g. innovation and expectation (proactive) vs. business as usual (reactive)

We are required to think about the bigger picture, be that our family, team, organisation or community, and constantly zoom in and out to navigate the critical ‘systems thinking’ landscape. Where do the dots connect? Where are connections missing? Where do we need to strengthen, change, innovate or disrupt for the greater good?

Cultivating future ecosystems is about growth and value:

·     growing fundamentally different relationships: individual relationships, collective relationships (teams of teams, Communities of Practice)

·     growing collaboration: understanding relationships in the system, boundary management, interdependent leadership skills, emotional agility

·     growing potential: self-development, team development, growth mindset, collective vision, co-responsibility

·     growing value: new operating / business models, cultural maturity, scaling systems change, ‘dynamic’ and ‘inclusive’ talent systems

Self, systems and stories

It is so difficult in a world in which we have to name, categorise and figure everything out, to box things into understandable packages.  I don’t know if this is possible with human behaviour, but we frequently try to so as to create something more comfortable and familiar. But there is nothing quite as intangible as behavioural change because it is perfectly imperfect. Whenever I tell a story of cultural transformation, I always find a new angle and something more to say, such is the beauty of the diverse subject of the human dimension of digital change. If we accept that change is the only constant in life, it is incumbent upon us to delve into our reaction to and relationship with it as humans.

Systemic change across organisations is motivated by curiosity, different perspectives and creating connections, but it is driven by courage, i.e. stepping over our individual and collective fears. Post-pandemic, we are diving into the complex issues of the hybrid workplace and dynamic work strategies where people are empowered and both the customer and employee experience are central to the debate. We all tell ourselves stories about our role in the system, our identity and what we stand for, but we cannot help enact systems change until we have asked ourselves if we are willing and brave enough to ‘change ourselves’, to have the courageous conversations and create the environment for this to happen. If we are, can we venture into the exciting possibility of how to scale this courage across the organisation?

Change has never been as prevalent and exponential as it is today. How many times do you check your mobile phone in a day? How much data do you personally generate every hour? How many new technologies change our habits (for better or for worse!) every week? Something as simple as the speed at which information flows over boundaries is the new power structure shaping our society, whether we like it or not. This forces a reaction from our ego whilst commanding us to build an ‘eco’ if we want to function in a hyperconnected world. Whilst digital transformation is of course about business outcomes and technology, it is also about people and their reactions to change. The shift to more networked ways of working has meant that we must have a good understanding of business ecosystems, but of network dynamics and human connections too. This entails moving away from a pyramid-shaped, hierarchical approach to a more networked one, moving from ownership to partnership and from fear to courage.

Data is a powerful lever for change, but digital transformation unfortunately has a high failure rate because being ‘data driven’ requires courage, effort, risk and a fundamental understanding of human-centred organisational design and processes. It is not easy to bridge the gap between proof of concept, which can be creative, new and fun, and scaling it up. To be successful, it must create an experience and value, be based on a clear vision, analysis and strategy for partnering, start small, adopt change and build momentum. If the system doesn’t support, recognise or reward cultural changes, there will be no sustainable change at all. Organisations often feature two co-existing cultures and systems, and we must ‘perform and transform’ in such cases, as Marc Fontaine explains (listen to the podcast here).

How can we bring them together? How does a business evolve to enable people to develop, to enable a culture in which people can bring their full potential to work and innovation can thrive? This is one of the biggest challenges for organisations today in terms of transformation, whether the culture is deliberately designed for this or not. If it is not, the impact is huge because the culture becomes very toxic and it can disable rather than enable potential, both individually and collectively. It can also be very demotivating: people don’t see why they should be following a particular course of action, nor do they see the value of what they are doing. Consequently, wellbeing and motivation decrease, and people can feel paralysed by the unwritten yet prevalent codes of the culture. People silently obey these codes, and the politics that are at play within the different systems and management models. This is where inclusive systems help, by building for unity rather than uniformity, and making the landscape more transparent and as safe as possible for people. There is much more scope in organisations today, with the rise of a more networked approach, to create bottom-up momentum and processes to harness collective wisdom, as well as a whole platform for opportunities to drive change, not only in business processes, but also in the way we think, show up and work.

What does all this mean for leadership?

 Managing ecosystems can be a new and difficult task for leaders. There are challenging differences between internal and wider external ecosystems, such as less formalisation, invisible power dynamics, no organisational chart or a lack of data insight across ecosystems. We all need to be wary of our own unconscious bias and the bias of the system. In fact, we all react from a place of negative bias because that is the way the brain is wired. According to Edgar Schein’s culture model, the key to understanding culture is to understand the unwritten codes, the basic implicit assumptions of a culture. These can be as simple as what you wear, what car you drive or who you go for lunch with. After all, bias and assumptions are by their very nature implicit unless we make them explicit deliberately. One of the easiest ways to do so is by creating dialogue within the system and a different space for this to happen. There are numerous team-building and similar activities which skirt around this issue but often don’t drill down to the uncomfortable core of what individual or collective assumptions exist, and how we can act on the fact that they are now explicit. There are essential questions to be asked about the environment we create. How inclusive is it? How effective are the ways of working (in terms of tangible results and wellbeing)? What type of experience does it provide (for both the employees and the customer)? Human systems are about deliberately developing systemic leadership, becoming systems catalysts, and managing the system. To do so, we must foster understanding, experiment, learn and anticipate. In this context, I find it helpful to bear the following points in mind:

Be mindful of culture

Never underestimate how pivotal culture, be it organisational or national, is to the success of transformation. Both need to be taken into account, understood and then built upon for their differences and strengths. Multidisciplinary / multifunctional teams are part of ecosystems and bring diversity and agility.

Done is better than perfect

It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work perfectly first time – involve people, test and iterate. This is about idea generation and agility, not creating the perfect solution. Help create an inclusive environment where people can interact and a learning culture built on the empathy of understanding user needs and behaviours before collaborating in a more open, empowered environment.

Encourage intrapreneurship and the mindset it brings

Unconscious bias always exists, regardless of the individuals or the team makeup. We must learn to suspend judgement, manage ourselves and ‘make it conscious’ by changing our cognitive habits to focus on curiosity, experimentation and inclusion. Allow people to work differently, and not just in the designated ‘innovation labs’ or ‘cool spaces’.

Turn individual stories into ecosystems of collaboration

Leaders require personal discipline to focus on their own objectives in a collective environment, and it can be helpful to have an accountability partner. Everyone has their own stories and perceptions. Collaboration sounds simple, but many organisations struggle to make it work. Traditional org charts and ways of working weigh down on the very concept, stifling the power these communities can create.

In conclusion, building organisational courage works and the time to start is now. Transformation needs to be addressed holistically: we must courageously own the transformation, create value differently, understand where we add value, and ensure that we equip all levels of the organisation. Only then will our hard work bear fruit.

Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems. 

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple PodcastSpotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course :

Suzie Lewis

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