Successful digital transformation for safe, creative and equitable spaces

“The real frontier of modernity is not artificial intelligence; it is emotional and social intelligence.” Timothy R. Clark

Part of critical systems thinking is about understanding the bigger picture – understanding that we are always a small part of a bigger whole, wherever we are positioned in a team, organisation or society. We always have things to learn and different perspectives to consider. We are constantly calling on our innate needs to belong and connect, but also to adapt and evolve. It’s like playing chess or any other game that requires strategy, tactics, pattern recognition and intentional practice.

Adapting to today’s world 

Today’s world is constantly evolving and increasing in complexity as technology connects us more and more. In this interconnected space, the human qualities of collaboration become the defining factor for competitive advantage, innovation and inclusion. Through all my work on inclusion, innovation, human relationships and team dynamics, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to creating the conditions for this collaboration to happen, but we do have common needs that must be met in order to thrive in our human systems. There is room for aligned definitions and an agreed common vision for the way forward – for me as an individual, for us as a team and for us as an organisational system. 

The way we think, act and interact in these spaces is always a question of balance – a dance between the extremes that humans revert to when they are fearful, threatened or uncertain, or conversely, thriving, curious, engaged and safe. It is an eternal dance between stability and flexibility, independence and interdependence, ego and eco, to name but a few. The common space in between these extremes is where the action happens and is the starting point for building a more inclusive space where people can thrive. However, we must understand the human reactions to change and uncertainty before looking to design a strategy to create safer spaces. We humans are creatures of habit and will very quickly revert to known behaviour, assumptions and habits that, ironically, feel safe!

Safe spaces can be defined as an environment where we can show up as ourselves, bring our ideas into the mix, speak up without fear of reprisal and healthily challenge our colleagues. As Amy Edmonson states, psychological safety isn’t about ‘being nice’, just as it isn’t about the absence of threat or challenge – it is about the presence of connection. To connect as humans, we need to feel accepted for who we are, heard, valued and included.

Intentionality and deliberate practice

I remember learning chess when I was young and my Dad and I used to play regularly. I would always get impatient as he thought about his next move, and to me it felt like we were wasting time. In fact, it was a great lesson in using silence constructively, sitting with intentionality and constantly looking at the bigger picture.

“By all means examine the games of the great chess players, but don’t swallow them whole. Their games are valuable not for their separate moves, but for their vision of chess, their way of thinking.” Anatoly Karpov

Anatoly Karpov tells us not to try to imitate the games of grand chess masters in our own games – not to imitate moves that we don’t really understand or cannot relate to our environment or game. But why not? It’s a grandmaster’s move, it must be good! They have success and I will have success! But blindly copying moves would be too easy – just like copying ‘models that work elsewhere’ would be too easy for the complex subject of human systems. This would entail trying to follow someone else’s train of thought, someone else’s reasoning and understanding of the different interactions and reactions to change, as well as their positioning of interpersonal subjects in their ecosystems – all to then try to use them to widen our perspective and understand our specific context and style. What is happening in our current system? Are people engaged, quiet or silent? Is there curiosity or cynicism – or both?

James Clear tells us in his book, Atomic Habits, about the importance of looking at the system when wanting to change habits sustainably, and that if we don’t succeed it is often because we haven’t addressed the type of system we need for this change and not because we don’t want to change. And this is also true on an organisational level. 

This systemic understanding is pivotal to understanding the foundational building blocks of an inclusive environment and creating ‘brave’ collaboration. This starts with awareness: self-awareness of who we are and our social identity, and then awareness of our impact on others. The second step is the systemic awareness of how to use our awareness and given position in the system to address what is needed to create a safe and equitable environment where all voices are welcome, where together we can move to a place of ‘understanding’, where people feel free to experiment, and test what works and what doesn’t. 

We cannot move onto enacting systems change without first looking at change itself. Change is notoriously misunderstood and seen as ‘hard’, or something that is bolted on to a project if financially possible. I don’t challenge the fact that it can be hard sometimes, but I do challenge the fact that it should be an ‘after thought’ that is bolted on if budget allows. It should instead be an integral, intentional and indeed a foundational part of any discussion on change: organisational change, culture change, self-empowered pilots, introducing a new tool, changing the HRIS systems, moving to a platform model, etc.

COVID – one of the biggest imposed change experiments the world has ever known –highlighted for us:

1.    The capacity human beings have to adapt when they need to; 

2.    The way the human brain is wired for certainty, autonomy and human connection;

3.    What happens when we have time to actually and consciously “go inside” to find out what really motivates us and how we want to lead our lives. 

During COVID I surveyed 100 leaders on whether or not they felt that their organisations would take the lessons of COVID on board, and 85% thought that this would be unlikely. The way that we humans have gone back to ‘what was’ (even if different hybrid models have been developed) also shows how quickly we can forget these lessons if we are not intentional about practicing different habits and developing different systems. However, creating different thinking and different conditions in an existing system requires courage, creativity and developmental practice as well as intentionality. 

Being consistent: creative courage

We know that innovation happens on the edges of systems and that change agents keep things under the radar until the time is right to disrupt the status quo. We also know that not everything is as it looks and that there are always more implicit dynamics and roles in any human system. In Edgar Schein’s cultural model, we also find that the invisible tip of the iceberg that is understanding culture is to understand these unwritten codes – the basic implicit assumptions of a culture. This can be as simple as what you wear, what car you drive and who you go for lunch with. We are talking about our own assumptions, which are by their very nature implicit, unless we make them explicit deliberately.

One of the ways of doing this is by creating a dialogue within the system and a different space for this to happen. There are numerous team-building and team-based activities which skirt around this issue but often don’t get down to the uncomfortable core of what assumptions exist individually or collectively. Do you see teams skirting around questions and leaving things unsaid, leading to toxic behaviour? Do you see people looking at the more innovative parts of the organisation and coining it as ‘not proper work’? It takes courage and often creative thinking to step away from this and propose different ways of doing things and obtaining results. These practices need to be designed intentionally, as does the process of creating safe and equitable spaces.

Karolin Helbig and Minette Norman explain several ideas of ‘how’ to create a safe place in their new psychological safety playbook (listen to the podcast here). There is safety within collaboration but it takes time to develop. The digital ‘connected’ workplace needs to be safer and more human, and we need to bust the existing implicit (or explicit!) myths as we go: myths of what is safe – being nice, playing not to lose and staying within certain boundaries of the system. We also need to role model more courageous, difficult and motivating conversations to create a space where people can show up as themselves and bring their creativity with them.

Thinking about bridging the gap between digital and human is encapsulated in the visual below, which shows the constant interaction between technology and human skills: one without the other means that the conveyor belt doesn’t operate smoothly. We need to embrace digital, but also accept what digital cannot do: human collaboration. And we need to create the conditions for this to happen.

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As leaders, we must think like designers: ask questions, understand the emotions and needs of those sharing our space, and constantly learn from what works well and what doesn’t to create an environment of care and collaboration to drive high performance and teams that thrive.

This process is not linear, nor is it about binary thinking, but rather an ongoing and iterative learning process. It is a search for balance between intuition and logic; structure and chaos; concept and execution; experimentation and perfection; the constructive and the destructive; and the comfortable and the uncomfortable. This system is an intentional and human-centred way of working and is an integral part of digital upskilling. We must create the skills and culture for these conditions to emerge and enhance human collaboration. We must open up the discussion on the emotional as well as the cognitive side of the process to allow new ideas to come to the fore. We must suspend judgement for people to bring all their ideas without fear of reprisal. We must see failure as a normal part of the process, encouraging self-awareness to allow different perspectives and intentional use of our strengths and privilege to create the space for collective wisdom.

Although the words sound softer, ‘care and collaboration’ is actually the hardest and most challenging option, which is why people don’t want to choose it. ‘Compare and compete’, which is the status quo in many organisations, is easier than engaging in the vulnerability that is stepping into a new practice, letting go of old habits and assumptions and building a more open and accepting space.

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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