The inclusive journey through today’s tech landscape

“We have been so busy perfecting the means of travel that we have forgotten where we wanted to go.” – Arthur M. Young

Intentional upfront strategy

The word ‘strategy’ comes from the Greek στρατηγία (stratēgia), meaning “the art of troop leader; office of general, command, generalship”, and is defined as a general plan to achieve one or more long-term or overall goals under conditions of uncertainty. Indeed, planning for every eventuality and scenario so that we have everything covered is often how strategy is ‘done’ today, but is that enough? Strategy is not just about planning, and the predictable and formulated aspects – it can also emerge in response to evolving situations. Rapidly changing situations are of course the hallmark of complexity and uncertainty, and therefore we need to be able to adapt and respond to them as they happen.

Henry Mintzberg, a renowned academic and author in the field of business and management, talks about ‘crafting a strategy’ with his metaphor of craftsmanship, which intentionally liberates and uses emergence, creativity and adaptability to build the end product. This puts me in mind of the first time I tried my hand at pottery: my biggest challenge, apart from making something recognisable with the clay (I was trying to make a small bowl), was to accept the conditions it presented me with – I had less control and had to constantly reframe, create and adapt to achieve the result (which was a crafted but imperfect, round-ish object that I labelled a bowl!). But this lesson was important for me in terms of ambition and goals. I learned to take my time, to reframe the bigger picture and get creative; if the strategy does not produce the expected outcome, I need to take a different, more holistic approach and create an alternative plan of action, so to speak. Mintzberg explains: “In my metaphor, managers are craftsmen and strategy is their clay. Like the potter, they sit between a past of corporate capabilities and a future of market opportunities. And if they are truly craftsmen, they bring to their work an equally intimate knowledge of the materials at hand. That is the essence of crafting strategy”.

Marco Montalti |  Getty Images

It is so important to not become so embroiled in the hype of having a strategy that we don’t know where to go. This is particularly true in the race for technology and being so affected by ‘what we should be doing’ that we act out of FOMO. Garik Tate and I touch on this in our podcast entitled “Moving Past FOMO”, where we talk about taking that requisite step back to take stock of the business objectives and ask better questions (listen here). Matt Kleiman calls it ‘splashy technology syndrome’ in our recent podcast (listen here), and describes situations in which people desire digital transformation but are distracted by the current tech hype cycle, e.g. crypto, IoT, AI, etc. FOMO again takes over in the rush to use new tech, but any disappointment in the result reinforces the conservative bias. We must therefore step back and take the time to formulate what we really want, and our higher business objective for this technological investment.

I remember going in to consult with HR professionals on big data and, of course, the starting point was the systems already in place and the data in them – is it known, is it clean, is it relevant? The first step of any tech strategy is to ask curious questions. We need to constantly bust the myth that machine learning and AI will allow us to get amazing results and better insights, even without understanding what data is in our systems and what we want to measure. The better questions we ask, the better answers we will get, and great human and business expertise is required to ask great questions. It is not just about indiscriminate learning – after all, technology systems can only learn what we ask them to learn.

It is so easy to get lost in deliverables and the ‘doing’ that we forget to intentionally create the space to think about the overall vision or the business objective and look realistically and curiously at the current status quo and the desired direction of travel. We need to look internally at creating a flow of information, value and impact by meeting people, processes and technology where they are at, and looking from there at what could serve the future vision and where the biggest opportunities are, strategically, tactically and operationally.

The final piece to this puzzle is what digital and tech can automate, enhance and enable, and how we can build a model to include the diverse opinions and user groups we need in order to reflect our ambition, i.e. customers, markets, suppliers and employees. And it must be a model that works for us, whether that is a team, an organisation, a community, or society at large.

Democratising access to technology

If we have the model and the ‘why’, we then need to home in on who will help us get there. Technology is traditionally a man’s domain (or this is what the societal narrative was and still is) and we are struggling to bust these stereotypes sustainably, both in preparing a more diverse pipeline through education and in business in the tech industries. Technology is moving at breakneck speed, and we are still struggling to recruit women and other under-represented groups. ‘So what?’ you may ask. I don’t think I need to draw out the business case here for having diverse groups thinking about and involved in the product sets that define the use cases and functionalities of the users of an upcoming feature or technology, yet it still isn’t happening. This is where we need to think systemically, meet the system where it is at, accept that it is not reflecting what we need, and look at the system we are creating and what it needs to function optimally.

Diverse perspectives are one of the most powerful tools both for understanding systems and for creating innovation and inclusion. In fact, diversity in general is crucial: diversity of thought, of education, of background, of emotions, of ways of being and of states of mind to name but a few. But these are not reflected in the people who are defining the technology for today and tomorrow. This is worrying when we see the place that technology is taking in our everyday lives. Again, we need to take a step back and think systemically. Democratising access to technology is a multifaceted, complex problem which requires an understanding of multiple perspectives, experiences and voices. Digital transformation and technology have changed the rules of the game, and this topic has become a business and organisational strategic imperative to understand ecosystems and how to harness multiple perspectives and network dynamics.

We need to ensure that all individuals, regardless of their socioeconomic status, geographic location, gender, nationality, culture or other potential barriers, have the opportunity to access and benefit from technological advancements.

In the same way that leading and navigating business ecosystems requires different skills, so does ensuring that technology is used ethically and as an enabler for creating the conditions for people to thrive, whether this is in the workplace, the community or in society in general. It is never just about one group, or one strand of impact in today’s interconnected world. Democratising access to technology requires a versatile approach that addresses infrastructure, affordability, education, and more regenerative and distributed economic and business models. We need to develop sustainable models for technology access programmes that ensure long-term viability and explore different funding options to counter a lack of connectivity or infrastructure. Above all, we must have advocacy to enable the slowest change of all – that of hearts and minds and the mindset shift of moving away (into the unknown) from the way we’ve always done things around here. This is true of change on any scale, be it a team, an organisation or an entire institution.

Scaling inclusive adoption

Sustainability and scalability are words we hear bandied about a lot. However, they are an important part of any technology strategy. How are we going to fit it into the way we do things here? What habits do we need to change? What does the upskilling look like? How can we ‘plug it back into’ the mothership? These are questions I hear often, particularly when working in smaller, more agile satellite structures in organisations. I touch on this very point in my recent podcast with Anne-Marie Imafidon (listen here): the need for upskilling in organisations but also the need to understand that technology is not neutral and that we have agency and indeed a responsibility to act on this.

The issue of cultural and behavioural change for the adoption of a PoC (Proof of Concept), or a planned technology rollout is key for sustainable transformation in organisations and needs to be part of the upfront considerations and foundational blocks of any strategy for change. Many digital and tech projects are very exciting, with great PoCs or PoVs (Proof of Value), but then die a death because the business isn’t ready, it doesn’t fit the user need, or nobody has been prepared for what’s coming. The last point is the most important for me. We are once again back to understanding the human element of adopting new technology and creating new habits. Organisational stamina and an understanding of how to create this resilience and discipline is key to understanding how to create an adaptive environment where things are continually fit for purpose and where people and the business can thrive.

A culture of adoption can be scaled by channelling or eliminating fear to enhance the human mind because we must be at our best and most creative to deal with technology, particularly technology that we don’t necessarily understand but that is imposed on us to some extent. People need to understand why we are implementing this technology and what’s in it for them. They need to understand what it means for their identity and presence in their working environment, and any other aspects it could change either explicitly or implicitly. Engaging people as early as possible will help to prepare the ground. People fear the cutting edge but there will be lots of new opportunities and jobs in an AI world, and stepping over fear and doing it anyway is the path to creativity, and to crafting strategy as we go. Leaders should talk to people throughout the organisation to canvas opinion and start with the ‘non-exotic’ use of technology to simply improve the lives of their employees.

This reminds me of the first reactions to and discussions around hybrid, where people thought that asynchronous work meant no meetings, in the same way that flatter organisations means no boss, so I am free to do as I please, right? Wrong! In fact, in order for these flatter, more technologically enabled environments and structures to function, we need to be even more deliberate about roles and responsibilities, workload and accountability. It won’t work without the elements of a different style of leadership that are easy to list but hard to enlist: empowered, decentralised decision-making; fewer, more efficient meetings; asking not telling; and stepping in to guide, empathise and understand rather than blame and shame.

This is why the scalability aspect of any technological innovation or PoC to be industrialised needs to be addressed as early as possible in the process to allow time for humans to formalise, understand, accept and enact what they need to do to embrace the changes this will bring to their environment. Leaders need to create an environment where these points of view can be seen, heard, exchanged and built upon way before it happens on a larger scale.

Successfully scaling technology adoption is ultimately about people and requires a strategic approach that includes both planning and emergence. The sensemaking has to be clear before we look at meeting the system and people where they are at. Organisations, especially large and established ones, often have deeply ingrained processes, cultures, and systems that are resistant to change and afraid of failure, both individually and collectively. We need to create awareness through stakeholder engagement and empathy; create success stories one chapter at a time by creating diverse product teams; fail explicitly and learn from it as we pilot; pilot small PoCs and iterate; create comprehensive upskilling training; and continue to build advocacy through strategic and operational sponsorship, communities of practice, peer learning and the transparent and continuous questioning of the status quo.

There is no one-size-fits-all template for doing this, as each organisation and context is different, but as I often say when I talk about inclusion and innovation – every person is unique and our differences are what make us unique, but we have common neuroscientific reactions and basic needs for connection, belonging and approval that make us the same and keep us in the imperfect and complex frame of being human.

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 Podcast, Spotify, and Google Podcast.

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

Suzie Lewis

Suzie Lewis

Discover fresh perspectives and research insights

Sign Up to receive our latest news and transformation insight direct to your inbox!

TransformForValue takes your privacy seriously. We may process your personal information for carefully considered, specific purposes which enable us to enhance our services and benefit our customers. Please note that by subscribing now you may from time to time receive other emails from about events or other activities that we think might interest you.