An interruption or a transformation?

Unless you’ve been living in an off-line world or at least, and perhaps sensible, avoiding social media over the last few weeks you’ll no doubt have seen this meme pop up in several places.

Who led the digital transformation of your company? A) CEO B) CTO C) COVID-19
Transformation: a choice or a response?

Credit should be given to the originator of this but since that’s nearly impossible to work out (though do tell me if you know!) then I’ll point you to this which is where my image search ended up.

Is this just a bit of a joke, something to make us smile in these unusual times, or is there anything behind it?

The internet has been awash with articles providing advice and guidance on how to survive in this new world we find ourselves, balancing working from home with running a school or just having to rapidly adapt to doing endless video calls rather than fighting on a crowded train to sit in another room. We can learn lots in any crisis and as humans, we’re mostly pretty good at making adaptions but is that the full story?

As with most things that are funny, it is because we recognise something of the truth behind it and in this case, I wonder if it is that many of us wonder who is leading Digital Transformation (assuming we’ve some ideas about what it is) and that even the best leaders can be overtaken by events that accelerate things in a way they could only dream about.

Transformation of Interruption?

The challenge for me however is that is an organisational response to COVID-19 lockdown really bringing about transformation or is it just a temporary interruption? If we consider our working lives as a system that is normally fairly stable (despite our claims the only constant is change), then the boat has been dramatically rocked. But what happens next is more interesting to think about.

As family life continues around me then our two children have been learning the science of gas, liquids, and solids as they melted chocolate and created Easter eggs. They began to recognise that some transformations (like water into steam) can be reversed whilst others (cooking an egg) are permeant.

Our response to COVID-19 working practices can either be reversed or become permeant. The actors of the system will all have an opinion on this and there will no doubt be many wash-ups and workshops exploring the lessons we can learn and trying to figure out what we could have done differently. The problem with this is that we’ll all remember things differently and after the event, we attempt to rationalise the things that went on — unintentionally we let the beauty of hindsight shape our interpretation of what we think was happening to justify the decisions that we made.

Is working from home Digital Transformation?

The second part of this conversation is really about what Digital Transformation means.

Transformation is easily understood — a change of state from one thing to another. It can, therefore, be argued that suddenly having your face-to-face meetings in virtual rooms, having all employees working from home rather than in an office, finding that you actually don’t need a wet signature on a bit of paper and that an email will suffice are all transformations.

But for me, they are only a tiny part of the picture. Technology transformation (a better version of solving yesterday’s problem) isn’t the opportunity that Digital Transformation should be for an organisation. Many have called this digitisation — taking one version and replacing it with something different (and hopefully better!)

Exploring what Digital Transformation means is something that I’ll do in future posts but for now, my challenge to you is to pause and consider if the last few weeks have really transformed your organisation, its way of working and it’s business model in a way that takes advantage of new technology and creates revenue streams that will persist in the future or have you just made it a little bit more flexible for your employees to work in challenging situations?

What next?

If you’ve listened to any of the daily briefings then you’ll no doubt have picked up the tone of the journalist questions — when are we going to start talking about an exit from this lockdown. That, I guess, is human nature — we want to know what is next. As much as we dislike change there is something in us that also wants to know what the next change is going to be and to try to build our control around it.

There will be time to do that, but for now, I think the important thing to do is to recognise that your plans (even if you had no plans) have been interrupted and that this needs to be a pause. You will have the choice to revert back to whatever your previous state was (though it may not be possible to achieve) or you can learn and move on from this. The key thing though is to capture what you’re thinking, feeling and doing now as you experience it rather than trying to retrospectively look back in a few months and logically make sense of it.

I’d encourage you to ask at least some of your displaced workforce to write a daily journal detailing what has worked, what has been a challenge, what do they miss about the “old” way and what is still missing about how they want the future to be. Capture that today and then use that as the basis for your conversations about what Digital Transformation really is going to be for your organisation when you’re leading it not being forced to respond by the crisis.

A burning platform is a great initiator of change, but things designed under pressure will never be as good as those that are intentionally designed based on a deep understanding of what the opportunity is. Don’t let this moment define your future but let it be a catalyst for bringing about the change that you believe creates that better future.



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Luke Radford

Luke Radford


An experienced senior digital business leader with experience of delivering transformative change.