Seven things people say to thwart digital transformation
What struck a chord with me is that the Dirty Tricks are covert, rather than overt. They fall into the passive aggressive category of behaviour, in which people do not express what they really feel. That is why it is hard for managers to deal with behaviour of this type. The passive aggressor never does anything that explicitly goes against the norm, or which can attract out-and-out criticism. But we all know it when we see it. Phipps and Gautrey quote a figure of £7.8bn being lost each year in the UK through office politicking. (The book is ten years old, so that would be around £10.8bn in today’s money).
I thought I’d set out seven of the things people have said to me – the Dirty Tricks if you like – to try to thwart digital transformation and other change programmes with which I have been involved. All seven are covert statements: no-one is overtly coming out and saying that they disagree.
- We tried it, but it didn’t work. Yeah. Someone once installed a version of Revit and attempted to retrofit a project they did in AutoCAD, So, because it did not go so well, the team in question are now experts on BIM and can condemn the whole of digital design as a failure. (By the way, these people also still use gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages).
- Clients won’t let us do it. Told with an oh-so-sincere set of gestures that say: “We’d love to, if we could.” I remember a workshop I ran to look at using digital design and optimisation techniques on a major rail project during which OUR project managers spent two hours telling us why the client would not let us use the tools we were developing. (For example: “Ah, but the client has mandated Bentley products.”) This is a very good approach for Thwarters to use because (a) they can say that the client is always right; and (b) they know more about the client than anyone leading a change programme can ever hope to do.
- Let’s wait and do it next year. This is the St Augustine’s prayer applied to digital design: “Lord, make me use Novaworks, but not yet”. Ask them for a firm timetable, and it’s like asking for a GPS pin for the end of the rainbow. It keeps moving and you never get there. As the Queen of Hearts almost told Alice: “The rule is BIM tomorrow, never BIM today.”
- We’re already doing it. Hmm. Define “it”. So when you suggest developing a smart asset management system using real time data, multi-faceted sensors and a rule-based Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) system and they say they’re already doing it…what they mean is that they have a 20 year old Emerson controls unit and a switch that allows them to turn the generator on and off. Not quite the same.
- It doesn’t apply to us. Also known as “we’re different” (or “we’re special. And of course everyone is special!) I was in a meeting a few months ago discussing standard naming conventions for filenames, as a precursor to the introduction of an Electronic Document Management system. Not exactly the most revolutionary piece of digital transformation. An ecologist piped up and said IDATU. Sure, you ecologists spend lots of time in the field counting bats and newts. But do the little creatures really object if you load your reports onto the server with the same protocol as the rest of the business?
- We’ve got to keep our people chargeable. Wouldn’t it be great if we could expense your BIM development on client-chargeable projects? Sometimes you can. And my mantra is that we should “move towards the future, one client-pull project at a time”, rather than opining about the future from an ivory tower. But sometimes revolution is required – for example, the introduction of structural 3D elements in a building project; or the move to modular off-site construction. It’s a heck of a generous “early-adopter” client who will allow you to learn how to do this on his or her project. I have written elsewhere about Katerra, the “unicorn” tech construction start-up that raised $900m from Softbank and is now worth more than Balfour Beatty. I bet they don’t require all their people to be client chargeable. Yet I have countless conversations with COO-types who say they are not interested in developing new world-leading products in two to three years’ time because, if they don’t make their numbers now, they won’t be around in two to three months’. SO GET YOUR PEOPLE CHARGEABLE.
- Yes (when they mean no) – I don’t mean the little white lies that we might say to make a colleague who has really bombed in a presentation feel better. I mean a systematic corporate culture where saying yes and meaning no is a good survival strategy. Shortly after I joined a particular company, I was taken aside by an apparently sincere colleague who said: “John, the way to get on here is to say yes to everything you’re asked to do. You only have to actually do 20% – but do that and you’ll be fine.” Companies that are going to succeed in changing have to be honest, and people have to be accountable for what they say. Promises and “yes”-es have to mean something.
I feel the need to echo Mike Phipps and Colin Gautrey and include my own caveat: this article is not intended to be a set of lessons for people on how to block digital transformation. (This is not a service that Priestland Consulting offers!) Rather it’s a reminder of the subtle interplay between culture and technology as we come to try to deliver transformational change. To quote the inimitable Vicky Pollard: “Yeah but no” is not a recipe for success when it comes to digital transformation.
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