In which I am a bit over this digital transformation business.

Catherine Howe
Oct 20 · 5 min read

I’m going to bang on about me for a couple of paragraphs and then I’m going to talk about imagination, system change, complexity and why I am a bit over digital transformation — bear with me.

It seems odd to be listening to the news coverage of the Westminster chaos at the same as writing about the fact I have had a good week but the fact is I have and so I will. The previous week spent in Cornwall gave me a chance to recharge and recalibrate with long walks, good pints and time to stare at the sea helped me to process some stuff.

At the start of my holiday I wrote down the things that have been preoccupying me recently. Two of them are candidates for thinking out loud so here they are:

  • I’m a bit over digital transformation
  • I am feeling a bit of a lack of intellectual focus

I think in naming this I have been made more open to two things this last week; one was my visit to Map Camp and the other was getting drawn into a brilliant twitter thread (I know! How retro!) and connecting with a number of interesting people and thought provoking ideas appropriately triggered by a question about imagination:

The conversation from here went on for four days so I recommend reading the piece that Simon wrote on public service and chaos as a result.

Imagination is an intangible and exhilarating concept but we know it does not thrive with boundaries. Much of the following discussion was about removing those internal and external boundaries and giving people to space to consider all of the possibilities and not just those limited by their perceived constraints.

However to be unfettered without some kind of intellectual frame is be untethered.

One of the speakers at Map Camp said that we would know when maps were mainstream when people where using them without understanding where they came from. I think this is a great definition of the mainstream and it made me think about what it means for my day job which is to all intents and purposes digital transformation — or rather technology enabled change to lead to the best possible organisational outcome. It was a great event and I am pleased to report (just) avoided being a cult:

The thing that both of these conversations unlocked for me is the realisation that I am no longer dithering about whether or not transformation is a thing (see earlier posts for this particular piece of navel gazing on why digital is a broken word). It’s not.

Wardley Mapping is a methodology. Like Agile, or service design or product management its a way of approaching a problem or a piece of work. It’s not the problem and its not the answer — its a way of working. Recently the conversation about digital transformation seems to have gotten stuck between what methods to adopt and the need for senior leaders to ‘get it’. The risk here is what Matt Jukes talked about in his excellent post on Grumpy Old Person Agile of methods ‘scope creeping’ beyond what they are designed to do well . What the most excellent twitter thread — and the presentation from @lunivore which talked about complexity theory at Map Camp — reminded me is that without the right frame and theory of change we are all just adopting methods without really understanding why and this makes change fragile and inflexible.

A theory of change needs to provide a frame (its worth reading this to get a better understanding about the theory behind framing) — what the Wardley Map gang talk about as situational awareness. I always take a system based view of change and so a theory of change also needs to describe the system in which you are acting (more on this in this long piece on why all change is system change). System change means looking beyond the boundaries of the organisation and connecting to some of the bigger, deeper changes in the world. It requires us to look beyond the safety of our organisational boundaries and ask whether our purpose is still relevant in a changing landscape.

Change requires a relentless focus on the purpose and as others have said the ability to radiate positive intent. You need to be resilient and optimistic as you are not going to get it right most of the time. You need to be able to experiment but you also need to be able to design safe experiments — not because its wrong to fail but because only by designing safe experiments can you robustly learn as you have locked down as many elements as possible so that you can know when you are truly exploring something new. It’s because of this need to be robust in our experimentation that I was so pleased to be reminded of the concept of safe probes (thanks again to @lunivore) as a way of navigating complexity.

So — as I say in the title — I am pretty much over digital transformation which is feeling like a lot of methods trying to grow up (or try and figure out how to work together) but I am ever more committed to the need to navigate complex system change. I have been falling down into the digital trap of trying to please and reconcile various digital tribes ( have a look here for the latest list of tribes) where I should be helping them to map and navigate the wider system.

So — thank you map camp and thank you Simon for inviting me to a fascinating discussion — I am re-charged and re-curious. If that’s a word.


Originally published at http://www.curiouscatherine.info.

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