The Obstacles to Transformation

The technology required to work from home, or any place in the world for that matter, has been available for years, as the number of digital nomads living around the world are a good proof of. It, however, took a global pandemic for companies to take this transformation mainstream. When it comes to change, we humans are hardwired to fear it and feel comfortable in our safe little bubble of “this is how I have always done it”.

A few years ago, I was working as a CTO in an investment bank and leading the digital transformation of a 103 year old institution. We had rolled out a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform to better track interactions with our customers and to enable collaboration across country offices on clients. We put the technology in place, we ran extensive training, but in the end, the only ones using the CRM system were those under 25 and the CEO which was a strong proponent of leveraging technology. Those over 25 continued to use their paper-based notebooks for capturing information about their client needs.

This taught me an important lesson, that digital transformation is not about rolling out a shining new technology or new processes. It is all about changing paradigms for the people who are affected by the transformation. One must remove the obstacles in their mind to get them to start behaving in a new way.

This holds true for all transformations. Organizations and companies are reluctant to change and adapt, even though everything around them is changing. It often takes a large scale crisis for the leaders and staff of these organizations to realize that what worked in the past simply isn’t working anymore.

In the aftermath of the 2004, South East Asia Tsunami, the humanitarian community realized that it had to change the way it operated, leading to the “Humanitarian Reform” of 2005. There was an increased drive for coordination, collaboration across organizations, and better interaction with local actors, including the government.

Having been on the ground of most large scale disasters of the past decade and a half, I can say with first-hand knowledge that often this reform was simply in name only. While publicly voicing support for collaboration and transformation, many organizational leaders told their staff to focus on their own work and how it was being depicted to the donors.

Of course, there were exceptions to this, for example within the Emergency Telecommunication Cluster (ETC), where UN agencies, NGOs, and the private sector broke down the barriers and worked together as one entity focused on enabling connectivity and communication from disaster zones. But why did the ETC work so closely together when other clusters were quite dysfunctional?

In the end, it all comes down to people. People who are willing to face the fears of the unknown, face the fears of change, and do what they know is the right way forward. This can be truly hard because we are hardwired to continue doing what always used to work.

I always remember a discussion I had with a colleague from UN OCHA. He had been asked to come up with a recommendation on how to improve his division within UN OCHA. The first thing he did was to remove himself from the equation because he felt that the only way he could come up with an innovative, outside of the box solution, was if he removed his own feelings and emotions from the process.

For those of us, whose main role is to lead the transformation, it is not enough to be great at figuring out how to best leverage technology, or how to drive great process improvements. One of the key strengths we must develop is the ability to understand how those changes affect people and their emotions. Once that awareness has been developed, the next skill required is the ability to help people address their fears and help them create a light strong enough to burn through these fears.

Crisis, like the current pandemic, help us overcome our fears for change because the fears of the effects of the crisis overpower those other fears. The lesser evil, the transformation, becomes the path forward and often we realize that the fear we had for change was based on assumptions that were not true.

Yet replacing the fear of change by being presented with a stronger fear is not the only way to overcome the obstacles of transformation. Our brain is wired to avoid pain and attract pleasure. If we find a strong enough WHY, then we can overcome the fear and change our paradigm of transformation.

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