s4e10: Stages of Transformation 

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Writing this on Saturday, 8 April 2017 in the afternoon and it’s not a normal day to be writing a newsletter. I’ve spent some time in Sacramento this week having some meetings with the right people at the right time where you can make some little decisions that will change big things. Well, decisions are easy*: the work will be hard.

* Counter-argument: no, they’re not easy at all. It’d be more accurate to say that decisions can be hard and the work will be hard. Otherwise the latter wouldn’t be work?

1.0 Stages of Transformation

OK, so Niamh Webster tweeted a photo earlier this week[0] and in a rear break with tradition to show that I’m *flexible*, here’s an embedded tweet so you can see the image:

Ugh, which totally didn’t work, so *here’s* an inline image:

Someone presenting at a slide at a conference that says: “If you apply digital to a thing that’s broken, you’ll have a broken digital thing.”

to which I said: “This is true. Most of my work is in helping people change things. No-one likes being told their thing is broken.”[1]

which is actually two completely different things, the first being a) changing things that are “broken” and b) an observation about things that are “broken” and how you can move from something that isn’t as good as it could or should be (ie: broken) to something that *is* as good as it could or should be (ie: shows understanding of and meets user needs).

You could call a pithy version of this (which isn’t pithy! It just *sounds* pithy, it’s only pithy if you treat it pithily)
The Three Stages of Digital Transformation[2]:

1. Denial: our thing is not broken
2. Anger: we hate you for telling us
3. Acceptance: holy crap our thing is broken

or, if you’re following a more established model and you have more space because you’re not quoting another tweet[3]:

1. Denial and isolation (our thing is not broken, we’re the only ones with this problem)
2. Anger (we are angry that we’ve been told our thing is broken)
3. Bargaining (it’s not that broken, look we’re already fixing it)
4. Depression (it’s too hard, we’ll never change)
5. Acceptance (things are broken, fault doesn’t matter, what can we do now)
6. Transformation (changing things a bit at a time and understanding that there’ll always be relapse)

So, here’s where I get to talk about the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, pattern matching, and how about dealing with mental health has a lot to do with digital transformation.

The first thing is: assume everyone is doing their best. No-one *wants* to do a bad job. There might be reasons why something isn’t as good as you might think it should be – but you don’t know if anyone else thinks it should be better, either! Frequently enough for it to be almost-always-true, you can probably assume that people are doing the best job they can in the circumstances they’re in. Those circumstances may be incredibly environmental, they might also include personal circumstances as well: people may not have the tools, knowledge or *practice* to do a better job, either. But that doesn’t mean they’re trying.

The second is radical acceptance, which is difficult not to laugh at because for some people (me included), the phrase has a certain wafty odour of new-agey thinky self-help book, but at the root of it what I managed to agree with was this: unless you completely accept the circumstances and the facts of the situation, you’re not going to get very far in the long run. Accepting those facts and the situation may well be painful and may cause anger or shame or guilt because, say, it turns out that you need to accept that you didn’t do as good a job as you intended to or for the standard you hold yourself to. And for “you” you can substitute both individuals and organizations.

I said my reaction to the statement “If you apply digital to a thing that’s broken, you’ll have a broken digital thing” had two parts:

1) Digital on its own isn’t better
2) You can’t get to better without accepting and understanding where you are

When I work with people on digital transformation, one of the examples that I use is that “simply turning all our forms into e-PDFs and putting them on our website” would count as “digital”, but wouldn’t be any “better” than what they have right now. Most people agree with that. We then get to have a conversation about what “better” would actually mean. At some point this inevitable gets down to a conversation about what exactly it is that we’re trying to achieve. What process, or what outcome, is being subjected to digital transformation? How can we be sure that it will *better*? What does better even mean?

Some people in the group then work out that for something to be better, of course, that means that the existing thing has to be worse.

There are two clear implications here that I try to deal with clearly and without any ambiguity:

1) It doesn’t matter *how* we got here, all that matters is that we’re *here*. For those people who were involved in getting to our current location – maybe they had written policy, maybe they had been involved with the design or management of certain processes – this isn’t a judgment on them or their work. We just have to accept that we’re here now, without blame or judgment.

2) Now that we’re here, what are we going to do?

The first point above isn’t something you can just say once and forget. Unless you work at it and unless you practice it, in our brains the past has the tendency to haunt the present when, most of the time *it doesn’t actually matter*, and if it *is* haunting the present, it doesn’t matter as much as you think it does.

There will be people who will feel a combination of angry and ashamed and guilty. Angry because they were on a path and it’s being closed off or being diverted and things aren’t working out they way they thought. Ashamed because now they feel their work wasn’t up to what “everyone else” expected. Guilty because they now might see how things could be different and they’re holding themselves up to new standards.

What I try to remember in times like this is that I’m going to transformation war with the army that I – that the organization – has. No-one is coming to fix it. The team has to own it. But that *they did the best in the environment they had*.

Here’s a present case: in California, I’m working with the state to spin up more demonstrator projects after Child Welfare Digital Services. It is unfair to hold any other department, team or project up to the same standard of practice that CWDS is going through. On the one hand, it’s *true* that any particular project’s plan for a monolithic, waterfall procurement and deployment would probably fail, or wouldn’t be any combination of successful for time, money and getting-the-actual-job-done. On the other hand it’s *also true* that the environment *requires* them to put together a monolithic, waterfall procurement and deployment. They don’t know any better. They were doing the best they could, in the environment they were in.

The conversation and the opportunity is to say: unbeknownst to you, while you were working on this, the rules changed. There is a chance to do things differently now. The best way of moving forward is to *accept* that *despite* doing things the best you could under the old environment, the old environment only allowed for a very narrow kind of success, and that you had nothing to do with the shape of the old environment. It’d be like criticizing extremophiles living in a low-energy environment for not having gigantic body plans and a rich predator/prey ecosystem when *there’s just not that much energy around*, or criticizing people living in a rain shadow for not having a vibrant seaside sunbathing tourist industry. They didn’t choose the environment. They’re just there, doing the best they can.

[Note to self: do not make any sort of analogy to Ian Malcom’s ‘life finds a way’ remark from Jurassic Park in relation to large technology products in government/large organization environments].

All of this is to say: yes, things are broken. It doesn’t have to be anyone’s *fault*. And it might not be the done thing to tone-police and say, “well, can we not say broken? It would make people feel bad” but hey, it *will* make people feel bad. It’s also true that these things aren’t necessarily broken: they are certainly *doing something*. They may not be doing something as well as they could be – but I’ve gotten in trouble for this before. I’ve called a 30 year old COBOL-based mainframe a piece of junk that’s broken and immediately been taken to task for it because it’s demonstrably *not* – it’s processing transactions and getting them done.

Coming in and saying that something people have spent time on, where people are trying to do their best, is broken isn’t necessarily the most respectful thing and it won’t necessarily help you turn the army you have into an army that’s fit for a different fight. It just means that you might have to spend even more time than you would otherwise in building compassion and sympathy for the current situation and environment.

I get where calling things broken comes from. Like I said, I’ve done it. It’s dramatic and it gets attention and for some people it might be the right thing to say when you need to persuade people about the need for change. But for others, it just might not be the best way to start.

There are always people who are just trying to do their best. In the end, they’re the ones who will see the potential for better than what they have right now, and they’re also the ones who will fight for it.

And with that, read this thread[4] from Meg Pickard about how digital transformation is a bit like being a midwife, complete with a terrible pun from yours truly.

[0] Niamh Webster on Twitter: “❤️ this. Digital (online/tech/whatever you want to call it) should just complement what you’re doing already – offline! https://t.co/XzUbJWDE7M”
[1] Dan Hon on Twitter: “This is true. Most of my work is in helping people change things. No-one likes being told their thing is broken. https://t.co/Kj3aE5dJVy”
[2] Dan Hon on Twitter: “digital transformation: 1. denial: our thing is not broken 2. anger: we hate you for telling us 3. acceptance: holy crap this is broken https://t.co/Kj3aE5dJVy”
[3] Dan Hon on Twitter: “the 6 stages of digital transformation are: 1/ denial & isolation 2/ anger 3/ bargaining 4/ depression 5/ acceptance 6/ transformation”
[4] Meg Pickard on Twitter: “@hondanhon A lot of the time I think my role is a bit like a midwife: you’ve got yourself into this situation, but you’re resistant to the next bit. >”

OK, lots of other stuff in my head at the moment:

* “algorithms”
* culture
* networked software as material, so what are the material properties of Mastodon?

which I’ll hopefully splurge out sometime.

Best,

Dan