Throwing money at point A to get to D
Why did a friend of mine decline the chance to join a so-called "digital transformation"?
Last year I had an interesting conversation with one of my best ex-colleagues about digital transformations.
I met Joakim back in 2016. His brutal honesty, deep technical knowledge, wisdom about software engineering, and weird sense of humor have always resonated with me.
Ever since our career paths separated us, I have tried to get him to join me. This time around I was working at an enterprise that was going through digital transformation (read how Google Bard defines that term).
So, I set up a call and as soon as he understood what it was about, he said:
— “No, thanks”!
— “Why?”, I asked in despair.
— “I know what this is about. Let me guess: Mckinsey has been in the house and convinced your top-level leadership that to catch up with the competition, you need to go through digital transformation and throw money at the problem.”
— “How do you know? I haven’t even started talking about my current company!”, I was surprised. Did he have inside knowledge?
— “I’ve seen many companies go through this so-called digital transformation. When you joined our company, we were in the middle of one such transformation too! Don’t you remember?”
Oh, yes! I do remember. Vividly. I wrote about it. But I still didn’t understand what’s holding him back. So I asked:
— “What’s wrong with that? It’s a great journey to lead change”.
— “What happens is that you’re going to hire people who are at point C and can take you to point D”, he used hand gestures to show the levels and continued: “but you’re in point A and have no clue how to get to point B”.
He then continued:
— “This is a frustrating position for talented people to be in. They lose many things that they took for granted. They will have to struggle educating you for the obvious. It’s a career setback for them. No matter how much you put on the table, I’m not going to be part of that”.
After sending the first public version of this article, Joakim shared some more interesting thoughts:
Something is missing about the friction between the existing point A people and the new point C people.
They are sold a rosy picture as: “we are early in the process so you alone can shape where this company goes”.
So, they set out to “fix all the things”. They join with a superstar reputation and a mindset that they can do whatever they want or need.
But as soon as they start, they face tremendous friction from the old body of the company. Think about it: there is a reason the company was at point A in the first place! Hint: it’s not people. It’s a friction problem not an IQ problem
This clashes with the older employees who know how things actually work but haven’t been given the toolset or opportunities to take it to the next step.
The people at point A are no less smart. The obstacles that slowed them down are systemic problems which we’ll get to shortly.
Well, that was an interesting perspective. Personally, I think the point A-D analogy may be true about the technical aspects but the distance between A-C makes a great journey for change leadership.
Many of those talented people who are at point C, have never been part of taking a company from point A to B. They just showed up when everything was ready.
It is a fantastic opportunity for everyone to take a point A to B challenge at least once in their career to understand how the sausage is made. It’s an empowering wisdom to understand that the best practices are nothing more than incremental steps to improve the system over time.
The main differentiator between the top environments and average ones is the amount of friction that these increments face. One needs to learn how to influence change and reduce friction.
I have an entire article about change leadership which is the aggregation of notes I’ve been taking while working as a senior staff engineer during a digital transformation. Staff engineers don’t have any direct reports and this puts us in a unique position. I call it “leadership the hard way” and if you want to get it directly in your mailbox when it’s out, you know what to do 🙂
A reader who has been through point A to B challenges for over a decade is not interested to do it anymore:
Plowing and getting rocks out serves a clear purpose but it’s in fact more rewarding to harvest and make bread.
The maturity level describes the environment (i.e., the company) not the people.
I like to use a house as an analogy: the skillset and experience of furnishing a house is entirely different than the skillset and experience of building it.
I’ve seen several talented people (both leaders and engineers) join a company in point A and ambitiously stretching themselves too thin to spread apart. Focus on a few problems and conclude them instead of attacking multiple problems at the same time. Don’t act like a child in the candy shop. The problems may look small and obvious, but there are deep roots in the organization. If you are going to sustain change, keep this in mind:
It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
This part is for the change leaders and top-level management of the companies going through digital transformation:
You can recruit all you want and bring people from environment C to environment A, but unless the systemic issues are not addressed at point A, you cannot pay your way to get to point C or D!
The hypothesis that bringing new blood into a company will help transfer its culture holds some truth. But it’s both an expensive and time-consuming solution to work around the root cause:
Old school mindset
Failure to catch up with market trends and modernize in good time
Justifying the slow speed as a fact 🤦 instead of changing it
Poor understanding of software products (calling it “IT” is the biggest symptom)
Importing talent but failing to listen to them
Eagerness to get quick results for throwing big money at the talent
Ambition to extract estimates when none is possible
Prioritizing deadlines and cost over quality
Not practicing what you preach. Failing to be a role model.
Poor vision & mission and/or communication
Too much focus on following competitors instead of redefining the rules of the game with your own unique advantages
Sadly, it doesn’t work like that. You cannot solve the problem with the same mentality that created it. Sometimes money is not the solution. Sometimes bringing in new people is not the solution. Sometimes, we have to start from the within and be honest about why one environment stayed at point A while others went to point C.
Look inside before gazing outside.
🪞Some leaders cannot understand that their underperformance is primarily due to their own mistakes and lack of competence.
They think laying off and hiring new talent is the key to catching up with the competition.
Sitting on the solution
The answer is usually within the company: the older employees who know the business and have firsthand experience with the challenges but are suppressed.
Remember: it’s a friction problem not an IQ problem.
Just like Microsoft hit refresh with an old employee, a company that’s facing digital transformation needs to look inside for transformation. It is called transformation for a reason (and not replacement or purchase).
The problem may be:
Broken and old processes
Lack of trust
Too much bureaucracy, gate keeping and compliance checks
Tall silos with thick walls which clogs the flow of information and collaboration
Ceremonial high-rank titles whose value doesn't worth their salary
Management getting in the way of the people who know what to do
Stressful workload that doesn't leave any time for learning and sharpening the axe
Focus on efficiency (doing something right) instead of effectiveness (doing the right thing)
And my personal favorite: broken ownership!
Fix those before going out on a talent shopping frenzy. Otherwise, your best talent leaves the door in frustration. Top talent has options. You'll be left with those who have nowhere better to be. And it makes the change even harder. You’ll be stuck in quicksand!
Joakim also introduced the book Sooner Safer Happier:
It covers agile transformation, among other things. It applies in this context too
In the case of my current company, this is exactly what we did actually. We got a new CEO last year and his first move was to refresh his management team, they in turn continued those transformations at each level which is close to commence.
Time will tell how this story plays out, but I have faith that the internal forces have the winning card. As for the recruitment, it has stopped for now until we figure out where we want to go. It’s been a great learning for me personally. Something that I’ll write about later.
When I interview people to join us, I always make sure to give them a picture of the challenges ahead. I want them to choose with open eyes and not be disappointed after joining us.
Many people take the chance, but some decline and that is OK. We should never fool people into joining a company only to be frustrated, demotivated, or actively fight against the business.
It’s not fair to them either, if the challenges don’t align with their growth trajectory, they are going to have a hard time getting out of bed every morning.
Unmotivated people can do a lot of harm, especially when they’re in a leadership position.
What’s your take? Would you join a company that is at the beginning of its digital transformation journey? Have you been part of such transitions, and do you have any tips to share?