On a Saturday a while ago, my phone rang at 3:30 in the morning.
Startled awake, I picked up the phone and learned that at the organisation I worked with, an entire critical service in production was down. What’s more, people’s lives had been impacted to the point where the police had become involved.
It appeared as if a single team member bore sole responsibility for the entire failure. A competent expert with over 20 years of experience in data and in analytics, he knew the platform well and understood the organisation, so what had happened?
It became clear that while the team member understood our systems well, he did not proactively go and share his knowledge and understanding with others in the organisation, hence this imminent failure didn’t raise any red flag with others.
I also realised that beyond the immediate mitigation of the crisis, radical organisational change had to happen – and it had to happen fast.
After all, the organisation’s environment had been instrumental in creating this challenge. By not encouraging or incentivising the sharing of knowledge and responsibility, it had reinforced the kind of silos that prevented others from being alerted to, as well as being able to respond to, the adverse event affecting this single team member’s area of responsibility.
In my view, the key to success in this case lay in shifting the environment that enabled and underpinned the current culture to create an environment conducive to creating cross-organisational alignment.
And what do environments conducive to team alignment have in common? For me, three elements need to be considered: the “why” (value), the “how” (innovation) and the “who” (diversity and inclusion).
Question 1: why (value)
For considering the “why,” we have to ask whether people are thinking about the value they are creating and whether their understanding of value is aligned across the organisation.
We need to ask, “Is this likely to deliver tangible value? Is it clear how much time and capital would need to be invested in order to gain this value? And is this project likely to lead to the delivery of actual return on the required investment?”
But we also need to ask, “Are the data science guys aligned with the data engineering guys? Are they aligned with their legal and compliance colleagues? How closely aligned are they to the IT – technology and operations – guys and other stakeholders?”
An alignment on “why are we doing this” particularly matters because it empowers people – it also drastically reduces friction, which is another important element for enabling speed along data and analytics pipelines.
Question 2: how (innovation)
When we think of organisational change, it may be helpful to remember that every culture has certain advantages and reasons for why things are done a certain way. So, why do we need change?
Generating new ideas, services and products – and novel ways for delivering them – is absolutely essential at a time when customer expectations are evolving rapidly. In addition, a culture of innovation can serve to attract and retain top talent – and many organisations invest a lot of time and effort to ensure they are competitive on both objectives.
We often hear the expression “thinking outside the box,” but to enable team members to embrace the concept, we have to create a safe environment, where individuals and teams – as well as whole organisations – can move ahead with confidence when they try new things.
Anything that is new and potentially risky has a chance of failure. It is absolutely clear that failure is inevitable, yet failure can actually provide us with opportunities to learn and innovate. So, rather than focusing on how to limit failure, the question should be: “How can we improve our resilience and mitigate the impacts of failure; and what can we learn from the experience?”
However, I’ve observed that in many cases, even where team members are encouraged to try new things and move fast, people fall back on blaming or finger-pointing when things go wrong rather than focus on lessons learnt.
Two of the most important opportunities for encouraging tangible change happen around failure: just before failure happens and immediately after. How these scenarios are handled will determine whether people feel confident enough to try new things, change the way they work or promote a change in culture.
Question 3: who (diversity and inclusion)
The ability to combine, integrate and scale – at pace – is fast becoming a significant differentiator for success. So, what can organisations do to encourage this?
The answer, for me, lies with the “who” and requires creating a culture where diversity and inclusion are priorities.
Diversity is key for creating the variety of ideas necessary for moving forward. I am using the term “diversity” more broadly than just a reference to race, religion or gender. While these are important, there are other factors to consider. For example, to gain the desired benefit from a mix of people, you need a diversity of ideas, which come from different backgrounds, different perspectives, different points of view.
My personal experience has shown that – within a lot of teams and organisations – diversity already does exist. Yet to turn it into a real advantage, you have to ensure inclusion, because, after all, these different perspectives only enrich the strategy and value creation if they are reflected in them.
This takes us back to creating an environment where people feel empowered to take initiative and try out new things, where they know they’ll be backed by their teams and executives, especially when things go wrong.
Empowering individuals, teams and organisations
A recent success story illustrates what’s possible when a proper support structure is in place. One of my colleagues had only been with the team for a few months. Despite her relative inexperience, we had no hesitation asking her to help set up some new infrastructure in the cloud. Less than six hours later, she had accomplished a task, which only a couple of years ago, would likely have taken six months of planning, six months of trying to secure the budget, and then another six months to get the infrastructure and security implemented.
While this drove home how far and fast our technological capabilities had evolved, it was even more gratifying to see how a new team member had gained so much confidence and so many new skills over such a short space of time.
In my view, any approach to cultural transformation needs to be underpinned by an understanding of the “why,” the “how” and the “who” – by creating alignment on value, by encouraging innovation, and, last but not least, by embracing diversity and inclusion.
The ringing of the phone on that Saturday at 3 a.m. served as a wake-up call in more ways than one. For me, it illustrated that for building data solutions capable of delivering tangible value within a rapidly changing landscape, we need to think about enabling an appropriate culture by creating an empowering environment.
Such transformations allow us to inject speed into the system by radically reducing friction between.
By Edosa Odaro, Chief Business Officer.