Life is a minestrone* – a food based explanation how too much data is killing your business transformation

Uh-oh. My alarm bells went off.

I was having lunch with a friend from an international law practice, chatting about their digital transformation efforts. She was concerned about the people aspect – how to get buy in, define what the future of work will actually look like, skills required… and much more.

The firm had started talking to some technology vendors, set up a steering committee for the initiative and drafted governance structures. And it was in this context that my alarm bells went off:

Managing the fruit salad

The draft governance was highly hierarchical, with lots of layered sign-off processes, auditing and reporting through the levels of the firm to the senior partners. But what turned my mental alarm bells into a shrill screech was this comment:

“Currently we have a mixed fruit salad of operating models across various locations, different systems and technologies, and different approaches to managing people and workloads. As the steering team, we need to understand it, of course, but at the moment we are putting off doing anything because someone always asks for more data”.

“To me, that sounds like the steering committee was trying to eliminate uncertainty”. I suggested. She nodded in agreement.

Businesses don’t like uncertainty.

It is too closely associated with risk of failure- something we as humans are conditioned by evolution to minimise as far as we can.

When our prehistoric ancestors had to deal with uncertainty, it was often a matter of life or death. Is this red berry deliciously food or deadly poison?

Over time, man developed language and writing systems that allowed him to gather and record information – and to pass on information, making it easier for the species to survive and evolve.

Businesses try to eliminate uncertainty

In business, we combat uncertainty by implementing structures, rules and controls that give us a sense of control. And we gather information. A lot of information. We use it to plan and measure. We hope that by having all the information, we can control our (businesses’) future.

But, it does not work.

Giving up the illusion of control

Of course, I am not suggesting that we should stop gathering information, analysing performance and investigating what happened when things go wrong (though we should investigate when things go right, too). Quite rightly, we should collect and use as many insights as we can. And big data has added tremendous opportunities for more insights than ever.

But we need to give up the comforting illusion that information and the strategies we base on it can ever give us complete control. Because no amount of big data can.

The mindset that stands in the way

Our current mental model of organisations includes the hidden assumption that organisations are ultimately complicated machines. And just like we can direct and fix machines, we assume that, as long as we have all the data and are clever in the way we use it, we can predict and control the organisation – including the changes or transformations we wish to see.

Organisations are not complicated -they are a bowl of spaghetti

In reality, however, organisations (even small ones) are complex systems. They are not like a car or a computer; they are more like a bowl of spaghetti. And a bowl of spaghetti is much more complex than even a space rocket.

Even though the “parts” might appear simple, if you pull on one strand of spaghetti, you cannot know the full impact this is going to have on the rest of the bowl (and whether you will end up with tomato sauce on your shirt).

Our businesses and organisations are so complex that no matter how much information we have, and no matter the smart analysis we apply, we cannot know fully what will happen when we introduce change. Especially, when we embark on a change as complex as a digital (or other) transformation.

New threats or opportunities may arise, our competitors might react in unexpected ways, our supply chain could be impacted by new regulation, our people’s behaviour cannot be fully predicted… the list goes on.

From fixed recipes to experiments

We require a different approach to change and transformation. Traditional project management practices, like PRINCE2, don’t work as they rely on stable environments. (PRINCE stands for PRojects IN Controlled Environments). Relying on traditional governance approaches of gathering all the data, then plan the work and work the plan find themselves wanting.

Making delicious soup:

Did you know that minestrone, the soup of Italian origins, has no fixed recipe? The way it is made, and the ingredients used vary widely across Italy. And while good cooks will be confident in the ultimate success of their recipe, no two minestrones will taste the same.

What does that mean for your business transformation?

Take a minestrone approach: your leaders, teams and governance arrangements need to become comfortable with uncertainty. They need to adopt a stance of confidence and commitment to the journey, keeping an eye on the direction while being willing to question if a particular path is still appropriate. Learning when to persist and when to pivot. Letting go of pet projects and reacting to changes with agility. Creating a culture of skilful experimentation and continuous learning.

*Reference to the great song by 10cc with the same title is entirely deliberate

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