Technology alone cannot fix what is fundamentally broken

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For over three decades, I have worked with leaders at companies and organizations of many types in order to help them succeed and accomplish their strategic objectives. Some of my clients have included:

  • Liz Claiborne
  • Tommy Hilfiger USA
  • Madison Square Garden
  • Federated Department Stores
  • The City of New York
  • The Department of Sanitation for the City of New York (DSNY)

Whatever the purpose of these organizations, the leaders had one thing in common; they all wanted to be the “best” at what they did, and they were willing to spend time and money on “technology” to help them get there. However, for these and many other organizations, the actual benefits of implementing that technology varied — a LOT. And as it has been over the past three decades, so it is today — “digital transformation” is a common buzzword, but many so-called digital transformation initiatives fail. So why have some organizations been more successful than others in their transformation efforts?

What I saw over and over again was that far too often, organizations worked hard to implement a specific type of technology change only to see the initiative fail because the accompanying process changes that would be required to make the change successful were not done. In retrospect, the unsuccessful organizations merely viewed technology as a way to continue to do what they have been doing all along, only faster or less expensively. However, by merely automating their flawed processes they just made their flawed processes faster and less expensive — and simply failed more quickly.

As a result, these organizations missed opportunities to change their existing paradigm for how they had been doing their work and so their well-intentioned efforts were for naught. In the end, whatever new “technology” they implemented became just a shiny new toy and a Band-Aid on a fundamentally flawed overall business process, rather than part of the true game-change that it might have been.

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In contrast, organizations with leaders that understand — and are willing to accept — that technology is just one component of a successful change process are the ones that are most successful in realizing the benefits of their so-called digital transformation initiatives. Indeed, even the buzzword “digital transformation” is somewhat misleading, because a successful transformation requires that organizations embrace ALL aspects of change and actively seek ways to capitalize on opportunities — technological and otherwise — that their competitors have missed.

As Michael Hammer and James Champy wrote in “Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution” back in 1993:

Today, fragmented organizations display appalling dis-economies of scale… is a consequence of what we called the Humpty Dumpty School of Organizational Management. Companies take a natural process, such as order fulfillment, and break it into lots of little pieces — the individual tasks that people in the functional departments do. Then, the company has to hire all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to paste the fragmented work back together again. These king’s horses and king’s men…..are simply the glue that holds together the people who do the real work….Most companies today, in other words, are paying more for the glue than for the real work — a recipe for trouble. (pg 29–30)

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Implementing a new technology — for example, a new business application or a new type of hardware — in a single department of an organization is like going to the gym and just exercising a single arm! While that arm might get stronger, the benefits of that additional strength will be severely limited. The entire body must be addressed— exercising all the body parts and getting proper nutrition and ensuring adequate rest, etc. — in order to realize the full benefits of exercise. In the same way, change initiatives must be multi-faceted and broad in scope in order to ensure that an organization isn’t merely “exercising a single arm” in their efforts.

Advances in technology open up new opportunities for organizations to re-think how they have done things in the past. What was impossible a few short years ago might be easy today, and with new capabilities comes additional opportunities for organizations to establish an advantage over their competitors. Ten years ago, Zoom meetings didn’t exist; today, they are ubiquitous. Expectations of customers, employees and business partners also continue to rise as new technologies come into existence. What changes are just over the horizon today? Organizations that are not continuously monitoring the technology landscape — AND considering how they might do things differently in order to take advantage of those changes — risk being surpassed by those organizations that do. Unfortunately, many organizations will take the road most traveled and forgo the opportunity to examine their existing processes…..essentially falling victim to the “Pot Roast” principle, as told in the following tale:

A young woman was hosting a dinner party for her friends and served a delicious pot roast. One of her friends enjoyed it so much that she asked for the recipe, and the young woman wrote it down for her.

After looking at the recipe, her friend asked, “Why do you cut both ends off the roast before you prepare it and put in the pan?” The young woman said, “I don’t know…….I cut the ends off because I learned this recipe from my mom and that was the way she always did it.”

Her friend’s question got the young woman thinking and so the next day she called her mother and asked, “Mom, when we make the pot roast, why do we cut off and throw away the ends before we put it in the pan and season it?” Her mother replied, “That’s how your grandma always did it and I learned the recipe from her.”

Now the young woman was really curious, so she called her elderly grandmother and asked her the same question: “Grandma, I often make the pot roast recipe that I learned from mom and she said she learned it from you. Why do you cut the ends off the roast before you prepare it?” The grandmother thought for a while, since it had been years since she made the roast herself, and then replied, “I cut them off because the roast was always bigger than the pan I had back then. I had to cut the ends off to make it fit.”

One side effect of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is that it has forced many organizations to re-think how people work and how they engage with those that they serve by exposing and highlighting the weaknesses and flaws in their existing processes that might not have been readily apparent before. As it turns out, in most organizations, the optimal functioning of their processes (both internal and external) is dependent on having things change as little as possible….which is a recipe for potential disaster in a rapidly changing world! What the ongoing pandemic has done by interrupting the work of so many organizations is show how fragile most of them actually are. Indeed, without a fairly constant stream of uninterrupted flows — such as customer demand for their products or services, their inventory supply chain, and even employees coming to their office each day to sit at their desk and work from morning until night — many organizations are at risk of falling apart like a deck of cards.

The most successful organizations will be the ones that understand that embracing the opportunities that new technologies offer is necessary, but by itself is not sufficient to ensure organizational success. Technology by itself cannot fix what is fundamentally broken. But by continuously monitoring new technological capabilities AND thinking “outside the box” about how to do work differently by USING those new capabilities, organizations will be better able to seize the opportunities that are continually being created.