21 January 2023 Rosemary Kay

Digital Transformation – what are we scared of?

3 tips for Innovation – when you have innovation-resistors in your midst

First adopters and innovation-resisters – the people who make digital transformation a success.

My father was a “first adopter”. My mother wasn’t. Dad’s cooking involved gadgets in the kitchen to help food preparation easier and more delicious: whizzers, mixers, microwaves, timers.

Mum’s activity in the kitchen defied technology, she preferred her usual personal technique: leave food under a high grill, go into the garden to sing, wait till the kitchen was full of smoke. It’s why Dad bought a smoke alarm….

I’ve inherited my dad’s love of innovation. But I understand that not everyone wants new technology in their lives or workplaces – there are plenty of people with innovation-despair out there. It can be exhausting sometimes keeping up with the digital transformation learning curve.

And of course there are some hard-core innovation-resistors out there –  a few people who would rather see things burning than set a timer. Or people who prefer to pretend the planet isn’t in trouble rather than make the necessary (maybe painful) changes.

The case for Innovation

We obviously need to innovate as a species – we need to improve our lives to make things easier, safer, more sustainable and more efficient. Indeed, drastic and rapid innovation is needed to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, such as the climate crisis. The clue is in the phrase – it’s a crisis!

Generally, unless we’re a bit Michael Govian, we admire inventors, discoverers, people who strive to make things better –  the innovators, the Einstein’s.

Businesses are encouraged to be innovative – Innovate UK pays good money to companies pushing the boundaries of science and technology further than everyone else. And there is currently a UK government push for enterprises to adopt Digital Transformation.

But when it comes to rolling new ideas out, how much innovation do people actually want?  How easy is “Digital Transformation”?

I’ll tell you – it’s difficult.

Why? Because of what I call the Muddle-Along syndrome.

The Muddle-Along syndrome

Most people are like my mother. They would prefer to muddle along, rather than go through the pain of learning to use new things.

The writers of The Simpsons knows this: in one episode,  someone shows Homer Simpson a new invention – a hilarious baby-talk translator – Homer says: “People are afraid of new things. You shoudda taken an existing product and put a clock in it or something.”

Actually, my mother would have thought even a clock was too much innovation! But, Innovate UK wouldn’t give you a grant for adding a clock to something old, would they?

And that’s the problem for inventors. To get funding you need to be ahead of your time. But to get that innovation adopted, you have to avoid scaring the customers. So inventors may see a problem and invent a solution way ahead of their time – but people like my mother will just carry on burning things whilst the innovation stays on the shelf.

First steps to digital transformation

So how can we encourage people to adopt the innovations we need to progress (and maybe even to survive)?

Well, here’s three insights I’ve learnt trying to get innovations off the ground:

1/ Give people what they already have (mostly).

Although I currently work in one of the most innovative sectors – XR – I began in another world of inventive creation – Film and TV. And I quickly learnt a valuable lesson: at first, I pitched story ideas to commissioners which were really new, that no one had ever thought about – back at the turn of the century it was considered innovative, even outlandish to have an all-woman cast! Or I would mash genres – a comedy horror, a kitchen-sink thriller. But that just freaked them out. They didn’t get it. They’d say, “We’re looking for something really new and exciting, something really unexpected” and in the next breath, “the new Friends…or the next X-files.

I learnt that basically they wanted more of the same. They wanted a slam-dunk which they knew had worked before. Of course, it needed to be slightly different. So they could market it as something “new and exciting”. But really it was the same old, same old, with just a sprinkling of something new. X-files with a clock in it.

So I learnt that what I had to do, when I pitched a “new” idea,  was to use well understood tropes, and to position it in a known genre (usually crime – that old chestnut). So everyone, from the commissioners to the audience, feels safe and well within their comfort zones.

And then I’d sneak in something fresh and unexpected, under the radar, just as they get settled and have already decided to give it a go….

And gradually, over the years, this incremental innovation has led to my original ideas being adopted. A film I wrote twenty-five years ago, with an all-women cast, a mash-up of family drama with horror, is about to go into production.

Which leads me to the second insight:

2/ Play the long-game. 

If you want to try digital transformation in your organisation, take baby steps.

Don’t present your workforce with your big idea all at once. Break it into smaller changes. And roll them out slowly, giving people time to adjust.

People need to know what will be expected of them before they will make any change. Even if the new idea promises to solve a problem for them and make life massively easier, they won’t adopt it unless they can see how it will work and believe the promises. And that means it has to be very similar to something they have used before – but with just a minor change they hardly notice.

Because most people don’t like change. Managing change is a tricky business in any organisation. My colleague, Tim Lambert wrote a book, Small Change, Big Returns, about how to navigate change, and suggests how it can be done in incremental stages, rather than wholesale change.

3/ Involve people in the innovation.

The other thing I learnt from film and tv development was this: some people might not get your new ideas, but they will understand their own – if they suggest an idea, it’s genius. So through discussion and collaboration the development team would work towards a new format or story concept, and  new ideas would emerge. And because it came out of a process involving the people with the power to sat Yes, it had a higher chance of getting through the hoops.

So involving the people who are going to be the adopters of any change makes it much more likely that the Digital Transformation will succeed. Getting teams to workshop it, raise questions, and solve problems themselves,  can actually transform things for the better.

So that would be my advice if you’re nervous about applying Digital Transformation into your organisation:

  • give people what they already have to make them feel secure;

  • make small changes incrementally, over a period of time;

  • let people feel part of the innovative process.

Otherwise you have to do what I did as a child. Get used to the smell of burning….