16 Apr

Transformation is a powerful word.

It signifies a material change of shape or appearance.

We all use it in one way or other.Losing weight. 

Decorating a bedroom. Digitising a tax system.

Add the word 'digital' to the mixing bowl and hormones go crazy with the possibility and expectation of something delightful and rich with goodness.Digital transformation implies speed, advantage and a level of certainty. We speak this way to de-risk our journey to success and to bring others along with us. Like prophets. 

And if we imply AI in the conversation then the stakes go off the grid.It is as if merely using these words is good enough. Speak a certain way and if enough of us do then the job is half done. And why not? It is what we humans do best. Nothing new.

The 'too good to be true' factor.

Around his office was his 'transformation programme'. Proudly stuck to the wall. Almost too good to spoil with scribble and notes. Like a fresh snowfall too good to walk on. A work of art in fact. And why not. The budget for this programme was extensive. A lot of people had worked sweated blood and tears to get to this point.

My job that day, however, was to be the proverbial 'pain in the bum'. The disruptor. The challenger. We all know someone like me.The back story to the meeting was a couple of conversations with the leader about the design thinking philosophy. 

A human centred discussion that went from trust and conflict through to programme design and outcome expectations. A discussion that spoke about humility, arrogance, empathy and ego in equal measure. A frank and honest discussion along the lines of 'we might be missing something in our programme deliberation'. 

This was why I was sitting there. 

I had convinced him to give me his leadership team for an hour.I didn't know his programme. I didn't have the inside track. I didn't understand the goals and costs involved. I was the complete outsider.

As it turned out I didn't need to know any of these things.

My job was to help those around the table to challenge their own mindset on what they believed was going on. Not to destabilise or threaten them. Not to expose them or make people feel awkward. No, to help them help each other challenge and reframe what they were working towards. To find blind spots in their thinking to ensure a stronger chance of success.

The only question I asked them that day was this."It is D Day +1 and the milestone you have delivered on has just failed". ( I had selected a significant date from the programme on the wall ).

The Day After Mindset.

I was asking the leader and his team to fast forward to this date and put themselves into what I called the 'day after' mindset. And to consider they were facing bad news. Failure in fact. And to try to put themselves into the shoes of the people being confronted with the changes expected that day. People who went into work that day and found out 'it didn't work'. We all know this feeling, right?

I asked each of them to spend a few minutes in quiet reflection and write down one word reasons for why it had failed.I then collected their notes and spent a few minutes in reflection.I then summarised to the team why the milestone deliverable had failed.

Why did I do this instead of the usual round the table feedback?

Because like all leadership teams, this group had egos a plenty. They were senior people with decades of doing this stuff. I knew they knew their domains. I knew they took no prisoners in their dealing with each other. But what I didn't know was how much they trusted each other. I didn't know also whether there was a dominant voice that once heard would shape responses from the rest.The feedback was to be expected of course. Time, suppliers, testing. None of them too surprising. The classic 'it will be someone else who screws it for us' was bubbling along. 

My job was not to peel the onion on the various reasons on offer. I am sure each of the leaders' were more than capable to do this if they chose to.

No. Instead I gave them one more thing to consider.Keeping uppermost in mind the person affected by the failure that day 

I asked them to draw two columns on their page.

Column A stood for MOST ADVANCED.


I asked them to consider for the people facing failure that day what were THREE components of the programme that would advance that persons' capability to do their job better that day. This was for Column A.

And then I asked them to consider from the perspective of this person what THREE changes would be deemed as being acceptable to them. Column B.

MAYA principle.

Standing for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable the principle suggests that on one side we (mankind) excel at adding more and more capability features to our thinking. 

Nothing wrong in that until we visit the other side and ask ourselves whether what we are designing and expecting from people is acceptable to them or not.One side is very finite. Measured, deliberate in nature and offering increased certainty. Machine orientated. Increasingly digital. 

The other is very infinite. Messy. Unpredictable. Confusing. Forever human.And it talks to the human's internal battle between things that are novel and creative and things that are familiar and comfortable.

Wrap up.

We only had an hour for this session so we had to quickly wrap up.I left it to each of them to summarise their Why for the failure of the milestone that day.From their Column A and B feedback the consensus was enlightening and quite humbling.

  • They were being too ambitious.
  • They were trying to be 'too transformational'
  • They had failed to understand what was acceptable to others.

We closed the meeting and I left them with their thinking. I heard subsequently they had incorporated a MAYA loop into their programme governance and I wish them well with what this brings.

Who knew.

I love doing this sort of stuff. I didn't think this was where I would be in my career but heh ho. Helping other people help themselves seems to be my thing. I enjoy it and have an appetite to do it again.

“When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.” - Eloise Ristad

P.S. The MAYA Principle. If you are interested check out the back story to someone I wish I had met. Raymond Loewy. A wonderful article about his thinking is here The MAYA Principle.


* The email will not be published on the website.