Digitalization - Deal with it! 

 15 February 2021

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The Digitalization is not coming - it's already here!

And she's not going anywhere. Sitting out and burying your head in the sand is pointless. Covering your eyes doesn't make the "problem" Digitalization go away either. It stays. And that's a good thing. And this new era is not so new, it started many years ago. At the beginning of the still-ubiquitous Corona crisis, many entrepreneurs and self-employed people approached me asking what they could do now to be more digital - and, if possible, to take all of their business online immediately. But Digitalization is not a project that is done by deploying a web shop. It is a process and an attitude that affects the entire company at all levels. The crisis has now abruptly shown what has been missed in this direction over the last few years. On the other hand, that's not such a bad thing, because it forces us to think about it now.

Digitalization - Deal with it!

Based on my insights into the workings of companies in Silicon Valley, Shanghai and Shenzhen, I noticed after my return how skeptical we here in Germany and Europe are about new technologies. For me as a "tekkie", this is difficult to understand. For me as a coach, on the other hand, it is quite understandable: we live in security and prosperity and owe this to a large extent to traditional industries (such as the automotive and medical technology industries), to which we now naturally cling, which we want to keep alive. That's ok, as is the fear of job loss due to Digitalization. Except it's not a solution. Because the Digitalization isn't coming... it's already here. Deal with it. The question should not be: Will technology affect my business? But rather: How can I actively shape this change? And this question hovers over my work with entrepreneurs and self-employed people.

Copy and paste?

Silicon Valley has created a well-functioning ecosystem where tech startups and corporations can scale and thrive. You can already walk in amazement through Shenzhen, the "Silicon Valley of hardware", where road traffic consists almost exclusively of e-cars and city planning is supplied with the city's data in real time. - But how do we transfer this to Germany and Europe? In particular, things that work well, if possible without the downsides such as the external or self-exploitation of employees or the complete monitoring including social scoring. Taking individual aspects out of context and adopting them in isolation doesn't work, or only by chance: a bit of Scrum here, a kicker there and Casual Friday at the end of the week. It is often forgotten that things are different here: our framework, rules, values, social system, culture and history - it cannot be applied 1:1. Fair-weather agility then leads straight to frustration among employees ("Yes, what have they come up with up there again?") and at management level ("Can't they just work efficiently in an agile way?").

Digitalization with humanity

In order to continue on "our" path into the digital age and not head for dystropy, we need to put a sometimes out-of-fashion value back at the center: humanity. In the end, it is always about people: whether employee or manager, software architect, developer, trainee or senior, supplier, provider or customer. It is the human being that all technology should serve and he is the most important resource in this transformation. Thus, successful Digitalization needs not only technical but especially personal development of the stakeholders and teams. Put an end to shock and awe. Sort out clothes, breathe and actively shape the future. Then agile values and an agile mindset also have a chance of not just being empty phrases on the foyer wall, but lived practice.

All that glitters is not agile

In the same breath as "we want to be digital now please" often comes "...oh and please also agile... really nice with Scrum or Kanban and Dailies and so. Because with these methods we will be faster, more efficient and more cost-effective". - Hm. With such an approach I guess that the project "agility" will also fail. Agile methods are of course a good start, but much more important is the development of values and mindset. What self-image should be behind the methods?. It needs clarity: why do we actually want to be agile now? Why don't we continue as before?

A model - false, but useful

The question was already on my mind in my first agile projects in the early 2000s: Why? Why change all processes, responsibilities, hierarchies, new tools here and fancy methods there? Just because it is hip and everybody is doing it? Yes, you can of course argue with faster, higher, further, more flexible... but for me a completely different reason has emerged over the years: Working - thinking - agile helps us deal with knowing we know nothing - that is, with uncertainty. And how did that come about? Here a vague but useful model helps: At some point - where this also started with this Digitalization - complicated became complex. That was a turning point. But it's already over. Complicated used to be. Now it's complex.

The "good" old days

Not everything was better in the past. But some things were easier. At least easier to understand. Projects were manageable. Even large projects could be based on a relatively stable framework. An MS Project plan still had a useful half-life. The connection between cause and effect was understandable. If something was changed at one point, it was possible to estimate what the effect would be. This was the great time of the optimizers. Making the process more and more efficient. Cut away what can be cut away. Fine-tuning the set screws and coordinating them with each other so that the whole project structure runs like clockwork. That worked pretty well, at least until the cost of further optimization outweighed the benefits. But that was only one problem.

I know that I know nothing and I do not know what I do not know

Let's blame it on the Internet. Maybe not the first generation, not even the second, but at some point our projects started to develop a life of their own. Creeping, hardly noticeable. Only accompanied by the uneasy feeling that it becomes confusing. A few systems were linked here and there, a data exchange and a few interfaces. And today we are faced with applications and system landscapes whose algorithms can no longer be explained by individuals (but they do work). Complex systems in which the relationship between cause and effect is no longer clear. And whoever turns a cog here cannot be sure where or on what it will have an effect. And this does not only apply to projects - companies and our society as a whole have also developed in this direction. But that's not all. Even the framework conditions are no longer so stable: fast cycles, fast markets, new contexts, everything dynamic, a physical virus that - snap - turns the entire world upside down. Safe Habour here, DSGVO there, employees and their needs, shareholders and theirs. And all that in a rush. So here we are and we have three options:

  1. further optimizing and sticking to the usual: this then ends in frustration or burnout - and the goal can no longer be achieved.
  2. Sit it out. Theoretically possible, if you have staying power and bet that everything will go back to the way it was. But it won't.
  3. Accepting uncertainty and shaping it yourself. Sounds exhausting, tedious and unsatisfying. It is. And the only chance.

Ok, accepting uncertainty - what's so hard about that? In my experience, the biggest hurdle to overcome is the fear of not having control. Not having anything to fill MS Project and any PowerPoint report traffic lights with. Not being able to cover all contingencies in a linear fashion. Not being able to hedge your bets for the long term. Not having a scapegoat when things go wrong. And this is where agile methods come into play: because they are there to establish the values, beliefs, visions - in short: - the mindset that we need for the solution: more trust, more courage, more self-responsibility.

Your agile start into the Digitalization

Yes and how do you do that now? How do you and your company become more agile? I've been researching the magic pill "Digitalikum forte plus C" for years. Just give every employee one tablet in the morning before the first meeting and after a week the pain is gone and everything is agile. That would be nice. Unfortunately, pills often only fix the symptom. For agile transformation, companies can't avoid changing their "habits". Because if I've learned anything in my 20+ years of experience with technology and people: It takes time, patience and energy. Well, we don't have all that lying around in abundance. That's why it's all the more important to start in the right places. Otherwise, the road ends in a frustrated, expensive dead end.

Four aspects that I find particularly important:

  1. Your own way: Agile methods are nice and useful, but they are also just best practices of others. It is important that you find your individual agile path that fits your company, your employees and your framework.
  2. The first step: as is often the case, it is important to get started, try things out and find out what works and what does not. It makes sense to start with Scrum, Kanban or Lean - but it's risky to simply impose such a framework completely on a company. It is better to start with partial aspects of it, e.g. a daily meeting or a retrospective.
  3. From project to mindset: Changing the culture or mindset does not happen overnight. And there is always a strong interaction with the employees. In order to establish self-responsibility, solution orientation and out-of-the-box thinking, a competent coach is needed to accompany the professional, but above all the personal development of the employees. With the appropriate expertise, the manager can also take on this role.
  4. Leverage what's already there: In my experience, there is often untapped potential in companies for this journey: your employees, with all their ideas, strengths, knowledge and talents. Lift and use this treasure for your process.

Now what?

Shape your path into this digital age. Follow it consistently and take your employees, colleagues, customers and suppliers with you on the journey. Transform your company to be or become more successful in the digital future. Call me - for support, ideas or simply to exchange ideas. An agile journey also has a lot to do with togetherness and communication. I look forward to hearing from you.

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