People get stuck….until they don’t

10 tribes of digital diagram

I have a theory that people and systems tend to get ‘stuck’ at the point at which they have their digital moment and realise that the world could actually be different and that looking at how you change ways of working as well as the underlying technology could be part of that difference. The problem is that those same systems and people keep flinging themselves at revelation trying to make chance happen.

This is an extension of my digital tribes work. The digital tribes are my digital ethnography side hustle project looking at the emergent cultural groupings and the way in which organisations get captured by a definition of digital and then get stuck trying to deliver it. I last updated the tribes thinking a couple of years agoand rereading it I think there are two major additions to the tribes:

  • The design thinking tribe has continued to grow but we are now seeing service design really coming to the fore and UX being seen much more as a delivery discipline. There are still a lot of skinny jeans and post-it notes involved here.
  • Systems thinking is the new tribe on the block: while not new its now being used across the board as a way of navigating complexity

In the next iteration I think I’m going to add the product people from the methods tribe as they have gotten louder and I am also expecting to include the quiet rise of the engineer leaders; a tribe of technical folks who are confident enough in modern engineering to try and claim whole aspects of the other tribes; method, design and data to name but three. I am not sure if Devops will be owned by this tribe or whether it emerges on its own.

So far so stereotyped but for me the encouraging thing about all of this is the emergence of some shared ideas such as the need for multidisciplinary teams, the link between technology and organisational design and the mainstreaming of some of the cultural aspects of these tribes; mainly iterative and experimental approaches. For government folks this is beautifully summed up in Simon Parkers recent piece in the context of rethinking new public management and the role of government.

The fact is that all of the tribes have deepened and extended their disciplines and this makes it more likely that they will meet in the middle rather than being slightly tense islands afloat in organisation: new ways of working are reaching critical mass.

We are also starting to see ‘traditional’ disciplines moving closer to the new ones – or vice versa. Some of the most satisfying work I have seen over the last 12 months has been seeing business analysts collaborating with UXers, Project managers with agile coaches and service designers working with business architecture to build rich pictures of how people process and technology join up for us.

This speaks to one of the reasons that I started doing my tribes side hustle – I tend to have a bad reaction to people talking in absolutes and a lot of the digital tribes have tended to try and hold organisations hostage – basically do it my way or you are off the digital highway. They can also be quite humourless about their craft which I also react badly to. I am more about looking at the liminal spaces between the tribes and looking at how we build bridges not just between these new groups but also between the people who have not yet had their digital epiphany and need to get their heads around it. I like my digital with a bit of kindness and empathy.

System change is rarely just cultural however and there is is another change (or lack of change) trap that it’s easy to fall into and this one is a framing problem; do you frame digital as a strategy opportunity or a cultural one? The digital tribes very much frame things in a cultural sense but the capture I talked about earlier is also about one of these tribes taking hold of the organisational change agenda and focusing on their domain as being the heart of digital transformation.

This can be seen by the rolling and emerging definitions of digital transformation that we have seen from the first ‘brochure online’,through digital marketing, data driven decision making to AI and automation definitions. The leading edge of digital transformation is now focused on organisational agility with the kind of design/system thinking mashup that Simon described alongside it. As the definition of digital transformation has shifted so has the organisational arena in which its debated as well as the reason for pursuing it in the first place.

We’re heading into a global recession and most if not all organisations are going to be facing some tough choices. We’re also seeing a massive growth in the everyday use of digital technologies. Organisations that survive will have worked out how to make the best use of those technologies for their purposes and will have avoided getting stuck on one definition of digital or captured by a specific tribe.

Not all organisations will survive this period and arguably the ones which are two knitted into analogue or industrial society business models shouldn’t – but if you do want to survive its time to get your head around this stuff.

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