It was in an animated conversation with a dear friend a quote came up. He said, quoting the Marathi playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar, as he spoke of writing, “the experience is always bigger than the writing”. His words have stayed with me ever since. Especially so, when I sit down to write and wanted to describe an experience. Last week, in the middle of a conversation on Digital change, I was so reminded of this again. As a fine bunch of tech colleagues focused much on the technology that they were getting deployed. I call it ‘Feature Focus’. And features don’t sell!
Helping organisations navigate digital change processes brings me front and centre of how much ‘feature focus’ dominates conversations. The top three conversation dominators in my experience have been like the following
- This product can do ‘X’ and then it can do ‘y’.
- If users face a problem then they can click button Q and hit enter and they will get a view of the help centre and raise a ticket..
- It runs on ‘XYZ platform with ABC technology that has been adopted by 85% of Fortune 500 firms.
You get the drift.
Products rarely succeed (or fail) solely by virtue of the features within. What a product can do, in this case, a technology, is also dependent on the context of the environment in question. To have passionate conversations without the end user’s context in the room often proves to be the digital change efforts undoing. Falling in love with our areas of expertise ( geeks falling in love with technology, facilitators obsessed with their ‘performance’ etc). So much so that focus remains trained on the features within, forgetting that the technology is just a means to a larger business goal.
Reflections on my experience and conversations with fellow change practitioners lead me to three thought trails. To many, am restating the obvious. But I have been through serial surprises over the last few weeks on how blinding the obvious is, that it is completely missed.
1. Features are contextual
Features are not absolutes. They are always a function of the context in which they are deployed in. A 5G phone may be fantastic by itself. In a geography where technology is limited to 3G phones, 5G has no relevance! While this may occur to you as a rather inane example, it illustrates the point. Imagine sitting in meetings where the virtues of such ‘5G technology’ are extolled.
Business rhythms, organisational cycles, tendencies for change and the need for change all matter much. When these are drowned in the noise of features, the change effort goes nowhere. It, in fact, is a giveaway for how the change effort will unravel!
2. Tech adoption is not a function of features
Features are important. So is context. Yes. There are more elements that determine adoption. To me, a key aspect is demystifying the technology element and weaving it into daily work. The time lag between the start of the change effort and when change hits every individual is a big factor too. The essence, however, is to focus on ‘work’ and how work shifts for every employee. Features and glory of the technology in itself have to be experienced on the ground, more because of the shift in work. There is no glory in them being on Powerpoint slides.
3. Communication is not the fancy poster in the hallway
There is a communication 101 lesson that I recall. Communication is always a function of how it is received. Numerous change efforts have fancy posters, screensavers, games, and contests. To my mind, communication is a ‘moment of truth’ thing. It happens at places closest where work gets done. It often happens between people on the ground. At least the communication that determines the sustenance and success of the change happens there. That’s why keeping the ear to the ground trumps hanging from the nail in a hallway in the ivory tower.
Designing effective change requires courage. It seeks a huge degree of going beyond the immediate and seeing the larger picture. It requires a raw courage to thrive in the ambiguous gray of change. Above all, it mandates going beyond a feature focus. That often means going past a stated requirement and find a new plane. For a change practitioner, that requires comfort in crowing heroes of change and staying in the shadows. Borrowing from my friend’s quote of Mahesh Elkunchwar, the change that is sought is more important than the skills it takes to orchestrate it!