Approaches to digital transformation and How They Are Influenced by How People View Organizations

In my previous article (Digital transformation: Engaging for Success) I discussed the importance of people in achieving successful digital transformation. In this article I discuss how the approach to transformation is influenced by the way that people view organizations.  

People’s presuppositions about what organizations are and how they change has a huge impact on the approach to transformation. I refer to these sets of basic presuppositions as ‘paradigms’, and the two paradigms that are most significant in any business transformation are the ‘mechanistic’ and the ‘organic’.  

If you instinctively see organizations in a more mechanical way, then you are likely to see change as an engineering process – upgrading or transforming the mechanism so that it can deliver a new or improved capability. Your language becomes one of designing the solution, creating blueprints, delivering capabilities, and optimizing performance. You may ask questions like: ‘What levers can we apply?’, ‘How do we upgrade this capability?’, ‘How do we re-engineer our processes?’, ‘How do we fix our operations?’, ‘Is this function performing adequately?’The defining feature of this paradigm is that it tends to see change as deterministic. You can determine what needs to happen, determine the plan to make it happen, and deliver on the plan to achieve predetermined results. This is only possible when you conceive of the organization as something that functions in a pre-determined way, like a machine. 

If you instinctively see organizations in a more organic or biological way, then you are more likely to see change as an adaptive process – so you might talk about helping the business to learn, respond and mature. You may ask questions like: ‘How do we adapt to the changing customer need?’, ‘How do we spawn new ideas more rapidly?’, ‘How do we mature our service offerings?’, ‘How can we grow as an organization?’, ‘Do we have resilience in our DNA?’, ‘When will the change take root?’. The defining feature of this paradigm is that it sees change as emergent. Changes in the organization’s environment emerge over time, and the correct response needs to emerge through iterative experiment and adaptation. You cannot predetermine how an organization will respond to a change in its environment, let alone a change that you try to instigate on its behalf.  

People who see the world in a more mechanistic/deterministic way tend to favour approaches that show precision and exactitude, as these will be most helpful when trying to ‘upgrade’ the organizationPeople who see the world in a more organic/biological way want to inspire co-ordinated response from the organization as a living system. This is, of course, a huge generalisation – there are plenty of change managers and designers who are very comfortable working in a mechanistic mindset when the problem at hand can be straightforwardly codified and solved using best practice, and there are plenty of programme managers and business architects who can work in an emergent, organic way when the situation is equivocal and requires imagination and active experimentation.  

The Programme-led approach is an archetype of the mechanistic paradigm, the Design-led approach is an archetype of the emergent paradigm, and Systems-led approaches occupy the space in between. Most large-scale organizational changes will involve a combination of these approaches (although they will usually be under the umbrella of programme for the purposes of governance and funding). 

The dominant approach to large-scale change in organizations remains Programme Management, an approach that we see as being rooted firmly in the deterministic paradigm. This reflects the fact that, despite a marked shift in recent decades, the machine metaphor is still the overwhelmingly dominant way that most people think and talk in large organizations, even those who want to see them in a more organic and human light. The language is so engrained that most of us don’t even notice it. We call organizational units ‘functions’, not ‘organs’. ‘Functions’ are made up of ‘processes’, not ‘cells’. So, when we want to change, we need to define the change in advance and create programme to ‘deliver’ it for us. 

As I said earlier, paradigms are presuppositions – they are sets of assumptions that we don’t notice, but which underpin our view of the approach to change. Even when things don’t go right, our tendency is still to hold onto our paradigms and blame the people who don’t see it our way for why it’s gone wrong.  

No paradigm is right or wrong, just as no particular methodology is right or wrong. We are more likely to achieve the desired change when we are willing to see the world through other people’s eyes, and we are willing to adapt our approach to the circumstances. But until we are aware of our own biases and presuppositions, we will not be open to seeing the value in these other perspectives. What is important is that the more we learn to recognise them in ourselves and others, the broader a repertoire we are going to be able to deploy – both as individuals and as teams – to meet the needs of the situation. 

So, in a complex, highly ambiguous situation, for example, stepping into a more emergent paradigm is likely to see us creating more freeform views involving a wider range of stakeholders, asking more open questions and using live diagramming techniques to try to find a way to understand the problem. Immediately setting up a programme team with structures to deliver a solution is probably not the best way forward when we don’t even know what the problem is. But if we do know the problem and the solution is already at hand (an incremental IT upgrade, say), we won’t get very far if no one is willing to step into a deterministic paradigm and start putting together the solution architecture and project plan.  

On the vast majority of transformations, the crucial thing is not to pick a paradigm but to be able to gather an appropriate blend from across the whole spectrum. Most transformation starts with a high degree of uncertainty, in which a Design Thinking or systems inquiry approach is likely to be most appropriate. As the change progresses, activity will need to be programmed that affects the existing estate, which will need to be modelled mechanistically. If the ongoing engagement of staff follows this mechanistic approach though, it’s more likely to alienate than inspire people, as they feel they are being ‘done unto’ by the programme. 


Author profile 

Jonathan Whelan 2 1e238cd5f10811aead187b7db4033b74
Jonathan Whelan

Jonathan is an established business transformation specialist who has over 34 years’ experience in change-related roles. His commonsense approach to addressing complex business problems and shaping practical, sustainable solutions has been fundamental to the success of many transformation programs.

In his spare time, Jonathan writes about business transformation, especially in relation to the issues and opportunities associated with information technology. His latest book, co-authored with Stephen Whitla and published by Routledge, is titled Visualising Business Transformation – Pictures, Diagrams and the Pursuit of Shared Meaning.


VisiualizingVisualising Business Transformation – Pictures, Diagrams and the Pursuit of Shared Meaning 

Jonathan Whelan and Stephen Whitla

Pub: Routledge; 1 edition (6 Feb. 2020)

Hardback and eBook (Kindle & VitalSource)

ISBN-10: 1138308242

ISBN-13: 978-1138308244