Socitm blog

The digital elephant is dancing in the room…

By Steve Cliff, Socitm Associate Director and independent consultant

It’s not often you get to link an elephant to digital transformation, but hear me out. According to Indian folklore, there was once a group of people from different religions who couldn’t agree what God looked like. So Buddha asked his disciples to find a magnificent elephant, and bring in four blind men who were each asked to guess the object. One blind man touched the elephant’s leg and said ‘it’s a pillar’. The second man its felt its ear and said ‘it’s a piece of cloth’. The third touched the tail and said ‘it’s a rope’. The last one patted the elephant’s stomach and said ‘it’s a wall’.

Each man touched the elephant but believed it was something different, so who in the story was right? Well, all of them and none of them. Similarly, this analogy perfectly illustrates how we all have different beliefs and perspectives about the world, all guided by our own life experiences. It is easy to see how so many different viewpoints exist about what ‘digital’ means, and why we spend so much time debating (often defending) our opinion with others. Of course we all believe we are right! If we didn’t then we’d be stupid wouldn’t we?

It was this very ‘elephant in the room’ that got our tongues wagging at London Digital Leaders, an event I facilitated. How do our different mindsets influence us? What is a ‘digital mindset’ and how do we behave as leaders in this digital world which is transforming so fast?

To stir discussion, I invited several leaders to share their own stories and perspectives. I used a format based on ‘collaborative leadership’ behaviours, shown below, with the aim to show how we can harvest the wisdom of the whole team. We created a spirit of trust and sharing, which made the whole day fun, engaging and productive.

Source: adapted from the Collaborative Lead Training Co.

What is the biggest blocker to collaboration? We all need to recognise that our own perspective on ‘digital’ will be different to that of all other stakeholders in a project. We are often so focused on describing the elephant, telling everyone else how wonderful our elephant (or tail, or ear..) is, we forget that change is about people. More than anything else, we live in an age with a rapid rate of technological change and we must learn how to overcome our natural resistance. Leaders of change now have a great responsibility to act as ‘collaborative leaders’ and to transform the working practices around them.

In the workshop, one of the breakout groups was asked to brainstorm ‘what is a digital mindset?’ This was then hotly debated in the room. But we all agreed that the first step for any digital leader is to live and breathe (talk the talk and walk the walk) these behaviours, shown below:

Our brainstorm was of course part of a much wider industry debate about the ‘digital mindset’. But for our intimate gathering, it was most useful to create this common perspective. After all, a set of collaborative leaders with digital mindsets can create an exciting work culture where change becomes the norm.

In our workshop many projects across the London boroughs were discussed, all circling back to the point that changing a team or organisational culture is the key to successful change. This has to start with understanding our own beliefs, and being courageous enough to suspend them so that we can really listen and collaborate with others who may have different ones.

Our ‘digital elephant’ is the sum of all the parts of our teams, stakeholders, processes and technology. Sometimes when we get this elephant in the room we can start to create a common view that we all share and buy into. As Lou Gerstner from IBM once famously quoted in the title of his book “who says elephants can’t dance?”