“We, as leaders in this field, have to ask ourselves: Is there a better way?”
Public Interest Technologists want to do good work that lasts. But that’s never easy. Change is constant—from political will, to funding, to emergencies and crises that distract from what’s important. Even when there’s good alignment, bureaucracy and a risk-averse climate make sustainable changer the exception, rather than the rule.
There’s a better way. By approaching projects from three distinct angles—technology, people, and process—digital transformation leaders can increase their chances of success.
In this keynote, from the 2019 FWD50 archives, Afua Bruce demonstrates how to keep on track, overcome red tape, and deliver important, sustainable services that take hold.
Please see the full transcript of the talk below.
[00:00:00] Afua Bruce:
Good morning. Good morning. Okay, good try. I want you all to imagine yourself on a normal work day in the office. You’re sitting at your desk minding your own business. When you suddenly hear someone strongly knocking at your door, you walk up just in time to see an FBI agent let herself into your office.
And before you can even say hello, she looks at you and says, if your changes succeed, missions will fail. How do you react as you look at the frustration on her face and notice that like most agents, she’s wearing her gun on her hip. You probably think to yourself, I should have stayed home today, but you’ve literally nowhere to go.
So instead you take a deep breath and say, can you tell me more? Now this scenario wasn’t imaginary for me. Versions of this happened, many times to me while I was working on science and [00:01:00] technology projects at the FBI, this particular project was about an organizational change that we were doing that involved some new it systems, as well as a new policy.
And now I thought I had done everything correctly. Everything that you’re supposed to do when you’re running a big transformational change project. I had done my user research within the division. I had gotten buy in from the senior executive to the point where he had had a big meeting where he declared that the changes that I had proposed were going to be the way of the future.
They were going to fix so many problems about agents working better with professional staff, and that if anyone should have any questions, they could talk to me, which of course is what led to this agent knocking on my door and the, shall we call it constructive feedback that she provided that day.
In this situation, I ended up inviting her to be part of the solution and recognizing that leading a change project that I too might [00:02:00] have to change some of my plans. And everything worked out. The changes were implemented and the new way of doing business became the norm. Now, why do I tell you this story?
Is it because that as a computer engineer who loves talking government innovation, I feel like I can benefit from some cool points by mentioning my FBI experience? Yes, absolutely. But it is also because I think this project is indicative of change projects and transformation projects that we run in the public interest that is to say in government agencies and in NGOs.
You might not have had this exact scenario happen to you, but you’ve probably had something similar happen, right? You’ve talked about a change project that you wanted to run and someone has said, but the mission, we can’t take our employees offline to teach them something new. Or they’ve said, but the history, you just don’t understand how we got to where we are today. Or, it works well enough. Why should we bother changing anything? Or my personal favorite, I didn’t break it. I don’t have to fix [00:03:00] it. Do any of these sound familiar to any of you? Okay. So maybe we should have some counseling sessions about that later, but that’s not either here nor there.
But working on projects that are regarding digital transformation and the public interest have a lot of starts and stops, right? Some key assumption may be debunked along the way. Someone may raise a big objection or in the worst case scenario and organization implements the change, but after a short period of time, decides that this change isn’t worth it after all, and does a lot of extra work to revert back to doing things the way they had been doing things.
So, we as leaders in this field have to ask ourselves, is there a better way? How can we lead this work in a way that our digital transformation project lead to successful and sustainable change? I’ve heard a few theories on this. I’ve heard it said, it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people. It’s not about the [00:04:00] people. It’s about the process. It’s not about the process. It’s about something else. And in short, I wholeheartedly disagree with that. All of those statements. It is absolutely about the technology. It is also absolutely about the people and also absolutely about the process. You really need to make sure that when you are leading work in the digital transformation space in the public interest, you take a look at technology, people and process, to implement any sustainable change.
Let’s start with technology. Now I’m going to lay out a key assumption, which is that if we believe in the services that these institutions provide, we should believe that they should be implemented well and implemented smoothly. In an ideal world, as policies are designed, technologists are at the table thinking of the implementation concerns as the policies are developed.
How many of you work in a space where this is what happens on a day to day basis, most times? I see, I think exactly two hands. Which is great for you two. But for the rest [00:05:00] of us, we often find ourselves then having to fix some broken technology. Maybe there’s an I.T. System that was rolled out to extreme fanfare, but over time has become overlooked or neglected or undefunded. Or maybe there is one process, but different agencies own different pieces of the process and instead of creating one coherent solution for the user, users instead have a very disjointed experience where they have to go from site to site, from agency to agency to accomplish something simple. Or maybe we are creating something new because there’s been a new need identified or someone has a new vision and we want to take our work to a new level.
In any of these situations though, sometimes the work is really challenging and sometimes it’s just not sexy or challenging at all. It’s really boring, quite frankly, and requires getting down into the weeds and just doing the hard work. But when that isn’t the case, it’s important that as leaders, you do bring to bear your full technology [00:06:00] expertise and propose solutions that are advanced enough to actually move the organization forward and not just put a bandaid on the situation.
I’ll give you an example. So I used to work at the FBI and helping to respond to manmade disasters. I also used to run disaster shelters for the red cross responding to natural disasters. So when a friend, saw a recent disaster in the U S and wanted to help, she called me for some advice. She had identified a nonprofit agency that was providing services to people affected by the disaster and she was going to digitize their intake process.
She told me how she wanted to create a Google form and a Google spreadsheet to manage this process, and that didn’t seem right to me, but she assured me that it would work and she assured me that people had signed onto this. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later she called me again to tell me how, although things had gotten off to a good start, the Google spreadsheet couldn’t support the volume of information and the complicated queries that were [00:07:00] needed.
What my friend actually had just needed to do was to spend a little bit more time developing a proper database, buy a better commercial office shelf solution to help out, but instead she tried to take a short cut with the idea that some technology was better than no technology. As a result, the story didn’t have a happy ending as the organization had to manually revert back to what they had been doing.
And so, as you’re going through your projects, it’s important to make sure that you are bringing true, deep, technical expertise to identify solutions that are actually complicated enough for the situation, but also appropriate. Don’t take this admonition to then over-design technology and design something overly complicated that can’t be sustained, but make sure that you are designing appropriate and responsible solutions for the environment in which you work.
And finally, in case you need to hire a contractor, hire some additional support, buy something new, start your [00:08:00] procurement process early and make sure that you are investing in talent, whether that is hiring new people or upskilling the people who are already on your team.
So now let’s move to the second piece of the trifecta. People. Also known as feelings. So I’m gonna refer to John Kotter’s seminal research on change theory here, because oftentimes when you’re dealing with a digital transformation project, the people component is dependent on how well you are able to manage change.
John Kotter in 1996 published a book called Leading Change, which examined how organizations transform themselves. He followed it up several years later, when he co-authored a book with Dan Cohen called The Heart of Change, which looked at why organizations failed in their change initiatives, and they found that true change comes from getting people to change their behavior. From speaking to people’s feelings and getting them really to feel like they needed to change.
[00:09:00] So in his first book, John Kotter developed the eight step change model, and you can see it here on the screen, but I’m going to focus in on just four of these steps that are specially peopley, if you will.
So the second step is forming a coalition. And it’s important to form a coalition when you’re doing this work because quite frankly, if you try to do it all yourself, one, you’ll tire yourself out, but two, you likely won’t succeed. You need to develop a coalition of people who have various levels of expertise who are at various levels of the organization, from your line level employee, to your senior executive, from your developer to your lawyer, to other people in the organization. Because you also need people to delegate tasks to and to give a good perspective as to what is going on, not just in this project, but how it’s fitting into the organization. I also sometimes describe this as getting other people to do your dirty work. If you were the only person who was ever talking about change and why it’s important, it will only matter to you, [00:10:00] and as soon as you leave, even if you implemented that change, that change will leave with you. So it’s important to build a strong coalition.
Step three in Kotter’s eight step model is creating a vision. Oftentimes, especially when it comes to digital transformation, the work that we’re trying to do is somewhat complicated, somewhat complex, can obtuse to people who are going to be affected by the change. So distilling down the change into something short and simple, relatively short and simple, that creates an inspirational vision for people to aspire to, and creates a pathway for people to see themselves making change and creating something new and better is really important.
The fifth step in the model is removing obstacles. In short, people like to find the path of least resistance. And so if you are able to leverage your coalition and any other resources that you have to bear in the situation, you will remove obstacles and people will want to now go down the path that has fewer obstacles for you. [00:11:00] To do this, especially in government institutions, as you probably know, it requires developing quite a bit of tenacity. Removing obstacles that have been entrenched in the society and intrenched in the organization isn’t easy work and it will take time.
And then finally, the eighth step in the change model is anchoring any change into the corporate culture. Now for government institutions, I refer to this as using bureaucracy for good. As you are probably well aware, in government institutions, government agencies – they’ve been around for a long time, they have a defined way of doing things or at least a defined way of communicating to the people what work they should be doing. So if you’ve gone through the process of making change, if you stepped out of the process and done some innovation, you’ve done a lot of work. Insert your work back then into the defined rulemaking process. Insert it back into the bureaucracy that sort of keeps the organization going. This also has the effect of, if you now have codified your changes back into the [00:12:00] system that people refer to often and the system that keeps the organization going, given the work that it takes to break down bureaucracy, your work is going to be around for a long time.
Now we get to move on to process. Process is one of my favorite things to talk about, I’ll confess. I’ll have a dinner party at my house and I start the night with a process overview so my guests know how we’re getting drinks, how we’re sitting down, when the food will be served, when dessert will be served, and when the entertainment will start.
My friends haven’t quite figured out how to articulate their appreciation of my process, but I know deep down inside they really appreciate it. So, I like to say when I’m working on different projects with governments, federal agencies and NGOs, structure allows freedom. And freedom allows empowerment. So when you are able to create a structure that gives people a framework for making decisions so they don’t have to make the same decision over and over again, they don’t have to figure out how to do simple things [00:13:00] every single time they need to do it. When you take that out of the question for them, they’re able to use their extra brain power now, they’re free brain power, to think of new ways of doing things. To think of better ways of doing things. To think of how they can serve their end user better. And so by creating a structure, you can better create a way for people to interact in a way to get the job done.
Sometimes, you’ll even find that by creating this structure before you even do the technology piece, or other parts of the people piece. You’ll have a result in your project. Through New America, the think tank that I work for in D C, I run a public interest technology program, we work on developing technology and policy together at a lot of government agencies.
We had one particular project where we were working with a foster care department. And specifically the process between the time a family says, I would like to keep a child in my home and provide this child with a safe environment, and the time in which the state says, we too think it’s a good idea for you to keep a child in your home and provide a safe [00:14:00] environment. Now, before we got involved, this process took months and I mean more than a year. About 18 months. And as a result, a lot of people, most of the people who started the process didn’t finish. Some of them fell out because it had just been too long and things changed. And so before we even took a look at the data and we started restructuring the data or finding the right IT system and client management system to help this organization, we looked at the process. We started to move boxes around the different steps of the process, realized that some things that were done in serial, it could have been done in parallel instead. Realized that some things people thought had to been done, were just nice to haves, or someone’s personal preference from years ago, as opposed to actually required by law. And we found that just by starting with these process improvements, we significantly reduced the time of the licensing process before, again, even looking at the data and making these other improvements.
So when you’re able to improve your process, in addition to providing a structure that allows people the freedom to [00:15:00] innovate, you can also have a tangible impact on the outcomes of the situation, and again, your ability to deliver services.
So we’ve now talked about the technology, the people, and the process, right?
The trifecta of managing work, managing transformation and public interest organizations. But how does this all come together? What do you really need to make sure you’re doing? These three things: being intentional about who you’re putting on your team, empowering your team, and supporting others by sharing what you do. And sharing what you learned.
The first piece: being intentional about who you’re putting on your team. You want to make sure that as you create your designs tables, as you create the people who are designing the process or designing the policy or designing the technology, that you’re being inclusive, that you’re making sure that you’ve got a mix of genders and mix of races and mix of socioeconomic backgrounds and other factors around your design table. You want to make sure that you are [00:16:00] empowering your team to make decisions. You as a leader, it’s great for you to be the leader, but you also have to realize that you have a team, you have that coalition not just to help you get work done, but also for their expertise. Do not hire a software engineer on your team, just to then force her to write marketing copy for you because that’s what you needed done. Empower your team to use the skillset that they were hired for and to make decisions on their own. And then finally support others by sharing what you learned.
I think sometimes when we do this work, we’re so in it. We’re so consumed by the effort that it can take to make transformation happen, that once it finally finishes, we take a deep breath and sort of go off to our own corners to recollect ourselves or just move on to the next project. And instead we need to make sure that we’re taking the time to share our lessons learned with others who are doing this work. There’s no reason that someone else needs to go through the exact same struggles and the exact same complications that you did, when you could have just documented it. [00:17:00] You could have shared it in a format like this. You could have written a blog post. You could have shared an article or a training to help someone else start their process from a little further than you did.
Now, I don’t know if in your workplace you are at risk of a federal agent knocking on your door and telling you that missions will fail if your changes happen, but the work you do is consequential. The work you do really matters. And the people who are ultimately affected by the changes that you are trying to make are counting on you to be able to run these changes successfully, to run them smoothly, and to make the changes last.
They’re counting on you to figure out how to combine technology, people and process to make these changes work. I know you won’t let them down. Thank you.