Can an old company learn new tricks?

Getting ready for the next 100 years

If you know my employer, Herman Miller at all, you know it’s a company with a legacy of design innovation stretching back to the dawn of Modernism in America. Unfortunately, it’s also a company that’s never been particularly adept with digital technology. We’ve long known the potential of tech to disrupt traditional companies; way back in 2011 Marc Andreessen warned that Software is Eating the World and the trend is only accelerating. Even old enterprise software stalwart, Microsoft, is telling us to change our outlook.

“Every company is a software company. You have to start thinking and operating like a digital company. It’s no longer just about procuring one solution and deploying”

— Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

You don’t know where you’re going yet

Despite what some consultants and experts will tell you, this is an idiosyncratic path of discovery that is different for every company. At the beginning of any journey, you know the least about your route so goals will undoubtedly change along the way.

We’re all in this together

Any cultural transformation generates trepidation. People you work with might get territorial and defensive, but don’t let that be you. Remember, external pressure is forcing your organization to change, everyone you work with, no matter how difficult or defensive is actually on your team. Try to make the most of them.

Tell the customers’ stories

Changing a companies culture and workflows is a fundamentally an internal process, and it can feel threatening. I’ve found a focus on the customer’s experience is a great antidote to defensiveness. To that end, we create a lot of customer journey maps and share them broadly. Not only does that research translate into a better understanding of the business, but it also rallies a team around to provide value to customers.

Share wins, be honest about loses

We set up a guild, a public Slack channel, and a newsletter to share customer-centered work. We make a point to present work created all over the company, not just our team. I think it’s important to show work we can learn from, not just take a victory lap, so we show wins and losses. After all, a big reason we do research is to learn what doesn’t work and avoid it later.

Deliver some easy stuff

I’m tempted by the biggest meatiest problems. Who doesn’t love a challenge? But there is power in building momentum with simple easy wins. Here is an example of an easy win we found. Some basic research showed several categories weren’t matching search trends, so we changed a few category titles. A simple change, but it netted a 20% improvement in organic traffic to those pages.

Agile is an uncomfortable fit

There are so many things working against being agile in a big company it can seem impossible. Annual funding models, team allocation, organization silos and the like will all make it harder to become agile. The pressure of adopting to agile even leads well-intentioned teams to adopt Fake Agile by simply following all ceremonial steps dictated by Scrum, without a real change of heart. It helps my mental health to remember many successful companies face the same challenge and to remember some of the most innovative companies in the world don’t call their processes “Agile”, they just find what works.

Don’t build more than you can run

I love building new things. It’s an exciting way to work, it’s easy to build enthusiasm in the company and get funding. Unfortunately, if your lovely new projects are going to have an impact, they’ll need to continual investment, which is boring and expensive but totally necessary. Try to resist building tools that won’t be supported.

New projects are often pitched as pilots if that’s the case set some clear criteria for success and a deadline ahead of time. That way you can confidently decide to fund a continuation or cut the effort off.

It never stops

Digital Transformation isn’t just digital. It’s a cultural transformation, so even if your team adapts to this cycle, the process doesn’t stop. Any company that survives long enough will face cultural change repeatedly, so keep an iterative mindset.

This is an incomplete list for sure. I’d love to hear what’s worked, or even what hasn’t worked for you. Pointers, advice, and corrections are all welcome.

Design Leader, Sporadic Writer.

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