Navigating the Rough Seas of Cultural & Technological Changes

When companies make technological changes to keep pace with their industry, they inevitably have to make culture and process changes, too. And those are often significantly more difficult.

I was struck recently by similarities between modern corporate culture changes and those described by Dan Carlin in one episode of his Hardcore History podcast.

Why Times of Change are Dangerous

In Episode 60, Carlin describes how contact between Julius Caesar’s Rome and Celtic tribes in Gaul catalyzed centralized governance among the historically independent tribes. Carlin described the change like this:

When a boat is moving straight against the direction of waves, it’s stable. It’s in a strong position. When a boat is moving straight with the direction of waves, it’s also stable. But in between, waves hit the boat broadside and rock it much more vigorously. It is exposed temporarily to increased risk before it regains a strong position at the end of the turn.

If we look at the process of change as though it is a boat making a turn, there are areas of strength toward the ends of the spectrum and areas of increased risk in between. You can see this in Carlin’s example of centralized governance:

  • The historically decentralized Celtic tribes had several benefits: Each tribe could make decisions quickly, supplying a smaller number of troops was simpler, and it would have taken a very long time for Caesar and his army to subdue the many scattered tribes.
  • Mature centralized governance also has its benefits: Caesar could raise a much larger army in a single place, coordinate supply lines, and execute a more cohesive strategy than the Celtic tribes.
  • But when the tribes found themselves in the midst of change with an immature form of centralized governance, they faced serious risks: They were no longer decentralized enough to derive significant strength from that status, but their centralized governance was not yet mature enough to derive strength from being on that end of the spectrum.

Three Risks of Technological Change

Like these early tribes, companies and teams working through a cultural and technological change—such as adding an IoT product to their lineup, significantly increasing automation of data processing and analysis, or turning a high-touch service offering into a scalable self-service offering—can also find themselves in higher-risk situations during the process of change.

What are those risks? And what can companies and teams do to mitigate or reduce the risks of making a significant change?

1. Weakening of historical strengths

An organization’s established areas of strength may be weakened as resources are directed toward the new product. For example,

  • Historically quick product cycles may slow significantly as attention shifts to the new products.
  • High-touch service availability decreases because key people are working on the new product instead.
  • Products outside the area of focus may be simplified to reduce costs as financial investments are focused on the new product.

Reinvesting more profits back into the company, attracting investors, or taking on debt may be ways to deal with the financial side of this risk. People and time are more challenging: Hiring people is good if you can find the right team members, and working overtime may help for a very short duration, but it can ultimately hurt morale and productivity.

2. Shifting focus

If the team is unable to maintain a stable direction amid the constantly changing technological landscape, the new product may never be completed. This is especially true when releasing a first smart or IoT product. The development cycle to get the first product to market is much longer, increasing the number of changes that will appear and tempt the team. A new Bluetooth spec was published? What about that new smart home standard?

My recommendation here isn’t to ignore those changes, but to be very selective about which changes the team pursues. Develop a well-defined vision and plan for the product, and stick to it. Use that plan to evaluate the value of making a change.

3. Chasing perfection

A good enough release of the product may never happen if you chase perfection for too long. It’s important to get a product out to market eventually, or there’s little chance for return on your investment. Finding the right time to release can be difficult—an underwhelming first release of a more technologically sophisticated device can hurt consumers’ expectations for future releases.

These questions don’t necessarily help you decide what features need to be included for a release, but they can help inform your perspective on whether the product is mature enough for release.

  • Looking at your testing, what percentage of customers are likely to have a positive first experience with the product? What percentage might have significant problems?
  • How does the team working on the product feel about the quality of its different parts? If your back-end development team is concerned about reliability or scaling, or the mobile app team is worried about stability, pay attention to those concerns.
  • How well can you recover from a problem? Can you push out software updates to all parts of the ecosystem? Do you know how you might approach a need to bulk-update data or user accounts?

Making it Through

These are just a few of the risks that companies and teams may face during a major cultural or technological change. Success will involve navigating through these changes and making it to the other side, where a stronger position awaits.