How spontaneous is your digital transformation? Applied lessons in decision science

23 October 2017 | Christian Chatterton | About a 4 minute read
Tags: Analysis, Analyst, analysts, business, creative, Decision Making, develop, Developers, Digital, leaders, management, Product, skills, structure, technology, transformation

Whilst reading Malcolm Gladwell’s influential decision science book, Blink, I was particularly engrossed in one chapter about the art of decision making in war situations. I found myself drawing a number of melodramatic, but useful parallels with the digital transformations I’ve worked on, and so decided to write this post to share these similarities and learnings.


Transformation and military leaders face a similar set of challenges in order to achieve their goals, albeit with a chasm of consequence! They need to organise large numbers of multi skilled people; develop and adjust plans based on imperfect and changing information (“the fog of war”); and outmaneuver their competition.


However the point stressed by Gladwell is that superior resources and intelligence alone are not enough to overcome these challenges and ensure success. Digital transformations, like war, are inherently unpredictable. New technologies, business models and competitors are constantly emerging. This means an organisation’s key success factor is its ability to react spontaneously and creatively to problems and opportunities as they arise.


Blink tells the story of a hyper-realistic American war game simulated in 2002 and costing $.25bn. It was designed to test a new military strategy to combat the growing use of unconventional, diffuse warfare. The game pitted the Blue Team (the USA) against the Red Team, an insurgent force led by a breakaway military commander with a considerable power base and terrorist affiliations in the Persian Gulf.


The Blue team were given far superior financial, military and intellectual resources. Using their suite of centralised databases, decision tools and methodologies they would attempt to lift the fog of war, and systematically deconstruct their enemy’s networks and capabilities. However within the first two days of the war, the Red Team had sunk half of the Blue team’s naval force and inflicted casualties totalling of 20,000 personnel. A small fleet of Red boats had tracked the Blue warships undetected and launched a preemptive strike, using an unexpected mix of cruise missiles and suicide attacks.


The Reds were able to deal such an inconceivable blow to the mighty Blues because of their powers of spontaneity. They had formulated, executed and refined creative plans whilst the Blues were still analysing their first move. The rapid cognition required for spontaneity and innovation is not a random or chaotic processes. So how can digital transformation leaders create the conditions for this?


Lesson 1: Create the structure for spontaneity

The Red team embraced an “In command and out of control” management structure. The Red’s leadership provided overall guidance and intent, whilst the forces in the field were expected to use their own initiative to construct and execute the plans to achieve their goals. This devolved decision making meant that when challenges were (inevitably) encountered, forces were not wasting time communicating with management when they should be resolving the situation at hand. Also, and potentially more importantly, the Red’s were able to capitalise on their people’s experience and powers of intuition. It is a fact of the brain that excessive protocols and conscious, rational analysis can constrain our ability to innovate and have those spontaneous ‘eureka’ moments. This meant that the Red team were able to harness the deep brainpower of its forces more effectively.


These strategies are pertinent for transformation leaders whose job is not to define the solutions, but rather create an environment where their people are empowered to innovate and deliver goals as they best see fit.


Lesson 2: Practice and train

Spontaneity is an art form, but it’s also governed by a series of rules. Without highly structured practice it is not possible. How good people’s decisions are under pressure is a function of the effort that is put into training and rehearsal.


Digital transformation leaders must ensure that their team are well equipped with industry knowledge, agile methodologies and new technologies. However this is delivered – formal training, partnerships, bootcamps, coaching etc. – upskilling and reinforcing learnings should be top of the agenda for leaders.


Lesson 3: Find the signal in the noise; don’t get lost in data

A key reason for the Blue team’s loss in the gulf was the vast amount of information they were presented with. Gladwell shows that when making predictions about complex systems, often only a few core bits of information have material impacts. Excessive information creates too many options to consider, paralysing our intuition and spontaneity. Whilst additional information may increase our personal confidence in a decision, it doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of it.


Transformation leaders should identify and help their teams focus on the information that is important to successful delivery. In practice this means streamlining endless project status reports, communicating only relevant information, shortening meetings, only tracking important web analytics etc.



In summary these lessons do not provide rationale to avoid upfront strategic planning and analysis. This is still important. But it is intended to reinforce the truth that digital transformation is unpredictable and that all eventualities cannot be accounted for. Therefore a key success factor will be your organisation’s ability to react spontaneously and creatively to problems and opportunities as they arise. The advice to leaders is to make spontaneity a key pillar of your strategy.


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