On a hot and dusty day in Afghanistan, a group of men sat admiring patterns. “Don’t like that one,” said the defence minister. Those around him nodded in agreement. “Don’t like that one, nor that one, nor that one either.” The defence minister was hard to please. “Let’s go browsing on the Web,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. Many faces smiled. “Many pages were visited, and then, finally, the minister gushed: “That’s it! That’s the one!!”
“Perfect!” a chorus of voices chanted.
And so the US Army spent $28 million of US tax payer money on Afghan National Army uniforms in beautiful forest patterns. The slight problem was that only 2.1% of Afghanistan is wooded. The uniforms were a complete waste of money and had to be dumped.
Over the years I have watched in dismay as a disturbing number of senior managers talked about digital transformation strategy as if they were designing a print brochure for a country club. The colors, the colors, the colors—how they loved their colors. And the big cliché images promoting their pet projects. And the gushy, meaningless language.
Digital teams have often had to suffer in silence as a senior manager—often aided by an advertising executive—gutted their well-thought-through design, replacing it with an enormous carousel of vanity and ego.
They mean well, many of these senior people. They’re just clueless when it comes to digital, and very sensitive about exposing their lack of knowledge and understanding. They are supposed to know things, after all. Most of them do indeed know a lot of things about a lot of stuff—just not much about digital.
Evidence is a life raft in these stormy seas of ego, opinion and entrenched habit. It won’t always save you, but without it you will surely drown. Didn’t someone in that room know that only 2.1% of Afghanistan is wooded? If they knew, were they afraid to say anything?
The age of ego-based experts, whether they be senior managers or senior ministers, is on the wane. This is the age of evidence. Big Data is a goldmine of evidence. Everything that happens on the Web—for good or ill—leaves a trail of evidence. We can now know much better than we have ever known, what works and what doesn’t.
Gut instinct, experience and opinion are only useful when what is in front of us is going to be very similar to what is behind us. In a complex world full of surprises and randomness, gut instinct is very often dangerous.
We need new skills. We need people who can quickly and clearly frame a hypothesis, who then rapidly test this hypothesis in as close to a live environment as possible, and then who can properly interpret and act on the data. We need people who know that digital is never done, that it is not a series of projects but rather a stream of continuous improvements.
This requires a degree of inquisitiveness and humility that seems to get trained out of many managers. It requires thinking in connected networks rather than isolated objects and projects. Instead of trying to ‘manage’ the sea of complexity that faces us, we should learn to sail it, constantly adapting based on feedback.