Transform: A rebel’s guide for digital transformation

Transforming a Culture

The opportunity ahead

It’s the best of times. It’s the worst of times. Being customer-centric is the new motto. It’s where every organization knows it must get to. But those who champion the customer are often seen as troublemakers. Why? Because if you’re customer centric, then you’re asking for content to be rewritten so that it will be shorter and easier to understand, for transparency in pricing and procedures, for simpler, more intuitive interfaces. All of this “making it easier for customers” makes it harder for your management and your colleagues. It’s more work, more effort. They know you’re doing the right thing but they don’t like all the extra effort. This book is about changing that perception. It’s about turning you from a rebel into a hero, or at the very least getting you much more respect and recognition. It’s about giving you a model that allows your manager and your colleagues to see that their careers will become more successful the more customer-centric they become, and the more they support your efforts.

As a digital professional, your week is often equal measures optimism and frustration. You can see and feel the future all around you, but your organization is not moving fast enough. Sometimes it can even feel like things are going backwards. You struggle to find the key that will truly unlock a vibrant digital future. The key is culture because culture eats technology and strategy for breakfast.

There are many ways to become more customer-centric. The usability and customer experience professions are founded on such principles. I’m going to give you one method called Top Tasks. It’s something I’ve developed over the last twenty years of working with organizations to make their websites more customer-centric. It’s just one method—another tool in your toolbox—but I think it will be helpful to your efforts—and I have the evidence to prove it! Top Tasks Management has the following steps:

  1. With clear and unambiguous data, identifying what really matters to your customers—their top tasks.
  2. Measuring how able customers are to complete their top tasks and then continuously improving these tasks based on these metrics.
  3. Assembling teams around these tasks and making these teams responsible for customer task success. So, employees manage and are responsible for customer task outcomes, not organizational inputs.

A lot of this book, though, is going to be about culture and society, because that’s where the game is truly at. What I have learned again and again is that you can change the technology and the website design, but if you don’t change the culture, nothing important changes. I’m going to explore deeply the context within which digital transformation is occurring, because the first step in creating a new model culture is to understand the old model culture.

Much about our society and economy is broken today. Digital transformation offers us a grand opportunity to create a better society and economy that puts customers and citizens needs first—rather than the needs of the elites. I know there are huge challenges to achieving this more equitable society, but I am hugely optimistic, because I am absolutely certain that the organizations that will create the greatest value in the future will be those who are the most customer-centric.


The Irish have long made an art form out of being miserable. After all, it was an Irish man, Samuel Beckett, who said: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” When I was young, we were pretty poor and, yes, miserable. I lived on a small farm that wasn’t even in the middle of nowhere. When everyone was gone to bed, I would sneak down to the kitchen to watch John Wayne and Clint Eastwood Westerns on our black and white TV, with a reception that seemed to be coming from Mars. I so envied those wagons as they rolled out towards new frontiers. “I’ll never get that opportunity,” I said miserably. I made myself a promise, though, that if I ever saw those wagons during my lifetime, I’d jump on.

In 1993, I came across the Web for the first time and instantly I saw those wagons rolling. And I jumped on. I’ve fallen off many, many times, but somehow I’ve managed to scramble back on. It’s been an incredible trip. And it still is! What a privilege to be part of the emergence of this new online world. What a privilege to meet so many fascinating and passionate people along the way. Sure, there have been setbacks but that’s the lot of pioneers. There’s still so much promise, so much possibility. Online is in a state of revolution. It is about the rise of customer power. And the revolution is still in the early stages. Nobody said it was going to be easy. (At least, nobody I talked to.)

I can’t tell you the amount of times that audiences have said to me over the years that I was “preaching to the choir.” That they get it. It’s just the “higher-ups” who don’t get it. Well, it’s time for the choir to start singing in a collective, multidisciplinary unison, because the choir has a lot more ability to make the change happen than it thinks it has. You can’t do this alone. You can—and will do it—with the right team, the right network. And what do you have to do? Just change the culture.

Cultures can change: the story of Liberia and Ebola

Funerals are deep in the culture of a people. A Liberian funeral used to be a great affair. It was a celebration, with bands of trumpeters and drummers, and long processions, youngsters singing, the waving of open palms high above heads, a jubilation. Everyone went. All the locals, family members travelled long distances. The men in their best suits, the women in black outfits, children dressed in white. There might be soccer teams attending, local schools marching; an event, a big event. It could last for days, even weeks.

In preparation for the funeral, the body would be bathed, washed, rubbed and caressed by family members. There would be hugs and kisses of the dead. Death is a next stage of life, according to Liberian belief, a journey to the “Village of the Dead.” The way the deceased are mourned and buried can impact what position they come to attain in the Village. If the ceremony is not carried out properly then the family may be in danger from an angered spirit, who can cause disease and harm.

Ebola struck on March 30, 2014. A dead body is more contagious than a living one. By September, the disease was growing exponentially and treatment centers were filling up the day they opened. Ebola was rampant. It was out of control. However, by May 2015, the WHO declared “Liberia free of Ebola virus transmission.”

How did they do it? How did they change deep-seated cultural practices, many of which worked in direct opposition to combatting the spread of Ebola? It was by no means easy, as Liberia was in the process of recovering from a destructive 14 year Civil War that had killed over 200,000 people. Before Ebola struck, there were no more than 50 doctors for a population of 4.5 million. The best hospitals in Monrovia, the capital, didn’t even have running water, let alone electricity or proper medical supplies.

Initial responses were often chaotic and corrupt. Clinics did not follow protocols, there was misdiagnosis, deep superstitions, wild rumors, infected healthcare workers kept working, donations were requested “to help the fight against Ebola” but merely ended up lining the pockets of the corrupt.

Three pillars of change began to emerge though:

  1. Active community involvement. This was the most essential element. The local communities were given the tools and support to take back control of their own destinies and they did, changing their culture in the process.
  2. Leadership. The Liberian government showed decisiveness and a willingness to make tough decisions.
  3. International support. The wider network of the global community provided vital expertise, equipment and experienced professionals.

Optimal Action Framework

If we’re to make change happen within the organization, the same three pillars must be used:

  1. The network is the hub of change. Customers and partners drive digital transformation more than the organization itself. The organization is led by the network, not the other way around. The customer is the spear point of change. The force is with the customer. This is the Age of the Customer.
  2. The employee community must be fully engaged. They must be enabled to make the change happen. The employees are key. The “choir” needs to sing before management will listen.
  3. Management—particularly senior management—must be seen to be embracing and encouraging the change. Unfortunately, management is often the weakest link because to truly embrace digital transformation, management must give up a lot of the control that it was used to under the old model.

Real change will occur when these three pillars are supporting each other. So, how is that different from traditional old models of management, you might ask? It used to be that management led and that customers and employees were expected to follow. The Web has changed that power structure dynamic. Customers and employees have far more power today than they ever had—and they are beginning to exercise it.

In a complex, interconnected world, it is simply impossible to do anything substantial or worthwhile that does not involve collaboration across multiple disciplines. The myth of the godlike, individual leader who knows it all is less and less credible. We live in a network and it is those who are best at networking who will succeed most. The road to digital transformation involves building bridges—and the most important bridges you will build are not within your discipline or peer group, but outside it to other individuals and groups.

Hope replaces fear (once trust is established)

Lots of mistakes were made at the beginning of the Liberian struggle against Ebola. In complex, unpredictable worlds, mistakes are reality. Accept that you are going to make lots and lots of mistakes. Just make sure you develop a way to learn from your mistakes, adapt and refine and move on, constantly iterating.

At the beginning of the Liberian Ebola crisis, fear based messaging was often used, but this created a sense of paralysis, hopelessness and paranoia. The messaging had to change to one of hope and action: You can control your destiny. You can defeat this. Here’s what you have to do. Don’t design to control. Design to give control.

There is a lot of fear in society. People see how their income is stagnating, while the rich 1% is just getting richer. At a senior management level, many decisions are ruled by fear and ego. Robots stand on the horizon waiting to take over even more jobs. There is stress, overwork, a sense of being overwhelmed. Globally, 70% of employees are disengaged from their work. Something is badly broken. You need to fight fear with hope, because there is genuine reason for hope. If organizations become employee-centric and customer-centric, there is huge value to be gained.

To make the change happen, your colleagues must feel that there is a better place where they can get to. How will a customer-centric world be better than an organization-centric one? People must feel in control of their own destiny, they must feel able to do something. Hope can spring from purposeful work. Too many people do work that lacks purpose or real feedback today. In old model organizations, employees’ careers are dependent, not on the quality of the work they do, but on how likeable they are, and how well they obey their managers. The stuff they produce (content, code, graphics, or whatever) seems to get sucked into a black hole. They never hear back about whether it worked or not, about what needs to be improved. The Top Tasks approach is about management based on constant feedback. Customers provide feedback. Employees make changes, and see the direct impact of their work makes it easier for customers. As customers see things getting simpler, they give more and better feedback.

Trust is a most precious, scarce resource

Building trust was vital to success in Liberia. Corruption was ever present, so getting people to trust the communication required huge transparency and extensive interactions with village chiefs, religious leaders, women’s associations, youth groups, etc. The walls of the treatment centers were made of see-through plastic, so that families and friends could watch what was happening. This helped dispel fears and rumors.

There is a collapse of trust in institutions and leaders around the world today, as I will explain in more detail in later chapters. It will never return to the levels of blind trust that we used to have fifty years ago. This has huge implications for the digital designer, as we’ll see later. Today, we trust in transparency, we trust in facts and evidence, so we must design for transparency. You build trust into your designs and content. How do you do that? You design for simplicity of use. That which is easy to use and understand, we trust. We distrust complexity.

Organization culture must change

The wider, global network ultimately played a vital role in combating Ebola, but was initially found wanting. The pinnacle of organization-centric culture is senior management, and the change to a customer-centric culture will severely affect those who have authoritarian streaks, bountiful egos and mega wage packets. That is why you must be very careful in your transformative effort. Making your organization more customer-centric is a rebellious act against traditional hierarchy. You are walking a tightrope between empathy and ego. Most senior managers like to talk customer-centricity and collaboration but they don’t want to be customer-centric.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which is responsible for managing global epidemics, was initially slow and inefficient in its response to the Ebola outbreak. “WHO does not have a culture of rapid decision-making and tends to adopt a reactive, rather than a proactive, approach to emergencies,” an expert panel reported in 2015. “In the early stages of the Ebola crisis, messages were sent by experienced staff at headquarters and the Regional Office for Africa, including after deployments in the field, about the seriousness of the crisis. Either these did not reach senior leaders or senior leaders did not recognize their significance. WHO does not have an organizational culture that supports open and critical dialogue between senior leaders and staff or that permits risk-taking or critical approaches to decision-making,” the report stated.

Sound familiar? Despite—or maybe because of—all these information management systems, senior managers are increasingly out-of-touch. This is an unfortunate reality in so many organizations today. Senior management often seems to live in a parallel bubble universe, making impossible promises and wanting to hear only positive stories about how these promises are being met. You need to play your part in bursting the bubble without the vengeance of management raining down on you. The actual experience of your customers is your spear point. If anything will burst the bubble and bring a true desire to become customer-centric, this will. Many in senior management are genuinely unaware of how horrible they have made things for their customers and employees. When they are shown evidence, it can be a real lightbulb moment.

Be careful, though. Avoid putting forward your opinion because your opinion versus a senior manager’s gut instinct is not a battle you will win. Use data of customer experience to move things forward. Show how the customer is having a really bad experience. Keep talking about the customer.

The Ebola factsheet page from the WHO website became a classic example of the worst of office politics and organization-centric culture and silo-based thinking. This page was a critically important resource. It has had many millions of visitors since it was launched. Yet it was a real challenge to get this page reviewed and updated, according to Christopher Strebel, editor in chief of the WHO website.

The reason was that WHO was so focused on publishing new information about Ebola that it struggled to review and update essential content that was already published. It seemed that everybody within WHO wanted to publish something on Ebola, to show what they or their division was doing to combat the disease. WHO knew how important the factsheet page was, how it was infinitely more important than the vast majority of other pages on Ebola, but it too was paralyzed by old model organizational culture as it found itself caught up in a tsunami of internal publishing. It was caught up in that old, corrosive culture of organizational ego: “I am important. Therefore I publish a lot.”

That is why as a first step in digital transformation you must establish the customer top tasks—what is really important to them. Unfortunately, what you will often discover as you go through the process of identifying top tasks is that what is most important to the customer is often least important to the organization—and vice versa.

Ebola factsheet page from the WHO website

Once you have identified the customer top tasks, you must measure them. How many customers are able to successfully complete these tasks? How long is it taking them? Show how they can’t find basic facts. Show how they do find out-of-date information.

Measure use, not what you produce

Built into our old model DNA is the strong impulse to produce, to create, to publish, to own, to have, and to be seen to have. That’s because we come from a physical world that is based on the laws of scarcity. Value is measured based on production and having lots of things. This is at the heart of organizational culture. It is alien to most organizations to continuously improve—to review, renew, and where appropriate, remove, that which already exists, particularly when it comes to content.

There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the organization feels it always has to show it is doing something new. Old model marketers, communicators, developers, designers are obsessed with the new, whether it is new customers, new events, new products, new features, new channels, new formats, new programs or new initiatives. They rarely see it as part of their job to focus on current customers, current programs, products, content, etc.

Secondly, in the old model things age, break down, degrade, fade away, get lost. Most physical stuff that is printed disappears over time, or as they used to say: “Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish ‘n’ chip paper”. That print brochure or factsheet you published in 2010, where is it now? Most print ends up in history’s dustbin.

Not so for digital. Unless the system crashes and there’s no back-up, then digital stuff is going to stay around forever. If there is no process to renew or remove what is out-of-date content, redundant or simply no longer necessary, then all that old stuff will grow and grow and grow. Year in, year out it will become a larger percentage of the digital landscape. In other words, unless you maintain and continuously improve your digital environment, then the entire environment will naturally degrade. In a network, if you do nothing, things get worse. The US Department of Health had 200,000 pages on their website. They finally got around to deleting 150,000 of them that were old and out-of-date. Nobody noticed.

Your future will be more about continuously improving what you have created than creating new stuff. That’s a big shift. You need to change habits. Your questions must be: “What can I remove? What can I improve?” Not: “What can I add? What can I create?” I know that management wants you to produce, not maintain. Real work—real value in the old model—is when you create something new, not when you improve or delete something. You are rewarded and measured by what you produce—a traditional input-based metric that often ends up rewarding worst practice in a digital world.

We must change the metrics. We must change the model. You need metrics that are focused on how customers find and use what your organization produces. When you measure these customer outcomes, you will notice the negative impact of the old and outdated. In a network, you need outcome-based metrics that focus on how people use things. Traditional metrics of production merely measure what happens within the organizational silo.

In October 2014, I searched for “latest Ebola death figures” on the WHO website. The first search result was from April 2nd, the second result was from April 1st, the third result was from August 4th and the fourth result was from April 22nd. Isn’t that shocking? Research on how people use search engines show that over 60% will click within the first three search results. Are these out-of-date search results acceptable? Of course, not. But most organizations do not measure findability (the outcome). They just measure the input (the search engine itself and the content that is indexed). This culture must change.

When in August 2015, I searched for “ebola death toll by country” on the WHO website, I got the following results.

WHO search results for “ebola death toll by country”

None of the results were particularly useful. In fact, on the first page of search results 8 out of 10 of the results were PDFs. Nothing better illustrates an organization-centric, old model culture than the proliferation of PDFs on a website because one thing is for sure: digitizing print documents is not digital transformation.

When I did the exact same search in Google, I got the results shown on the following page.

This is the digital future. We don’t want to search. We want to find an answer quickly. What is the purpose of the WHO website when Google gives answers more quickly and easily? Wikipedia is becoming as popular as WHO as a source of health information.

Google search results for “ebola death toll by country”

Increasingly, if traditional organizations cannot overcome their organization-centric cultures, so as to professionally manage and maintain their own information, they will be supplanted by more efficient network operators. If WHO can’t become useful on the Web, then someone else will do its job for it.

Endlessly flexible, evolving cultures

We’ll never get our organization to change, I often hear the beaten-down web professional say. They’re too fixed in their ways. But it only takes one generation for something to seem like it was there forever. Things are a lot more fluid than you might think.

“Funerals can confuse a visitor to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia,” Stanley Meisler wrote for The Atlantic Monthly in 1973. “Is he on the western coast of Africa or in New Orleans?” Meisler described how the “the big brass band marches down Broad Street on a hot Sunday afternoon, playing rollicking hymns … It shouldn’t be a shock to come across a New Orleans funeral an ocean away in West Africa, but it is. A few moments’ reflection, however, produces the obvious logic for it all. Slaves from Africa, with their traditions of joyous mourning, turned the sedate white man’s funeral into a black man’s jazzy funeral in Louisiana. Freed slaves then carried it back to Africa.”

Things have always been changing and intermixing; we just don’t notice sometimes. Culture is always changing, just sometimes slowly enough for most to think everything is remaining the same. Digital is much faster than physical. It changes much more rapidly and it will drag culture along whether it likes it or not. Those organizations that can’t change at the speed of digital will wilt away in the network.

Today and tomorrow and forever more, we can’t avoid seeing the change, and willing—or unwilling—being part of that change, because it’s all speeding up. It’s all at a frenetic pace now. Nothing is ever finished. Nothing is ever over anymore. There is no definitive anything, no fundamental truths, no absolute answers. We have entered an age of great uncertainty and we’re just going to have to adapt—and we will!

There is no guarantee of a happy future for Liberia. Throughout 2015, Liberia had isolated incidents of Ebola. The system must be ever vigilant. It’s actually much easier to change back to old model organizational culture because old model is tribal culture, and this is the deepest and oldest culture of all. Organizations are just another type of tribe, and it is always more comfortable to look inwards; comfortable but not safe.

Are you thinking that in some ways it was easier for Liberia to change because they faced an existential crisis, an extinction event? They had to act. They felt they had no choice. There are always choices. To do nothing is a choice. To move slowly is a choice.

We are living in an insecure and complex world where random events with major consequences are happening with increasing frequency. We must get used to it because insecurity and complexity is only going to increase.

For traditional organizations, and traditional, rigid minds, the extinction event has, in fact, already happened.

It’s called The Web.


Beckett, S. Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, Grove Press, New York, 1955

Meisler, S. Liberia, The Atlantic Monthly, Mar. 1973

World Health Organization. The Ebola outbreak in Liberia is over, WHO, May 2015

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