Digital Transformation Leadership

Chiseling out Culture for the Digital Age

Chiseling out Culture for the Digital Age

Michelangelo saw an image in a block of marble and chiseled it out, removing the extra. While there are other reported barriers to digital transformation, Culture tops the list. Risk aversion, lack of customer-centricity, and siloed mindset are holding the organization back. How can leaders chisel out the extra to develop a conducive culture for the digital age?


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Top 5 Learning Points

  1. How to envision the possibly best culture for the digital age and then chisel it out
  2. How different would the transformation ready culture be, from one we have today?
  3. In addition to technology, what other factors drive a change in culture?
  4. How do you maintain the balance between cultural change and outright risk?
  5. How do you ensure different mindsets and generations collaborate to ensure the best possible culture for transformation?


Digital transformation needs a cultural shift to succeed. Enterprises need to start that shift right from recruitment to ensure the teams understand where the company is headed, and the roadmap. Team leaders have their jobs clear- to ensure buy-in from leadership, to balance skills and behaviors that different generations and mindsets bring, and to achieve the fine balance between risk and innovation. Then the culture will ensure the extra is sculpted away and the culture that drives digital transformation emerges. Daren Hubbard, Chief Information Officer, Wayne State University, and Dr. Jonathan Reichental, Chief Information Officer, City of Palo Alto, discuss on “Chiseling out Culture for the Digital Age.”.


Sanjog: When Michael Angelo, the famous sculptor saw an image in a block of marble, he focused on chiseling it out by removing the extra. In today’s digital age, we know we need to have a culture of transformation, but that is also the biggest barrier to proper digital transformation. Culture is not about just creating something new but identifying what we need to remove. So you need to chisel out the culture which will help prevent the risk aversion, the lack of customer centricity, and the siloed mindsets that hold back organizations from transforming. What would the transformation ready culture look like compared to what you have today?

Daren: Everyone who joins us, brings new ideas and skills, which we try to gel with our business needs. But in an academic institution, there are very knowledgeable faculty and researchers and going digital does not change any of the knowledge that they have. The only use of the new technologies is a help to disseminate their knowledge a little further. We try to leverage what they are already doing more effectively and more efficiently using this new technology. Trying to go digital is about adapting what’s positive and works for them, and helping them to extend what they are already doing to new mediums on new platforms with new tools.

Sanjog: Jonathan, besides just technology, are there some other dimensions we have to think of while going digital?

Jonathan: Culture will influence the way an organization can embrace their digital transformation, and that could be their differentiation from other companies. You need to create an environment where people’s ideas are embraced where people are having fun, where people feel that they can take risks, and know that if they fail they’ll be supported to try the next idea? Fundamentally, if you’re going to make digital transformation work, you need a super focus on the culture piece.

Sanjog: While the concept of culture is very fluid and very subjective, are there any common denominators that you would say are critical to getting that foundation in place, after which the custom layer can be placed for the organization?

Daren: There are some common themes that you can really get people around and get people to agree upon. Again, I’ve always worked in higher education and for us, we create a culture around student success and faculty excellence. We can grow from there and shape and reform to better support those two ideals. But you have to start at a common point because folks have different perspectives and different focus areas inside the organization. But if we can agree on those two main things, I think we have a better chance of success.

Sanjog: Jonathan, essentially a culture is developed when a person is doing the right things or things conducive to the digital, as a mindset. It will take massive effort to shift the mindset from which is conducive to digital to actually a mindset where then these people turn out as catalysts for transformation. What do you do?

Jonathan: One thing that organizations have to recognize is that it is for the long-term and requires a significant commitment from leadership, starting with making a choice to do it. We take the famous story of Kodak. People say Kodak failed because they didn’t see digital cameras, they didn’t see the digital phenomena happen. That’s actually wrong. The reality has Kodak created the first digital camera, they were actually ahead of the game. Why did they fail? It was really a failure of culture. They thought that they could continue to market – their existing business and overcome the other major trend that was happening in the marketplace. Their environment, their leadership, their management, their people were not in a position where they could quickly pivot to a completely new mindset, start thinking about a different way of doing business. Eventually, they would have to radically change in how they approach what they were doing to be able to compete and be successful and the rest is history. It has to come from the very beginning of recruitment, right through to all the different aspects of the experience an individual has at a business.

For the city of Palo Alto, and particularly my team, I always talk about, what’s it like today recruiting versus what it was like when we started our transformation five years ago? Back then we would be lucky if we got five to ten people applying. Today, when we have an opening, we get 100 people, maybe a 150 people. I’m very proud of that number. The reason is that we’ve been successful in communicating that we have a culture that is fun, where people come to work, they have a purpose. That’s where culture starts.

Daren: A lot of what Jonathan just mentioned is around empowering folks when they first get in the door. If you’ve got a culture established in your organization and you explain to your team members as they come on board, that this is the place that embraces new technology and the ability for people to add positively to the organization, then cultural shifts or mindsets are in place from the very beginning. You can just leverage them continually and promote and affirm that power to embrace change from their own personal level.

Sanjog: When we try to create a conducive culture for digital, what are we pursuing? But at the other end, digital is not a destination, it’s going to be a journey. In changing times, is it better to say no to blueprinting transformation and just focus on becoming better internally to serve the best externally?

Daren: I would say as a technology organization, we focus on continuous improvement and I like to say, even though we’re a technology organization, it’s more about our ability to support individuals, our partners on our campus in our environment to do better than merely about the technology. Since technology is continuously changing, and we have Moore’s law in effect? We have to focus on adding the value and creating a culture that supports partnering with our business areas and our main customers inside our organization. We should also focus on how we can use all the new technology tools to move the whole organization forward.

Sanjog: Jonathan, leadership is defined where someone defines a vision and then other people follow it. But in the digital age, you can truly not be just preparing for tomorrow, because digital age means everything could change tomorrow. So, how would you lead the troops and build a culture without having an end goal in mind?

Jonathan: You’re at a disadvantage if you don’t have a vision but here’s some interesting data on this topic. There’s a Harvard Business Review survey done in 2013, people were asked in their organizations whether they know their organization’s vision. The answer was 70% didn’t know their organization’s vision. That translates into 70% of people who don’t know what they’re doing.

In my team, when we first got here, we created this pretty high-level vision to build and enable leading digital city. We have to have discussions about what does it mean to us, what that means in terms of actions. The feedback I’ve received is, people have a good understanding of the big picture, and they know what the overall goal is. It has created the right context for the right the discussions. Ultimately, we can always go back to – this is where we are headed, we make some twists and turns but we know what the destination is.

Sanjog: Daren, when you are trying to create that vision and subsequently the culture for the organization, how you come up with an aggregate view, especially when you’re dealing with everything being in flux. Do you keep playing this moving target vision exercise?

Daren: I keep the vision of the organization relatively simple and straightforward. Jonathan stated for the city Palo Alto, this great digital and smart city from ways to the university in terms of technology, our goal is to provide the best technology experience, whatever that may be. With that, we take our show on the road so to speak to go and interface and build partnerships with all the key campus, stakeholders and community members and take from that, literally that listening to that, that’s always underway, take from that the specific things that need to be adjusted or focused on and route to that excellent technology experience.

As we work with our teams, as we really try to communicate what that overall vision is. It has to be consistent around promoting the overall goals of the university. We’re trying to bring the best technology to bear on that experience.

We understand too that those goals and goals are meant, visions are meant to be a little bit lofty so that you’re always striving for them.

There’s a great book by Jim Collins called Good to Great. He talks a lot about developing what he called “The Hedgehog Principle” sort of the simple principle or idea or concept that can keep your organization fresh on its feet, and really move towards higher and better-articulated goals and visions for success. We try to take that principle and prosper it in a way that we can all work around it and work to it and toward it. In terms of vision, we try to keep it simple and communicating, get information back to help build on it.

Sanjog: Getting real, Jonathan, when a person is getting buried with 20 different projects, you introduce agile approach where a person literally doesn’t get a chance to breathe. Can you realistically have a culture which is conducive to the digital age, allow the organization to move fast enough and not burn the very people who constitute the culture?

Jonathan: Well, this happens all the time. It does take an enlightened and engaged organization to identify those symptoms and do something about it. It’s really easy when things are going well to say, you’ve got a great culture, as you said. I think what defines the culture is how the organization behaves when things are not going so well. The example you paint there where perhaps the organization needs to quickly shift to upgrade a product or develop a new solution and so it’s all-hands-on-deck and things get dicey. How does the culture then operate to people help each other? What happens when there’s tension or people are frustrated? Is there an outlet for that? Is there a respect for – people when they demonstrate in all sorts of ways high degree of frustration? We’re in the IT business very quickly things can get very difficult.

I always like to stop the team and say, “Now is our time to shine. This is where we’re going to show what we’re about, is how we behave over the next few days.” I think leadership really needs to step up when things are tough and that’s probably the best answer I can give you for your question.

Sanjog: Daren, speed, and excitement are not same as meaningful for all generations for somebody who is close to retirement, they may have a different view of what they wanted compared to someone who is a Gen-X, who wants work, life balance to the gen-Ys and millennials who want excitement. How do you create a hybrid culture if you will where everyone gets what they want so that they are able to contribute while thinking what is being done in the organization as a whole is meaningful for the whole organization?

Daren: Yeah. It comes down to really trying to get to know your teams and trying to constructively and intentionally build teams that do have a mix of personalities and generations. You will need members to play particular roles when you’re kicking off a project. Sometimes you need those folks who crave the excitement and the new, to step up and get people pumped up about coming along on this new journey. However, when you get to the tail end of this and everything’s moving into production, you will need members who want stability and a base level consistency of maintenance. Having different generations present on your team at the same time is very useful because while you need to bring the new, you also have to maintain and stay on, stay up and stay current with the things that you’ve been providing for your organization. You have to be open to allow for folks to participate at different levels in different projects where you have different roles and needs but you also have to make sure that you provide opportunities to keep them engaged at places where they can do their best. It’s a balancing act, but it is one that I think most IT organizations really do have to learn how to do and try to do well in order to be successful.

Sanjog: Jonathan, how do you retain people with excitement and talent? Would you give a different flavour of what your culture is too different people at the time of entry or for retention? Then how do you stay consistent with that one culture you’re trying to develop?

Jonathan: When you’re interviewing a person for an opportunity, the person should be interviewing you too. Particularly in the tech field today, prospective employees have options. You need to really look deeply at the organization, does it reflect your values, is it a domain that you’re interested and excited about? I really do hope there’s an interview going both ways.

Sanjog: Daren, the policies and governance and command and control structure which we used to be using for our technology or business management, cannot really be sustainable in the digital age. What’s the key to you allowing a new look, while staying true to the culture that you’re developing for digital?

Daren: One of the keys is, you have to empower people to push the envelope and try things in a manner that is conducive to the needs of your organization overall. You’re right, sometimes our governance structures really do lag behind both the needs of the organization and also the technology that’s available. In that, sometimes you have to let people push a little bit ahead and then try to clear the path for them retrospectively where you can so that they can go out and try to make things better. It is helpful when you’ve got your team working directly with customers and they’re sitting pretty much on the front lines.

You have to create a culture of empowerment around really helping to solve problems as opposed to just following guidelines and rule sets, those are important for some things.

Sanjog: Jonathan, as you move forward, you’re tempted to take a closer look at everything that’s going on and if you start doing it that could stifle the very experimentation and the collaboration. How do you resist that temptation and look the other way so people can play?

Jonathan: There is shared responsibility today. We have to give people the confidence and permission to do the things they’re doing with full support. You won’t see innovation in your organization if people feel like they’re going to be punished for failing or not getting the result that’s expected.

Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos, in his book Delivering Happiness, talks about, happy supported employees create organizations that have 400% better results in the marketplace. We have to be deliberate and communicate clearly the permission we’re giving to people, and how will operate when an experiment or an innovation doesn’t go right. How the individual be supported by everybody. That’s I think the approach and it’s about a shared responsibility for innovation, taking risks and then being highly supportive when things don’t go so well.

Sanjog: You want to still stay attached? How do you resist that temptation to stay involved? How about a little bit of a hands off?

Jonathan: That’s right too. People that are being watched behave differently, we know about that. Probably at the core, your question is the question of trust. Do you as a leader trust the people you have empowered to do something, to be able to walk away and say, “You know what? Report back to me in six months. I don’t need to know what you’re doing every day.” That’s probably a measure of trust and really difficult to do. You shouldn’t trivialize, it’s really difficult to do that because as managers, you know we feel accountable. We want to be involved because we want to go right and that takes a high degree of trust.

It also just goes back to one of the core points I said earlier, which is providing sufficient buffer that when that team or the individual is having problems with or the effort is failing that there’s that buffer to support that that they’re not in trouble. If you combine those two, you give people the space to innovate and you do turn away, you’re full trust in their ability to at least give everything a good shot and then if it doesn’t go so well, they have your support at that point.

Sanjog: Daren, one is to be able to trust so people can experiment. Another is still actually starting fostering a culture where that stops risk aversion. How do we remove risk aversion from the organization in order to build a good conducive culture for the Digital Age?

Daren: Letting both the people on your team who report to you and also educating the folks that you report to, is important to have a culture or drive continuous improvement in the organization. If it was really simple and easy to do for these transformations, everybody would do them. That’s what separates the organization that have a level of inertia, from the do’ers, and over time that those organizations start to actually see in decline. Again, learning from those types of examples, you have to take a risk, try something new, and go a little bit further out of your comfort zone to really be able to take advantage of the rewards.

Sanjog: Jonathan. You have different departments thinking their own way, so while you may be trying to build a conducive culture and have that sentiment across the board, some people are undermining the overall potential of digital because they’re thinking in silos. Is that say your job or somebody’s job that one person’s job to bold one family, one village if you will?

Jonathan: I would make the case that this is probably the most prolific and visible challenge that organizations are having today – the poor distribution of belief, a common vision and how to execute it. It actually ultimately can be the reason why many cultural shifts and strategies ultimately fail, because the influential people and leaders who needed to be part of it, did not buy in.

What differentiates the companies that are performing well is that they created an environment where you have a strong leader who is trying to bring the organization a particular direction. I know that’s my job to make sure everybody is on the same page. I think what we can do as CIOs, is paint a compelling vision, demonstrate good behaviors, and be clear about advantages.

Sanjog: Daren, if you had to make an impact on hacking away or chiseling away the additional slack that we have been carrying how do you rationalize what to hack away so that this digital image that you’re trying to build in terms of culture, starts shaping up?

Daren: It takes a lot of time and listening to really understand where it is that the organization really wants to go. Cities and universities are not like startup companies that really can change their culture on a dime. Your ability to pivot is limited. With that, you really have to be sure about whether or not the leadership, is on the same page around where it is you’re trying to go, what the overall vision of that organization is. Then, make them both calculated and really introspective look that what things you need to jettison, in order to stay true to that end goal or that that higher vision that the organization wants. You’ve got to get as much buy-in as you can, but sometimes, in your role, you have to take calculated risk to say, “This thing, we should let go. We have been doing this for 10, 20 years, it may be time to let it go.”

In IT, in particular, we’re always faced with things that while they may still be working – new technology comes in and allows you to do things better and you have to be open and accessible to let things go and trying something new.

Sanjog: Thank you so much, Jonathan and Daren, for sharing your views on how to envision the possibly best culture for the digital age and then chisel it out. Thank you.

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Daren Hubbard

Daren Hubbard, Chief Information Officer, Wayne State University

Daren Hubbard is currently Chief Information Officer and Associate Vice President for computing and information technology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Wayne State University is a large urban research university with the... More   View all posts
Dr. Jonathan Reichental

Dr. Jonathan Reichental, Chief Information Officer, City of Palo Alto

For over 25 years, Dr. Jonathan Reichental has been successfully helping organizations leverage the value of information and communications technology to solve business problems, increase effectiveness, and support revenue growth. He has ex... More   View all posts
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