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How to be a digital disrupter at your company — without getting fired

There's a right way to push for disruption

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Nate Berent-Spillson
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Nate Berent-Spillson

Technology Principal, NexientNate's specialties include architecture for enterprise applications, regulatory compliance and compliant software design. His experience includes development within the .NET, JavaScript and Microsoft… (show all) Nate's specialties include architecture for enterprise applications, regulatory compliance and compliant software design. His experience includes development within the .NET, JavaScript and Microsoft ecosystems. Previously, he led teams at Thomson Reuters, Ford and Pfizer, among others.

Here’s the good news: You just landed a new job in software or product development at a big company, you’ve been hired to advance their “digital transformation,” and you have a million great ideas. Congrats!

Here’s the bad news: In the short time you’ve been there, you can already tell this company (let’s call it BigCo) is not nearly ready for all the great ideas you have in mind.

You’re not the CEO or even the Chief Digital Officer at BigCo. So how are you going to drive change without losing your job?

Here are five strategies I’ve used to walk the fine line of effective disruption.

[Read: Freelancers can solve the corporate innovation conundrum]

1. Understand the space and why you’ve been brought in

BigCo hired you, not a strategy firm. That’s a good sign they’re looking for someone who can make a real and immediate impact, not just serve up ideas to (maybe) consider in the distant future.

If you were hired by a top executive, consider that person ally number one — someone who can provide air cover when you need it. If you ever face off against a middle manager, you can tell them you’re here because their boss wants you here.

Even with executive buy-in, you’ll still get push-back. People are used to punching in and turning the crank. They’re not used to asking questions like, “Is this a value-add?” Your job is to encourage people to think critically about whether what they’re doing is truly effective. The way you do that will depend on BigCo’s size and culture. How do things get done? Who are the power players? What makes people tick? Sit back and survey the landscape quietly for a while before you make any moves. 

2. Find the friction

Start noting when you hear people say they’re “waiting on x,” and keep track of what that is. It could be a software installation, budget approval or just an official OK to do something everyone already agreed is a good idea.

In my business, software development, daily ‘stand-up’ meetings are generally open to quiet observers. Use such opportunities to learn where the organizational blockers are. (Just be careful not to wear out your welcome, take a genuine interest and listen more than you talk.)

Pay special attention to those people with a huge plate of deliverables and a really high cycle time. Chances are good they’ve become a bottleneck because they’re really good, and more stuff keeps getting piled on them. Wait is wait, regardless of the cause. Anything that prevents people from achieving their goals is a constraint.

Another trend to watch for is a clash between automated and manual processes. Perhaps when a new employee is on-boarded, a new email and storage space are automatically allocated, an employee handbook sent and mandatory training classes assigned.  But maybe in order to access those training classes, the person still has to raise a ticket to request access to the company wiki. That’s a small but obvious point of friction crying out for automation. More serious friction points may be hampering your ability to deliver products to market quickly and efficiently.

Keep in mind there will be bottlenecks hiding behind bigger bottlenecks. Once you fix one, you’ll find another and another. That’s ok. Constantly re-evaluate what constraint gives you the most upside to fixing. You’ll earn major respect by eliminating them and helping people save time and effort.

3. Pick your battles

Nobody remembers why BigCo has two separate and mostly redundant procedures for changing the-way-things-are-done, but nobody can be bothered to rationalize them, either. As you go, you’ll find dozens of these inefficiencies deeply entrenched in the organization. Remember, just because a process is ancient doesn’t mean people won’t get scared when you try to bulldoze it. We’re creatures of habit, after all, and we get scared and frustrated when routines change.

The trick is to pick your biggest battles — the ones that will drive the most impact — and wage those first. People only have so much patience for change. They need to see that your initiatives benefit them before they’re willing to get behind you. Once they’ve seen you pull off a major transformation, they’re more likely to join your side the next time around.

Sometimes you might need to call your little disruption a proof of concept to get it off the ground. I can remember doing this when I needed a particular IT resource to make our software deployment process more efficient. I begged for the smallest, cheapest virtual server I could fine, with the understanding I’d get no official IT support but complete operational control. Once leadership saw our success, they got behind the project, moving it to better infrastructure where more people could access the improved process.

4. Befriend the IT crew

It’s a truism by now that all businesses these days are digital businesses. While executive buy-in certainly comes in handy, some of your most valuable allies in disruption may come from the trusty IT department. These folks don’t get much corporate visibility, but they can really make things happen. Get to know the group that resets passwords, provisions hardware, and sets up VPNs. Take a genuine interest. Take people out to lunch, grab a beer, drop off cookies after a release.

IT processes are a common source of bottlenecks and a prime target for digital transformation. Earning the trust and support of IT can not only help you improve processes and but also free them up to take on some career-enhancing new responsibilities (like DevOps).

But don’t stop at IT. The more friends you make, the better. You want word to spread among kindred spirits at BigCo, from back-office folks in Finance and Operations to front office people like Marketing and Sales. Eventually, like-minded people dying for a change will come out of the woodwork. That’s when you know you’ve made it: When people start reaching out to you for help. Once you reach critical mass, the disruptive force is self-sustaining.

5. Apologize and mean it 

Pushing against long-standing processes can land you in hot water. Sooner or later, you are probably going to ruffle some feathers. Permanently pissing people off, however, is totally preventable. You can’t afford to make enemies! You need allies. If you get into a tiff, apologize. If you get in an argument during a meeting, circle back later to smooth things out.

Remember that there are people on both sides of the process. Many people associate transformation with downsizing or leadership changes. When you show an Ops team that the lead time for provisioning a new server just went from six weeks to six minutes, they might legitimately wonder if their jobs are at risk.

It’s important to treat all of your coworkers with empathy — you’re a person first, not a walking, talking digital disruption machine — but especially the ones worried about their job security. Emphasize that process changes only attempt to make the company better, that transformation can liberate them to focus on the most interesting parts of their job and that people are still people, not numbers in a dashboard.

Overall, lead with patience

Digital transformation isn’t just about technology. Technology can’t change your organization without people embracing it. Automating testing and deployment, iterating in shorter cycles — that’s the easy part. Convincing coworkers to change their habits and hoping they still like you is tougher. Culture change is the hardest implementation out there.

But don’t lose hope. Go to the happy hours. Organize lunch-n-learns to share your progress. You won’t get fired for making the company more efficient. You will get fired for being a jerk.

Published January 24, 2020 — 09:00 UTC

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