I’m bloody proud of New Zealand. For lots of reasons, of course, and not least of all because of our hearty on-again, off-again stewardship of the America’s Cup over the last 20 years. With the next cup happening on our shores in March of 2021, I got to thinking about how boats and ships make an apt metaphor for the power of transformation – and how we actually transform.

Think of your business as a big ship. It’s got a sizeable crew responsible for keeping the decks clean, an eye on the forecast, and the ship heading in the right direction. It’s a big beast, charting its own course and powering through the sea. Its wake is impressive. Its size is its strength, meaning that, with the right team, it can buffer even the worst storms.

 A big ship, however, is relatively hard to turn. Not only is it heavy, it takes time to change direction. And it’s generally true that the bigger the ship, the harder it is to turn. But turn it must.

There are two things that’ll trigger a change in the direction of a ship or business: one is the impact of the environment – storms, currents, icebergs or, in other words, competition, emerging trends, legislation, and more! The other is people-led decisions from within your business that see you taking things into fresh waters or blue oceans.

Whichever the trigger, only when you influence your people – when you manage to win their hearts and minds – can you succeed in plotting the ship’s direction and hopefully avoiding the storms and icebergs! While your business-ship might be comprised of systems and processes, products and services, at its heart it’s really made up of people – and they’re your rudder. That’s why, the bigger the company, the more effort it takes to meaningfully sway…

Balancing your organisation’s rudder

The interesting thing about ship rudders,  is that while there are many different types, there are two main designs. The first is the ‘unbalanced rudder’, which is just pivoted at the front and takes a huge amount of energy to turn. When left uncontrolled, this rudder simply follows the direction of the ship. 

The second is the ‘balanced rudder’, which has a portion of the rudder in front of the stock (the shaft which goes down to the rudder and turns it). This leading edge uses forces created by the forward momentum of the ship to help move it. This then influences the rest of the rudder to follow and steer the ship. All in all, this design requires less force to change direction than the unbalanced rudder.

And now you’ll see where my analogy starts coming together… Take people within your organisation. If they are operating as an unbalanced rudder, they take a huge amount of energy to change direction, and if they’re not proactively influenced they simply follow the current direction of the ship-business (even if heading directly for an iceberg). Conversely, if the people in your organisation are operating like a balance rudder they themselves are using the forces around them and helping to turn the ship-business as required.

Changing tack slightly

Years ago, I worked with an organisation that had some organisational challenges. It was the 1990s – the decade of acid wash denim, ties that looked like bus seats and shoulder pads. And it was a decade of inefficiency – at least, for this business it was.

As we (still) see all too often, this organisation’s teams were effectively operating in silos –(the work kind, not the grain kind). IT and the admin teams wouldn’t work together successfully. As a result, the company’s new software system was taking many more months than it should have to be user tested; it was creating serious business drag and making it very difficult to steer – and turn – the ship to take advantage of very favourable sailing conditions.

Initially, the business turned to process – introducing new approaches and responsibilities for how the business was supported while testing new software. It was a start. However, this business was approaching a solution how many do: with minor tweaks and improvements designed to enforce change without really considering the people aspect. Just changing a process rather than a mindset won’t transform a business. It’s hard to get true progress that way and it’s certainly not the grounds for transformation. You might nudge the direction slightly, but it doesn’t enhance the ongoing manoeuvrability.

This business had a rudder, but they were still mostly adrift. They’d introduced new procedures that should have, in theory, sped up the process of getting software into production faster, but they didn’t work. So, they enlisted the help of a person who we’ll call “Maxine” to act as the front section of the balanced rudder. She wasn’t a manager, but instead just the right person in the team. Maxine worked to build the relationships that were lacking within the business and subtly facilitate better communications, bridging the gap and restoring trust. This helped the IT and admin departments work together much more effectively.

In summary, Maxine acted to transition the teams from operating as an unbalanced rudder to a balanced rudder – not by new processes or management mandate, but by influencing the mindset and culture of the teams. This enhanced the business’s manoeuvrability and triggered the change they so desperately needed. 

Now, what on earth does this idea have to do with adopting a digital workforce?

Let’s imagine your ship has an automated function – a bot that hauls up the ship’s anchors. That’s pretty common nowadays, since it’s a hard task to expect a human to haul a 10-tonne lump of steel, even when it’s geared to a ratio of a thousand to one. That bot isn’t itself near the rudder (in fact, it’s at the opposite end of the ship in this case!), but it’s freed up a person (or few) who used to perform this function – enabling them to work on other jobs on and below deck, where human hands are much better utilised.

Now think of an organisation with the addition of digital colleagues who are making your overall operations more efficient. While they may be freeing up people – the crew – to work on other things, they are not helping to steer the boat, nor are they enhancing the mindset or culture of the organisation, thus not assisting with organisational manoeuvrability.

As was the case with Maxine, the activities surrounding the use of a digital workforce ideally should influence the mindset and culture of the people in the organisation. People in the business need to see the benefits to themselves (as well as the business), understand the opportunities of operating as a unified workforce, and have any fears allayed or removed. Only then will they start exploring new and better ways of working, and become more innovative.

 This is when the organisation will experience the balanced rudder effect, and empower the people in the business to help steer the ship. After all, your human workers are part of staying the course and navigating the challenges around them.

Getting to that point of obtaining the optimal transformational advantages of a digital workforce takes a communication and change management focus and a cultural shift within a business. New processes might be whiz-bang enough to impress the heads with their ability to, say, speed up operations to the point of hydrofoiling, but that’s not transformation, nor will it ultimately increase organisational agility. It’s akin to more power in the engines without an upgrade to the steering. It’s refinement at best – a great start but there is more required to maximise the transformation advantages. Instead the aim is to inspire the right levels of thinking – a level that considers things beyond ‘more’ and towards better.