Why small data is a change agent’s best friend
Let me start with a question. How is your business transformation going? Take a few moments to think about a business change you are experiencing. Now, how would you answer?
When I ask this question, I tend to hear two kinds of answer…
People working in the change programme team normally tell me what they have delivered and how it is going against the plan. They often talk in terms of the mechanics of the transformation programme, such as blueprints ‘agreed’ and workstreams ‘under way’. They frequently tell me about the progress of the project, in terms of deliverables ‘ticked off’, milestones ‘achieved’, and so on. Sometimes they show me an impressive-looking dashboard and declare the project status to be ‘green’ (or maybe amber, perhaps red). Sometimes they go further and share a bunch of metrics, such as the number of people using the new system, staff turnover, or customer satisfaction. In short, they tell me how the delivery is going against the plan. They are often armed with numerical data that measure progress against pre-agreed success criteria for the programme.
Yet, people working outside the change programme normally answer very differently. They often talk at length about what they think and feel about the change programme and how it is being delivered. They tell me stories about how it is landing in their world, the effects it is having on them, their colleagues, and their work. They often talk about the challenges it is bringing, alongside the many other change projects that are landing, or not, in their world. I hear about the other things that are also happening and demanding their attention. It is often rich in human data about their experience of the business transformation in their working lives.
And then there are the things that no one says
These are the excited looks or the doubts flashing across people’s faces; their passion or exhaustion; the sense that people are just going through the motions or are distracted by more pressing or more exciting issues. The sense of urgency in the project delivery team to deliver, no matter what; the high stakes involved for them, personally, in relation to their career, status, self-perception and livelihoods; the degree of trust in others to be doing the right thing or indeed the suspicion that they might not be. And so on.
The reality of how business transformation is going is often more complex than people realise. There is no single truth. Everyone is a part of the picture. What makes the difference between success or failure often goes unsaid. This is small, qualitative, human-scale data. It is plentiful and freely available. What’s more, it is incredibly valuable for change agents. Let me explain.
Change in a VUCA world
The thing about change projects and transformation programmes is that they take place in a complex and changing world – often referred to as a VUCA world.
The V is for volatile. It highlights that many things are changing, often on multiple fronts at the same time, and that change may be rapid and radical. The tendency in volatility is to try and speed up to catch up. But this leads to complexity – the C in VUCA – and entanglement. So, the things we say and do can have ripple effects in other areas and over time. Even small things can escalate quickly. For example, grumbles about how a change project is being approached can rapidly escalate into an ‘us and them’ situation, with a serious deterioration of trust in, for example, ‘management’, ‘corporate’, ‘the old guard’, or ‘the newcomers’. This is why cost-cutting measures in one area can easily end up costing much more in other ways, or at other times.
The science of complexity explains that complexity and change come as a package. Complex systems spontaneously adapt and evolve without anyone choreographing the change. That is where the uncertainty and ambiguity (the U and A in VUCA) come from. I call this the ‘Complexity Conundrum’.* The conundrum is that volatility means there is too much happening too quickly to ever take it all in when you are making a decision. If you have experienced a business transformation programme, I am sure you will recognise this. Yet, complexity means things are interconnected and it is never safe to leave anything out when making a decision.
*Varney, S (2021) Leadership in Complexity and Change: For a World in Constant Motion. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH
Be alert and adapt to change
So, let me end with a question. How is your business transformation going, really? So, let us go back to our change projects and business transformation programmes. They take place in a world that is already changing, already complex and entangled. Chances are that a change or transformation programme will disrupt existing patterns of behaviour – that’s its job, right? – making things even more volatile and more complex as it ripples out into other areas.
The challenge for change agents is spotting the signs of changes during their change and transformation programmes. You are looking for clues about newly emerging opportunities, so you can grasp them while they are small enough. You are also looking for clues about potentially troublesome issues bubbling up, so you can try and head them off before they escalate. Staying on course in a changing world means adapting to changing circumstances.
What is small data and why is it so useful?
You will have heard of big data. It refers to the vast amounts of digital information now available and the smart analytics used to find patterns in that data. Big data analytics bring diverse and distributed data sources together, rapidly, to answer questions about what is happening. As a change agent, you might have access to big data analytics, although many people do not.
Small data, on the other hand, is freely available to everyone. It is qualitative, human-scale data that we can all notice every day – if we know what to look for. The off-the-cuff comment that galvanises people into action or resistance; the surprising lack of reaction to a big announcement; the protracted cooling of relations between two departments; the new buzzword or flavour of the month; the rapidly escalating rumour mill; the declining energy for change (even when people agree it is a good idea), and so on. These are all examples of small data.
Draw on diverse sources
As a change agent, your aim is to gather clues from the leading edge of the here and now – what’s changing? Gathering small data from diverse sources will help you build a clearer picture. Look beyond the project team and the programme metrics and pay attention to your experience. Talk to stakeholders; people who support the change goals and those who don’t; people who have no direct stake in the project; and people outside your organisation or your industry. Ask them, ‘What’s new or different in your world?’ Discover what they find puzzling, surprising or unexpected. Be curious. Look for difference, not agreement, to gain a better understanding about how things are changing. You should look to anticipate tomorrow’s story, so you can adapt and influence that story.
So, let me end with a question. How is your business transformation going, really?
This article is one of a series exploring the challenges of business transformation.
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