Want to Grind Digital Transformation to a Halt? Design by Committee

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We’ve all been there. You’ve spent time working on a plan that will transform operations at your organization — getting feedback from across the organization, talking to customers, doing research — and you’re finally presenting to get the go-ahead. You’re going through your carefully crafted slides, when suddenly, a hand is raised.

“Why don’t you just change the workflow to work this way?”

Another voice chimes in. “Maybe I should just show it to a few people before I give my OK.”

Then comes a third. “I don’t think we should integrate these systems. It’s cleaner to have two separate systems with the same data in each.”

And you watch as your plan disintegrates before your eyes. Cause of death: design by committee.

We’re all familiar with design by committee — and we all undoubtedly hate it — but why does it happen? How do we avoid it? And most importantly, what does it mean for digital transformation?

Design by Committee Isn’t Collaboration

A common excuse for design by committee is that “we’re a collaborative organization” and that “we want to make sure everyone has a chance to weigh in on the decision.” But design by committee doesn’t support collaboration. Instead, you end up with inexperienced decision-makers, misaligned decisions and increased complexity.

There’s a big difference between getting input from organizational stakeholders to create a plan, getting approval and moving ahead, and enabling executive decision makers to create the plan themselves — usually live, and often during a meeting.

Whether it’s debates about market segments, internal or external branding, software purchases or communication planning, design by committee can impact any part of the digital transformation journey. And while you may think you’re collaborating and creating a better solution, you’re actually setting yourself up for inexperienced decisions and misaligned opinions.

That’s because when you have a group where everyone feels they need to share their opinion, and that opinion needs to be taken into consideration, personal preferences always come into play. No matter how aligned with business objectives one person may be, they aren’t always wholly aligned with the organizational view that digital transformation needs to take.

It’s like the Chinese proverb of the frog in the well: the frog may be happy in the well, but unaware of what’s outside. All the frog can see is the walls of the well and a small patch of sky. If you’re leading a digital transformation initiative, you’re like the turtle telling the frog in the well about the big world and the ocean outside the well. So when you get all the frogs in one room, they’re contributing their view of their small patch of sky and what you end up with isn’t something that encompasses the entire world, but instead many small dots of sky smashed together. And that’s not collaboration.

Related Article: How Much Collaboration Is Too Much?

Design by Committee Isn’t Helping Your Employee Experience, Either

The Great Resignation has been a hot topic in the news, and it’s real. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that between April and June 2021 a total of 11.5 million workers quit their jobs. And it’s not over. Gallup research found 48% of employees are actively looking to change jobs, and Personio research shows nearly one out of four of them will do so in the next six months.

What’s fueling the Great Resignation? Research varies, with many reports citing health concerns during the coronavirus pandemic, but other reports cite the pandemic compounding existing dissatisfaction with the employee experience, including unrealistic management expectations, micromanagement and a lack of respect.

In an increasingly hot job market — in June, the U.S. hit an all-time high of 10.1 million job openings — it’s not just about stopping attrition, but also increasing retention. And while we’re all investing in ways to improve the employee experience, there’s another factor to address: engagement. And design by committee isn’t helping it.

Losing a key employee can be disastrous, and not just to organizational morale. Some studies predict that every time you have to replace a salaried employee, it costs between 6 to 9 months’ salary on average. For example, Built In reports the average cost to replace a technical position is up to 150% of an employee’s salary.

Employees want to solve problems. Most want to make their part of the world a better place. What makes them disengaged is putting that work in only to have it undone by others who don’t know, don’t understand, or just want to put their stamp on every project that passes their door.

As a leader, what can you do? It’s time to reconsider your management approach. Have a heart to heart with your leadership team. What is the point of recruiting experts if you won’t empower them to do what they’ve been hired for? If you’re going to micromanage their projects from a bold, innovative game-changer to a watered-down bullet point? You have to give your team agency to help solve problems. Create opportunities for them to drive the way forward. This helps them see that they are trusted, valued members of the team who have a future with your organization.

Otherwise, resign yourself to never really making progress because you’re continually trying to keep your head above the turnover.

Related Article: Do You Understand Why Your Employees Are Leaving?

5 Tips to Avoid Design by Committee

It’s obvious that design by committee is bad in any situation, but deadly for digital transformation initiatives. So how do we steer clear of it? Here are five takeaways that can help.

  1. Think like a marketer. By definition, marketers are always marketing their products, which requires a deep understanding of market segments. When you’re trying to get others on board with your digital transformation initiative, be sure that you’re talking to them, not at them. If you’re not listening to what people are telling you, it’s a surefire way that you’ll end up with a room full of people trying to build a new strategy right in front of your eyes.
  2. Act like a toddler. Any parent — or anyone who interacts with children, really — knows every child’s favorite word is “Why?” But when it comes to design by committee, channeling your inner child may be key to success. Whenever someone changes the conversation by adding in a new idea or a new feature or an out-of-left-field opinion, ask them why. This will force them to give a clear case for their input, and not just rely on their feelings. Plus, this tactic helps you redirect a conversation that’s going off the rails into a more productive dialogue.
  3. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Design by committee often happens because of organizational culture, but more often because people believe they have something worthwhile to share. You may not be able to always say yes, but be sure you’re giving up control to others in areas where they are the experts. Not only does this create a better overall solution, but it also engages executives who are less likely to argue with the work contributed by their own teams.
  4. Pick your battles. Culture won’t change overnight, so focus on the most impactful decisions that will drive your digital transformation strategy forward. If it’s a small naming issue that won’t impact the larger user base or a tiny pricing detail that is a true edge case, let it go.
  5. Stay positive. It’s impossible to avoid getting input from across the organization — and most of the time, you want it. But when you’re drowning in complaints and criticism, it can be hard to see the upside. Try reaching out to potential naysayers, especially if they are on your executive team, ahead of time to get their feedback. If they feel they’ve already been heard, they’ll be less likely to bring up concerns in front of a larger group.

Innovation is uncomfortable. It requires taking risks and stepping out of “what’s always worked” — which isn’t easy, regardless of where you sit in the organization. Especially if you’ve achieved some level of success, it’s easy to default to the comfort of what got you there. But as the book says, what got you here won’t get you there. If your success came before digital, you must adapt to survive. And if you’re already digital, you have to keep innovating to meet customer needs and avoid being disrupted.

Design by committee by default won’t support bold moves because no one wants to make the wrong decision. And when it comes to digital transformation, if you aren’t being bold or innovative, you’re likely to end up with an initiative that at best, doesn’t meet your goals and at worst is a complete failure.

Melissa Henley is Director of Customer Experience at Laserfiche, an enterprise software company that has served the public and private sectors for over 30 years. As a marketer, customers are at the heart of all Melissa does, and her passion is around connecting people to content that can have a genuine positive impact on their lives.

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