CIO upfront: Leading through fear and other lessons for digital strategists

If the goal of your transformation is a leaner, more efficient value stream, then people need to be allowed to fail.Matt Mansell, IntegrationQA

My last article was about how Digital Transformation was like panning for gold If you do it well you can strike it rich, if you pan in the wrong place you can go broke.

I highlighted some areas where you could make critical mistakes and closed by outlining several principles to help leaders pan for gold in the right place. These were:

  • Co creation of change
  • Transparency and visibility of change
  • Implement change iteratively
  • Always seek feedback

For CIOs who are tasked with leading this kind of transformation, it can feel very risky. Especially when failing is an option, even a desirable one.

I wrote about it then:

"Every kind of digital transformation I know of has, as a core principle, learn from failure. To really learn from failure you must be free to make mistakes."

I am currently leading a digital transformation for a large government department in Australia. As a part of this transformation we are running a proof of concept.

We are implementing several changes in delivery teams to help them transform the way they work to be more lean and value driven. And I can honestly say I don't know these changes will work.

Which brings me to the fundamental challenge of implementing any kind of organisational transformation; let alone a digital one. Fear.

Fear that we will get it wrong. Fear that we will look stupid. Fear that we will lose our jobs. Fear that we will spend a lot of time and effort and not get anywhere. And the root of all this; fear of failure.

To be honest; you may fail. The problem with dealing with human systems is that people are complex. Despite what the economists might tell you people behave unpredictably. When you introduce a change that you think will make things better for your people they might reject it for reasons wholly obscure to you. As the saying goes; you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

Matt Mansell of IntegrationQA

You need to make it clear that failure is an option and that you’ve thought about what to do if things go badly.

So how is a leader to proceed?


A good change experiment has the following characteristics; it is:

  • The smallest noticeable change you can make; it is your Minimum Viable Change (MVC)*.
  • It has a clear hypothesis; with both an experimental outcome and a baseline outcome.
  • It has a strategy to amplify it if it is successful.
  • It has a strategy to recover and learn from it if it fails.

If you are implementing the principles above, it should also be developed in conjunction with the people it will effect, and it should be made visible to anyone who wants to see it; including the recovery strategy.

This is critical; you need to make it clear that failure is an option and that you’ve thought about what to do if things go badly.

I had an interesting conversation with a senior stakeholder at the aforementioned Australian government department. We had displayed our experiments on our Wall of Change. He said something to the effect of: “I really like your experiments, but you need to know that failure is not an option.”

We make our change programme visible by maintaining several 'Walls of Change' that outline the experiments we are planning and the ones underway.

This is a common response; especially in government. And I sympathise with him. But it’s simply nonsensical to think that any moderately complex action is not at risk of failure. Edison is famously said to have said he tried making a thousand light bulbs before he got one to work. And changing an organisational culture is a far more difficult goal to achieve.

If the goal of your transformation is to create space for innovation, then people need to be allowed to fail. If the goal of your transformation is a leaner, more efficient value stream, then people need to be allowed to fail. If the goal is to become more customer centric then people need to be allowed to fail.

As the leader of the change you have a critical role to play in this. You’ll never teach your people to learn from their mistakes if you’re afraid of publicly making mistakes. You need to be the first person to stand up and say; “we tried to make this change, it didn’t work, so we’re rolling it back. We’ll have a look at why it didn’t work and see what we can learn from it.” And you need to do this over, and over, and over again until your people see that it is okay for them to do the same.

This is not to say we should celebrate failure. I don’t think that is the right response What we need is to normalise learning from failure and celebrate success. And learn from both of them.

As an aside, people often don’t learn from their success. They assume that because they succeeded that they must have gotten everything right. But in reality there is as much to learn from success as from failure. Why did it succeed? Did we get the benefits we assumed we’d get, or were there unintended beneficial effects?

In order to normalise learning from failure you, as the leader, have to lead. You need to feel the fear and do it anyway.

*At least to start with; as change starts to take root you’ll be able to make bigger changes.

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Matt Mansell is Chief Strategy Officer at IntegrationQA. He is an organisational transformation strategist who works to coach and challenge leaders to enable them to successfully transform their organisations. Reach him at

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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