The Thermocline of Transformation

By September 9, 2019 AgileBusiness, Strategy

A thermocline is such a great metaphor for so many things. In the world’s oceans (and indeed lakes) a thermocline is the transition layer between the warmer water near the ocean surface and the much colder water that exists deeper in the seas. Rather than there being a gradual lowering of water temperature as you go deeper the thermocline creates a distinct layer between the upper-most water which interacts with the wind and waves and the much calmer, much colder, depths. The temperature decreases rapidly at this point.

Bruce Webster uses this as a metaphor for what can happen with many medium or large-size IT projects in organisations. The ‘thermocline of truth’ as he calls it represents:

‘…a line drawn across the organizational chart that represents a barrier to accurate information regarding the project’s progress. Those below this level tend to know how well the project is actually going; those above it tend to have a more optimistic (if unrealistic) view.’

There are a few mutually reinforcing factors, he says, that typically contribute to this. Notably the failure to put in place repeatable and objective metrics to measure progress and accurately predict the project timeline, the over-optimistic view on said timeline (or planning fallacy), the desire of the project leads to avoid delivering bad news, and the behaviours of senior stakeholders that reward only good news rather than the truth.

These are the kind of factors that can not only derail large IT projects, but can often hinder the success of major transformation programmes as well. As well as a ‘thermocline of truth’ we might consider that digital transformation programmes within large organisations have their own ‘thermocline of impact’ as well – relating to the degree and depth of change and transformation that is considered necessary. At the warmer surface layer, an organisation might dabble with change. Looking to minimise risk it will make a few technology investments, or set up an innovation lab or two, or kick off a few new development projects. Yet it hasn’t actually changed much about the fundamentals of how the organisation works, or done this with breadth and scale.

This is the difference between digitisation (taking existing analogue propositions and processes and making them digital) and digitalisation (where change to business models, ways of working, processes, operations, behaviour, culture are far more fundamental). An outdated, clunky process that is digitised is still an outdated, clunky process. We might also think of this as the difference between optimisation – improving existing ways of doing things through the application of technology, and transformation – working back from first principles to be willing to reinvent the fabric of how the business works.

Both optimisation and transformation are likely to be necessary but the former is far easier and less disruptive so it alone is what often passes for ‘digital transformation’. The latter is much harder, involves much more elemental change, and so is more difficult to enact but is nonetheless often essential to generate the kind of change needed to ensure that the organisation is really fit for purpose for a truly digital world. This is the ‘thermocline of impact’ in transformation programmes. Not simply playing around in the warmer waters of optimisation, but diving deeper into the cooler depths of how the company operates – structures, culture and ways of working.

What’s also interesting about a thermocline in the oceans is that the difference in density between the surface layer and the deep ocean means that the layers do not easily mix, which can prevent dissolved oxygen from getting down to the lower depths of the ocean, and essential nutrients from rising to the surface layer. This is significant since the ocean’s deeper waters tend to be highly nutrient rich because there are no plants to remove nutrients from the water. It’s also significant since the ocean surface is constantly exchanging gases with the atmosphere and much of the CO2 that is put into the atmosphere is absorbed into the ocean through the surface layer. The phytoplankton that flourish in the warmer surface waters sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (an estimated 2 billion tons every year) turning the oceans into a giant sink of CO2 which holds an estimated 90% of all sequestered carbon. When the phyotplankton die they sink to the deeper levels enriching the depths with vital nutrients. Despite the fact that they don’t easily mix, one layer is essential to the existence of the other, and their interaction is key. Believe it or not Whales, and Whale poop, play a key role in enabling this whole ecosystem. The Whales feed in the nutrient rich depths and then come to the surface to poop. The iron rich faeces creates valuable food for the phytoplankton, circulating the nutrients more evenly through the layers.

Without wanting to stretch the metaphor too far, a good transformation programme considers the role for optimisation through technology, as well as the place for genuine transformation of processes, strategies, models, culture and behaviour. We don’t need one, we need both. But it also has the focus to ensure effective interaction between the layers and that optimisation and deeper change act together to create a lasting difference. Every transformation programme needs to be aware of its own ‘thermocline of impact’ (and maybe a bit of Whale poop now and then would help too).

For more like this, order your copy of Building the Agile Business Through Digital Transformation, or you can join our community to access exclusive content related to the book. Neil Perkin’s new book ‘Agile Transformation: Structures, Processes and Mindsets for the Digital Age’ is out October 3rd in the UK and October 28th in the US.

Thermocline image: Praveenron [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Neil Perkin

Author Neil Perkin

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