Transforming culture alongside technology - Rebecca Parsons at Web Summit 2022
[MUSIC PLAYING] Thank you for joining us, everyone. It's great to see a packed house today. Yes. Wouldn't you say? [LAUGHS] Love it.
So let's jump right into it, ladies. What exactly is digital transformation, and how has digital transformation within your organization enabled the creation of a healthy culture? So I think digital transformation is all about how we make use of digital tools and data to understand our business and how we deliver value to our customers as well as how we create an environment that is welcoming. I think an important part of this is recognizing that as organizations become more complex, you just can't rely on instinct anymore. And that's where the role of data comes in.
It allows you to back up those intuitions with some hard evidence. Mm-hmm. And what about you, Kelly? Hi, everybody.
I first want to say hello. Shout-out to Black Innovation Alliance family, who's in the audience. We're a national coalition of organizations that support Black entrepreneurs and tech founders, creative technologists, business owners. And we've got over 50 of our leaders from across the United States that are here in Lisbon. So so excited to be here.
Black Innovation Alliance is two years old. We're a little more than two years old. I say that we're the most grown two-year-old that you are ever going to meet because we've done a lot in a very short period of time.
So for us, when it comes to digital transformation, the beauty is, when you're brand new, you're not having the same challenges of a preexisting, long-standing organization where you're transitioning from a preexisting system to some new form of technology. We get to onboarded from jump street. But the challenge is often that when you're brand new and in early startup phase, you need different tools. As you're growing, you need to transition the tools that really enable you to scale not only in the delivery of the product or the service that you're creating, but especially for startups and helping you to figure out how you effectively communicate with one another on your team, how you team build, how you relationship build among team members who are just coming on and operating in a virtual space.
So for us at Black Innovation Alliance, digital transformation has been absolutely vital. ANIE AKPE: Right. You touched point on challenges, so let's continue with that conversation, to the both of you again. So when you mention challenges, as a startup, what type of challenges would you think that most people are seeing as they're going through a continuous digital transformation because they're establishing their organization? Rapid scale. Like all the things, it often comes down to, how do you build a team in a way that allows you to maintain the quality of the product and the service that you are delivering? And so for us, we're constantly trying to figure out how we leverage technology to do that.
And the other thing that's very special and unique about Black Innovation Alliance in particular is that we are a coalition. And when you have a coalition, there are multiple constituencies. So there are our leaders who run the organizations.
There is our team. There are the entrepreneurs that we are serving. And we're constantly trying to figure out how do we ensure that there is a feedback loop across all those various constituencies. So when you're growing and scaling and constantly onboarding new role players, trying to make sure everybody has clarity on roles and responsibilities and figuring out how your various constituencies constantly sync and talk to one another, that's probably been one of the biggest challenges for us at BIA. ANIE AKPE: Right.
And for Thoughtworks, you've been around for 30 years, which is very impressive. During those 30 years, you've gone through a lot of transformations. What challenges did you see through the years as innovation has evolved? Well, the problem with having legacy is you have legacy. And that can be people.
That can be technology. That can be a process. That can be organizational structures. And humans really don't like to change. Right.
[LAUGHS] We didn't know that. There are a few people who are change makers who are passionate about, yeah, I'm going to go out and I'm going to make this change. But for most people, a job is a job. And I know how to do my job. And now, you're trying to tell me I need to do my job differently because you're giving me these new tools, and I have to do this new process. Why? Why, why, why? And oh, by the way, I'd like my empire, thank you very much.
So I don't want you to break up my empire. Right A lot of the digital transformation is realigning the organization around more end-to-end functions as opposed to thinking about organizational silos. Because digital transformations, from a process perspective, are all about reducing friction. You don't want hand-offs. You don't want anything to slow down the delivery of value. And very, often that means reorganizing.
And people don't like to change. They just don't like it. And so a big challenge is, how do you convince somebody that actually, this is useful. This is going to make your life better. I know it's going to be tough initially, but this is ultimately going to make your life better because we're going to be able to deliver better value to our clients. Right.
One of the challenges that I've always had within an organization is getting the employee buy-in. Because to the point that you just made, people don't like change. So what did you do within your organizations in order to get an employee to buy into all the transformation that is happening and will continue to happen? Well, a lot of it is tying it back to the purpose of the organization and our values, trying to say, this is why this is important. This is why we are doing this.
We are trying to deliver extraordinary impact to the world through our culture and technology excellence. So we tie everything back to the sense of purpose that we have in our values. And that helps to convince people, OK, this is for a good cause. And this isn't really a big deal.
And so OK. But yeah, it is hard. Right, right. And did you run any campaigns to get your employees? Because I think when you're in a startup mode, you constantly are having to make a lot more changes than a well-defined company of 30 years. Yes. So how did you get your employees as you're shifting.
left, right, front, center in order to make it happen? What did you do? I'm laughing because you said, "how did you get your employees?" and we're two. We're literally two years old. So this is an active process. We've got probably about 20 of our team here, and we had a team meeting yesterday because we wanted to use this opportunity. We are currently meeting quarterly in person because our entire team is national. So this is a conversation we are actively having.
And people don't like to change because it's very risky and there's a lot of unknown and there is fear. And so I'm talking aspirationally because we still are figuring this out. But I think it helps if you can provide people the blueprint and the map.
Because it's one thing to say we're going from here to here. When you say that, people immediately start thinking, well, how is that happening? And who's doing what am? And am I supposed to be carrying the water, or carrying the luggage, or who's-- right? So I think the more you can map it out for people so that they can see what the path is to get from here to there, the more confidence that they're going to have in the process. If you're just selling a vision, it's going to be hard to get people to really buy in because they can't really see practically and tactically, how do we get from where we are to where we want to go? Mm-hmm, and which leads a good segue into being inclusive. So now you've got transformation, switching out your systems, or constantly changing it to upgrade or whatever the case may be.
Right? And then you've got the culture that you're trying to get the employees in. So now let's talk about, how did you make that inclusive? There's the question that comes into play all the time. What did you do? As you're making all these changes and you have to be inclusive and all those changes you mentioned laying off some employees. Did that impact those other employees in terms of looking at the inclusion thought process within the organization? Yeah. Well, I think inclusion is just part of our DNA.
And so what we have found is even with that, you have to be Very intentional you have to think about what are the various perspectives in the room, and how are they going to respond? I like the fact that you brought up the fear aspect because that is a lot. When reorganizations are happening, people are afraid. And they're not always afraid for the same reason. And I think a big part of an inclusive environment is trying to recognize, OK, you are where you are. And you are in a different place. You're both afraid, but you're afraid of different things and afraid for different reasons.
And so my approach to helping you overcome your fear has to be different from my approach over here. But we have to recognize, people are coming at this from their own perspective. And I can sit there with my perspective and say, OK, you shouldn't be afraid.
But it's really not productive to try to tell people how to feel. You can tell them how you think that they should feel, or you can try to say, tell me how you feel so I can help you. But trying to tell people not to worry never works. It just doesn't work. But another part of inclusion in this is thinking about the entire lifecycle of the change that you're going through, and are we involving all of the different stakeholders and understanding and creating that future state vision? Because what is going to be desirable from one perspective isn't necessarily desirable from all perspectives, and we need to understand that. And you can't understand that unless you engage.
I can't predict how all 12,000 Thoughtworkers are going to respond. We need to go out and seek out those answers. ANIE AKPE: Right. And for yourself, your organization as well. So oftentimes on conversations related to DEI, it starts with race because, especially in the United States, it speaks to people who have been marginalized.
At Black Innovation Alliance, that's not our challenge because we are very focused on centering Black people and centering Black voices and centering Black leaders, right? So we don't have to solve for that problem, per se. But we also are always been trying to figure out, how do we ensure that our team members feel welcome, that they feel that they belong, that they feel seen? Our values are something that we try to live out. Love, integrity, mutualism.
And it has to look like something. So we want to make sure that we are showing up for our team, for our employees, for our members. That's especially critical and crucial for us. And then just being mindful in the ways that other marginalized groups are showing up within our team, within our work to ensure that they, likewise, feel grafted and welcome. ANIE AKPE: OK.
Let's talk about the fact that we talked about transformation. Let's go back to culture. Culture and innovation, the word inclusion, innovation, and then culture, those are three distinctive words that play a key part in organizations as they're making their changes. What would you say are some of the lessons you've learned throughout the years as an organization that's been around, as I mentioned, for over 30 years? What would you say those lessons have been for you? And what are the positives that you can encourage other organizations, as they move forward with inclusion, culture, and transformation? Well, the first thing from a culture perspective-- when I started, we were about 100 people in size, and now we are over 12,000. And when you think about culture, there are two kinds of aspects.
A lot of people, when they think about culture, they think about the ceremonies. They think about the activities. But those activities don't always scale. And what we try to do when we think about culture is to think about outcomes. And one of my favorite examples is, for a long time, we were a completely flat organization.
We had the founder and we had everybody else. And that worked until we got up to about 1,000 people, and then it broke. But we were allergic to the idea of a hierarchy.
But when we started to tease it apart, we realized that it had nothing to do with hierarchy. It had to do with the free flow of communication, that we didn't want to have the Chinese whispers game of, OK, the developer is going to talk to this person and that person. And then ultimately, it will get to the CEO. We didn't want that.
And so we put in the structure but said, oh, by the way, all of you people in those layers, you have no right to complain if the most junior person in the organization talks to the boss. You have no right to complain if the boss goes and seeks out all the people that work with you. And so we kept the cultural value of the free flow of information, and we rid ourselves of the ceremony. And so we want to be careful about separating those things.
Now, when you start to talk about inclusion and innovation, you can't get innovation if people are afraid to take risks. I often say, it's not an experiment if how it's going to turn out. The whole point is to see how it turns out. And sometimes, I think this experiment is going to fail.
And what is innovation but trying out something new to see if it's going to be successful? Exactly. And if you have a culture of fear, people are not going to experiment. They are not going to take those risks. If you can build an inclusive environment where people feel heard and feel like they belong, then they're going to come to you with their great ideas and say, hey, let's try this out. And so being inclusive, to me, is a necessary aspect of a culture of innovation. Because if people are afraid to experiment, they're just not going to do it.
And so I like how you tie those together. You build a culture that is inclusive and then that inclusive culture allows you to innovate. And that innovation can feed back and enrich your culture, and you've got wonderful cycle. Right. I love it.
Thank you for detailing that. Because a lot of the times, we take it for granted with companies that have had to go through those transformations and maintain the people that they've had and keep them encouraged and knowing that innovation is coming and keeping them active with that thought process of, let's make sure that you understand what's happening because we want to include you in the process. So and as a startup-- I love the fact that you're a startup on this stage, because there are lots of startups that are participating, obviously, throughout Web Summit. So as a startup, let's talk about the fact that there's inclusion that has to be thought of. I know there's transformation happening and then as well, there's the culture.
Yeah. So how do you maintain that as you're starting and then being able to continue it as you build into your future? So at BIA, we went from a team of two to a team of 20 in 18 months. And when you talk about culture, in my mind, culture is, like, how you do what you do.
It's like the air that you breathe, how it feels to be a part of your organization. We had one member mentioned in a testimonial video that being with fellow BIA members feels like home. And that really hit me in my heart because that is my intention as the founder.
The challenges when you're a founder-- the virtual co-conveners were myself and a woman named Aniyia Williams. We had a very specific way of thinking about it, a very specific way of executing, a very specific way of communicating with our members because we were ecosystem leaders. And we knew the journey, and we wanted to come to this work with a high level of empathy, understanding what other members have to deal with. And so as our team started to grow, I realized that there are certain aspects of that culture we had created in the early days that was not necessarily being transferred.
And it was very frustrating for me because I'm like, well, why would you respond that way? Or why would you take this long to respond? Or why would you not defer on this or why would you not stand your ground on that? And I realized that we never have the opportunity to really download what I actually believe our culture to be. Like, what are the key features of it so that we can transfer it to new team members? Because otherwise, they're operating based on their own sensibilities about what this work should look like. And so we're currently in the process-- and one of our consultants used this phrase. We need Kelly proxies not because the culture should live within my personality, but because I have very clear intention about what the culture should look like. But I should not necessarily need to be in every single room and every single conversation to ensure we're showing up according to our values. And so this is where we currently are, storming, norming, performing.
We are very much. [LAUGHTER] Every day, I wake up like, how can I harness the wind today? Right, right. [LAUGHS] Right. Right.
But that's essentially what we're wrestling with now as your team grows. And our team is continuing to grow. How do we really document and operationalize that culture so it doesn't have to live in a person but can really filter throughout the organization? Mm-hmm. One of the key things you said that, as I was listening to you, I kept hearing over and over again, the transfer of information from one employee to the next, and so on and so forth, especially if you're doing a rapid growth and then a long-standing growth.
The transfer of information is key as you build out your companies. So as we bring it to a close, there are lots of people in this audience, whether they're corporations or they're a startup. What are three tips that we can get from each of you that you can say, hey, this is what I did.
This is what I would recommend you do in terms of inclusion and with culture and innovation. I love the fact that I'm the stodgy, old corporation. We do not think of ourselves that way. But I guess in comparison to a two-year-old organization, we are. But I'll play the stodgy, corporate type. [LAUGHS] Inclusion takes work.
Diversity takes work. And it is so easy to let it get away from you and much harder to re-establish a sense of inclusion once you've lost it. If people start to feel, wait a minute, this isn't the same kind of place I was before, trying to get that feeling back is hard.
And one of the things to realize-- to me, diversity is about numbers. Inclusion is about getting a seat at the table. But belonging is that feeling that actually, not only do I get to sit at the table, but I get to say something, and I get to be heard, and I get to influence the outcome. And so it takes vigilance. So that's tip number one.
Don't let it get away from you. Tip number two is to really try to establish who you are, what you are about, and be very transparent about, this is my decision-making framework. These are how I am looking at problems.
This is how we decide what's important. And be very transparent about that and repeat it over and over again. And finally, you mentioned communication. It's a whole lot easier to communicate with 20 people than 12,000. And you have to repeat messages.
You have to repeat across multiple forums and multiple venues and realize that different people consume information differently. And no one would ever assume I'm a marketing person, but you almost have to treat it like a marketing campaign. My target audience is all of my employees, and I need to get this message to them. And so I need to figure out, what are the different forums where I can present the information.
Where are they going to be coming from mentally, in terms of receiving that information? But you have to be very intentional about communication. Right. Right. I definitely agree. And Kelly, what are your tips? At Black Innovation Alliance, our ethos is called it E cubed, Energy, Execution, Emotional intelligence. You have to come with the right energy.
You have to be able to get stuff Done we activated 19 specific initiatives this year. 19, and the year's not even done. So you have to be able to get things done.
And you have to have a high level of emotional intelligence because this work is not easy. So for me, this works starts with your own self-awareness. You have to be self-aware. You have to be committed to doing your own internal work. Because if you don't, that's going to show up in how you interact and interface with your team. Number two, build the skills of your team to have hard conversations and to manage and mediate conflict.
Because otherwise, you're just going to have an organization of people who behave in passive aggressive ways. So our team is in the midst of a book club for Crucial Conversations. That's the book. So every team meeting, we do a chapter and we reflect on what we got out of the book and that chapter. And it's really helping to give us grounding language to have hard conversations. And always be learning.
Always be learning and be transparent about the mistakes. So don't try to shoo them under the rug. No. It's like, this is where we got it wrong. This is what we learned, and this is how it's going to look different the next time. Because then you're able to hold yourself accountable to being a better organization.
And then people don't personalize the mistakes when they're made. It's to say, making mistakes is normal. Conflict is normal.
We're just going to learn how we do conflict and how we manage mistakes really, really well. Mm-hmm. Right. So thank you both. And I just want to thank our audience for joining us today.
It's amazing to look out and see so many people. Thank you all for being here. Of course, we love this conversation on innovation and culture and inclusion. One of my key takeaways in listening to the both of you is know yourself. And for me, knowing yourself also translates into knowing your organization.
What is its mission statement? How are you building that in as you're innovating and also building that culture and not losing people along the way? I love what you said about-- I love what you said about the fact that each employee is now involved, and you have to run campaigns as if you are running a campaign for your organization. So thank you both for joining me on this stage. If I do not say visit us at our booth, my marketing team is going to choke me. So please, visit our booth, Black Innovation Alliance. It's across from the Executive Lounge. We would love to meet you.
ANIE AKPE: All right.