Disrupt Your Digital Transformation: Why Your Company Culture Is Like a Fishbowl and How You Can Clean It

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Imagine a fishbowl. The water in the fish bowl is equivalent to the culture inside your organization. You can't see it, but it's there.

This analogy can be useful because, in this fishbowl, there are only two kinds of “fish” (or people). There are those who clean the water and there are those who pollute it. So, what is your fishbowl like?

Cultural Pollution

Leaders who pollute the water are those who create a culture that is hard for other fish to see through, to swim in, and to thrive. If your fish bowl is polluted, chances are confusion is high and decision making is unclear. I see cultural pollution happen frequently in digital transformations.

This is because in a digital transformation, power shifts from the top of the organizational structure to those closest to the customer. The cultural pollution happens when leaders fail to successfully navigate this shift by attempting to retain control, power, and authority.

Most leaders have earned and hold onto their role because they have been right most, if not all of the time. In digital transformations, complexity increases making the exact, absolute, correct answer more difficult to determine.

In modern organizations, no one, not even leaders, have a monopoly on the right answers. The digital world is dominated by knowledge workers, so the right answers are frequently distributed amongst a broad team and only accessed through exploration, collaboration, and discussions. In particular, these discussions happen as close to the customer as possible. The result is that there is now a more effective way to achieve the highest quality of decision-making. It also means that the highest ranking leader no longer has the best grasp of the best decision!

Of course, this is not exclusively a digital transformation issue. When people ineffectively wrestle over power, control, and authority, they “pollute the water” and the company’s culture suffers.

How to Be a Leader Who Improves an Organization

To be a leader who “cleans the water” is to be one that strengthens, cleans, and enriches the culture. This kind of leader is aware of his or her tendencies and the impact that they have in a company’s “fish bowl.”

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Please take a moment to think about your last 72 hours in the office. Are your behaviors cleaning or polluting your fish bowl? How would others answer this question about you?

Leaders of digital transformation need to challenge themselves so they become hyper-aware of how they are showing up and how they are impacting others.

Digital transformation leaders clean the water and create opportunities for new possibilities when they take an open mind and explore thoughts like:

"I'm going to let go of my command and control, my authority orientation. Even though I have all the stripes on my sleeves, I'm going to give that up. I'm going to suspend that for a second, so I can show up in a much different way. I'm going to be more curious. I'm going to be more open. I'm going to listen more deeply. I'm going to ask better questions. And, I'm going to demonstrate why I care.”

Digital Transformation leaders need to ask really good questions and make insightful inquiries that help people to see things a little differently. In a digital transformation, those who are oriented towards power, control, and authority have to lean into the sharing of power, control, and authority. It is my assertion that the best way to step into being a better digital leader is to ask questions that create opportunities for others to make comments and collaborate. In doing so, leaders begin to share power, control, and authority. Leaders who do this, show up in a totally new way for their people and trust is strengthened.  


Bottom line, in a digital transformation, the leader needs to “clean the fish bowl” so there is a new clarity that drives optimal decisions and the delivery of optimal solutions. Only in this way can the organization deliver more value to the customer.

A Real-World Example

Here’s an example that dramatically illuminates this dynamic.

I was working with a company that was deploying new software that automated a paper-based process. This software deployment was being met with significant resistance, and the employees attacked the quality of the data, suggesting it was “all wrong.” In truth, they were attacking the quality of the data because they didn't want to use the new process. Data quality was a red herring. The quality of the data was actually better than the paper-based process. The employees were demonstrating that they were unwilling to become invested in the success of the new software.

Operating out of natural tendencies, this was a situation in which the leaders naturally wanted control because they were invested in making the change. They were prepared to say:

"Listen, I've got the right answer. We had the data inspected. We know it's better. Just use the new software."

But, in this example, this leader agreed to meet with the employees first and take a different approach.

How a Consultant Can Make a Difference

Prior to that meeting, as a consultant, I talked through how an authentic leader might run the meeting in this situation with the resistant employees. “All you need to do is listen,” I advised. “Resist the urge to give any answers. Resist the urge to tell people that this needs to be done. Just ask questions, listen, and tell them why you care about their adoption of the software."

The senior leader was someone who was genuine. They really cared about the employees. As a result, this became a matter of showing the employees how much the leadership team cared—telling them this new solution had high quality data would continue to raise data quality, and create a better working environment for them and their customers.

What followed was a three or four hour session where the leader went to where the employees were working and listened. And the leader did listen. Based on what the leader heard, he proposed demonstrating why the data quality was better in the new platform, along with a conditional agreement from the employees who said:

“If you can prove it, then we'll use it.”

Working together, they ultimately came to the same conclusion.

Yes, it took weeks to come to the level of software adoption that my client was targeting, but this was a lot less time than what would have occurred if he had demanded that they use the software. Had the leader taken an authoritative approach, it would have taken them months with each side trying to prove the other wrong.

Instead, the leader said, “Why don't we explore this together? I want to understand what you are seeing in the software. Why is it not what you need? Help me understand your perspective. Let's come together and figure it out.”

And the digital transformation was successful. They got there because of how these authentic leaders began to “clean the water” in there organization’s culture. How about yours?