If your digital transformation looks like this, you’re doing it wrong

There are four of this German manufacturer’s products in my New York City apartment. The engineering quality is excellent, and they are beautiful to look at. The oven, a square of black glass and stainless steel, heats quickly and evenly. The dishwasher is whisper-quiet. Though this company’s products cost twice as much as other brands I’ve used, I did not hesitate to order their washer & dryer when our old ones had to be replaced. 

The company does so many hard things well, yet they continue to miss something obvious and important.

“Please make it stop!”

When we first moved into our apartment, the building was new and each of the 265 units came with a high-end dishwasher. After our first dinner there, I loaded it with dirty dishes, turned it on, and went to sleep.

Soon after, my wife and I woke up to an insistent beeping. Half-awake, we wondered what it was. A smoke detector? Some other alarm? After stumbling in the dark, we discovered it was the dishwasher. I turned it off and went back to bed.

The next day I mentioned it to two neighbors and learned they were also woken up by their dishwashers, and they couldn’t figure out how to make it stop. Not the woman with a Ph.D. from Stanford. Not the partner in a corporate law firm. They had resigned themselves to organizing their lives around the beep. 

I searched the Internet and discovered numerous complaints, and also a solution that only a mad scientist could expect consumers to find and follow. (It took me four attempts.) Why would such a quality manufacturer force customers to do something like this?

  1. Turn off the dishwasher.

  2. Press the Program Select option and, while holding it down, switch the machine back on. 

  3. Keep the Program Select and power buttons down until the bottom right indicator light comes on.

  4. Press Program Select four times. The Inlet/Drain light should now be flashing.

  5. Hold the Program Select button down again until the Inlet/Drain indicator stays on continuously.

  6. Release the Program Select button and the press it again once quickly.  This should toggle the buzzer activation to off.

  7. Turn off the dishwasher.

How would you turn off the beep?

Cursing in the laundry room

Now it’s ten years later, and almost every company is offering “smart” products. The washer and dryer I purchased is highly-rated and they come with Internet connectivity and an app. The machines notify me, for example, when the laundry is done, and also report (oddly) the precise temperature of the water and the revolutions per minute of the interior drum.

The day the new equipment arrived there were piles of laundry to do, and I was eager to get started. But the small display instructed me that I must first follow setup instructions and connect the machine to my network, which it could not find. I read the manual. I repeat all the steps. No connection. 

I downloaded the app and re-read the manual. I try again - and it works! But still I cannot do laundry. I must now “calibrate” the machine (a 2-hour process!) before setup is complete. Failing to do this step forces me to start from the very beginning. I do this twice. 

Half a day later, I load dirty clothes into the machine, cursing the engineers responsible for this experience. “Didn’t anyone at this company try their own product?!?” 

The missing piece in most transformation programs

I purposefully did not mention the company’s name because they are not the exception but the rule. Almost every company has a digital transformation program of some kind, but they all tend to focus on the technology and forget about the people. 

  • Did they ever observe a real customer trying to use their product?

  • Were employees invited to share their feedback and offer ideas for a better experience?

  • What if, instead of reporting the RPM of the motor, the “smart” appliances noticed how long setup was taking and pointed me to help? Or noticed that I am consistently using only one of the 20+ programs (“Normal”) and gave me useful tips for how to make the most of the machines?

Despite all their technology, the manufacturer has created a connected product that leaves me completely disconnected from them. As a result, they have no insight into my experience, and miss out on valuable information they need to improve. Until companies include empathy and human connection as part of their transformations, the promise of digital will remain unfulfilled, and customers and employees will remain unsatisfied. 

The Mainentance (sic) program on my new washing machine.

Insincerely yours

It’s such a common practice at this point that most people don’t think about it. Even professional advice about the topic is misguided. As a result, well over 90% of the people who send me email make this mistake. Though it would only take a few seconds to correct it. they repeat the error over and over every day, missing an opportunity each time.

What is this egregious mistake? They don’t personalize the closing of their message.

Insincerely yours.png

Some people are the victims of technology. They use an automated email signature, and so the same bland phrase (and lengthy contact information) is appended to each and every email. Whether their note is an urgent complaint or a beautiful compliment, their message will end with “Yours faithfully” or some other banal phrase that sounds “business-like,” one they entered long ago and forgot about. (For my German friends, the favored choice seems to be “Mit freundlichen Grüßen / Kind regards.”)

Some do it out of habit. Perhaps they once read somewhere that it’s the professional thing to do, and they’ve been typing it ever since without questioning it. Others may be slightly lazy. Faced with an ever-increasing email burden, the thought of having to customize each closing is too much for them to bear.

Well, as my mother used to say, just because everyone else does it doesn’t mean you should do it too.

The final closing of your message is a signal. If it’s an automated or otherwise impersonal closing, it tells the recipient that they’re nothing special, not worth the trouble of a few seconds to sign off with something just for them.

Choosing to avoid the scripted “Kind regards,” on the other hand, offers an additional opportunity for a sense of connection and relatedness. Think of it as a small exercise in empathy. How would I feel if I received this? Your closing needn’t be long or intimate, and certainly shouldn’t be inauthentic. You’re just adding a few personal words relevant to the context of the message.

“Thank you again for your kind note. I appreciate it.”

“Have a wonderful weekend. Cheers from NYC!”

“I’m looking forward to our call on Thursday. I always enjoy our conversations.”

Be different. The world is already full of impersonal communications. When you humanize yours, you will distinguish yourself in a wonderful way. 

If there is an Us and Them in your organization

Like it or not, there is certainly an Us and Them in your organization. Indeed, there are many, as employees identify with different divisions, locations, and teams. Human beings desperately seek group affiliations and have evolved to quickly identify who’s in our group and who isn’t. Even infants do it.

The reason we developed this deeply-ingrained tendency most likely started with genetics. The forces of group-level natural selection led to prosocial behaviors within a group and competition between groups. That helped related members pass on their genes. But now it goes way beyond that. 

The Trolley Experiments

A classic thought experiment used in ethics can tell us a lot about our innate tribalism and how the brain works. It’s called “The Trolley Problem.” 

“You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a level that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two choices:
1. Do nothing and also the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.”

In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Prof. Richard Sapolsky describes experiments involving variations of this problem. What if one of the people were related to you? Or were of the same ethnicity? Or wore the jersey of your favorite team? 

Would that affect your choice? Of course it would. “According to one astonishing survey, 46% of women would save their own dog rather than a foreign tourist if both were menaced by a runaway bus. The evolutionary explanation is that they feel more ‘kinship’ with the dog.”

The Trolley Problem.png

The part of you that decides

In another version of this experiment, instead of pulling a lever, you have to push a person onto the tracks to save the other five. Experimenters gave subjects both versions while neuro-imaging their brains. They found that those pushing a person activated “emotion-related regions that respond to aversive stimuli.” Those pulling a lever did not activate those regions. For them, it was “as purely cerebral a decision as choosing which wrench to use to fix a widget.”

Remove the human element from mistreating someone, and it literally changes how you think about it. 

What to do?

Sapolsky offered no easy answers. Human behavior is complicated, the research is often contradictory, and the best you can do is point to rough probabilities.

“From massive, breathtaking barbarity to countless pinpricks of microaggression, Us versus Them has produced oceans of pain. Yet our generic goal is not to cure us of Us/Them dichotomizing. It can’t be done…"

Instead, in the final pages he had advice for how to at least mitigate our ingrained tribal tendencies and tap into more prosocial behaviors. “Focus on the larger shared, goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate.” Seeing the other person as someone you can relate to engages other parts of your brain, allowing you to feel empathy and compassion.

Perhaps you have two divisions that don’t get along, or the merger of two organizations still hasn’t resulted in one culture, or there’s friction between headquarters and the branch locations. Consider purposefully forming WOL Circles with people from the different groups. Over the twelve weeks, they’ll relate to each other as individuals who have much in common, and those human connections can serve as bridges between the groups. 

When you go beyond the labels and categories, go beyond “Them,” it can change everything.

When it’s not a contribution

I don’t mean to judge you. If you recognize an item on this list as something you do, perhaps you have good intentions. Perhaps, contrary to my opinion, it is helpful to someone. Perhaps you simply do it without thinking.

All of these are things I’ve done myself, and yet they make me cringe now. I share this list in the hope that you’ll find it helpful and avoid the mistakes I’ve made. 

A partial list

I often tell people to “frame it as a contribution,” by which I mean the things you share should be be helpful to someone in some way. Here are ten of the more egregious ways I failed to follow my own advice.

Automated contributions -  You signed up for some on-line service and it starts spewing out how many people followed you on Twitter, that you Liked a particular video, or that you achieved a new level on a game few have heard of.

Impersonal contributions #1 - You hit a button to connect with someone and offer no explanation as to who you are, why you want to connect, or how the other person might benefit. 

Impersonal contributions #2 - You hit a button to share the latest news or blog post without adding why you’re sharing it or why others might care.

Complaints - You come across something that irritates you and you share it, amplifying your discontent in exchange for a feeling of validation that may come from others agreeing with you. 

Burdens #1 - You introduce people to each other via email without asking them first, thus forcing them to follow up or risk the embarrassment of seeming unresponsive. 

Burdens #2 - You send lengthy emails with requests hidden deep inside them, or  share lengthy articles without explanation.

Burdens #3 - You ask people you barely know vague questions via email or text - "How are you?" - that are just crude disguises to lure them into a conversation. 

Burdens #4 - You overwhelm someone with “helpfulness,” sharing a wild array of things - links, videos, articles, comments, feedback - that they didn’t ask for and can’t possibly keep up with. 

Purpose-less contributions - Your posts of food or cats or kids are too frequent (unless you’re in a food or cat or kid community).

Narcissism - Me, me, me, me. While sharing something you’ve done can be genuinely helpful, talking only about you and your accomplishments verges on narcissistic and creepy. 

I could go on, but you get the point. The theme throughout this list is that you make such mistakes when don’t listen. You think of sharing as a megaphone, amplifying who you are but at the expense of being sensitive to the people around you. Or, worse, you don’t think at all. Like the irritated driver honking in traffic, you see something and offer something without a thought as to how the other person might receive it.

The one technique you need

The trick to “framing it as a contribution” is to know that “helpful” is in the eye of the recipient. So to be genuinely helpful, you need to reflect and practice empathy, to put yourself in the position of the other person. 

Who might find this helpful? 

Why should they? 

How might I feel if I received this?

What’s my real motivation in sharing this?

Working Out Loud Circles make it easy to practice this. Week after week, you get the chance to make a wide range of contributions - from appreciation to visible work to vulnerability - with genuine generosity and empathy until it becomes a habit and a mindset. 

Over time, you develop a short pause before you send something, a tiny moment of reflection that can make a fundamental difference in what you share and how it’s received. It takes practice, but it’s worth it.

That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German

It began like any other annual offsite meeting. Three hundred of us from our division - “the top management” we called ourselves - gathered to experience lush accommodations, good food and wine, and lots of presentations. The mood, as was typical for these conferences, was a strange cocktail of cynicism and feigned enthusiasm.

Then they announced the guest speaker: Ben Zander, conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and author of The Art of Possibility. I had just finished the book and it helped me see that the lenses I used to view the world could change everything. (It’s still one of my favorite books of all time.) I wondered what he would say.

“Shining eyes”

He played the piano as he told us stories, connecting his experiences as a conductor with leadership lessons in a beautiful way. 

"Now, I had an amazing experience. I was 45 years old, I'd been conducting for 20 years, and I suddenly had a realization. The conductor of an orchestra doesn't make a sound. My picture appears on the front of the CD —
(Laughter)
But the conductor doesn't make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful. And that changed everything for me. It was totally life-changing. People in my orchestra said,"Ben, what happened?" That's what happened. I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. How do you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. 
Right. So if the eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question. And this is the question: who am I being that my players' eyes are not shining? We can do that with our children, too. Who am I being, that my children's eyes are not shining? That's a totally different world.”

The room was quiet. You could almost feel each of us “top managers” reflecting on whether people in our organizations had shining eyes, and whether we were the kind of leaders who could make that happen.

“Ode to Joy”

Then, as a means of having us experience something we wouldn’t think possible, he said he was going to have all 300 of us sing “Ode to Joy” in German. Nervous laughter rippled throughout the room as he handed out the lyrics, written phonetically so we could all pronounce them. We shot embarrassed glances at each other like school children trying to avoid the teacher’s gaze.

He began conducting us, and a few people mumbled the first words. He immediately stopped us and had us try again, and again, exhorting each of us to reach deeper. Soon, infected by his energy and enthusiasm, we gradually shed our egos and fears and self-imposed limits. We let go - and we sang.

“FROY-NER SHER-NER GETTER-FOON-KEN”

We were…doing it! We looked at each other with amazement. We drew confidence from each other and sang louder. Whether or not we knew German, whether or not we were good singers, we were SINGING! 

At that moment an energy passed through us, a resonance of some kind. We were, perhaps for the first time as a management team, literally “in synch” and “on the same wavelength.” The cynicism melted away and the enthusiasm became genuine. We had tapped into the art of possibility - a sense of capability and wonder and joy. It was beautiful.

When the music stops

Throughout the rest of our conference, we talked about that moment. Then the meeting ended. We went back to our offices and our habits, and the feelings of common purpose and possibility faded. I was disappointed, but that image stayed with me, as did something Ben Zander said at the end of his talk.

“Now, we're all about to end this magical, on-the-mountain week, we're going back into the world. And I say, it's appropriate for us to ask the question, who are we being as we go back out into the world? And you know, I have a definition of success. For me, it's very simple. It's not about wealth and fame and power. It's about how many shining eyes I have around me."

Who are you being? How many shining eyes are around you? It’s taken me a decade to understand that you don’t change your answers to these questions in one magical moment, but with practice over months and years and for the rest of your life. .

That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German? It was more than a a nice way to inspire an audience. It was a glimpse of the way things could be. 

Photo credit: Alexander Kluge

Photo credit: Alexander Kluge

Which seeds will you water?

Working in big companies, I’ve had the opportunity to see a wide range of human behavior, and it can be disheartening. Not only the big systemic injustices, like unfair performance management systems or abuses of power, but the personal, day-to-day exchanges between people.

Sometimes it’s the language we use. Where I’ve worked, it was routine to label entire divisions of our own company as “morons” (and much worse). Emails were often so threatening and mean-spirited that merely preparing to look at your inbox would evoke a stress response. 

Sometimes it’s a feeling you get when you walk down the hall or step into an elevator. In one location I visited for lunch, I said thank you to the woman clearing the trays and was told, “People don’t do that here.”

Sometimes, it’s how people from different jobs (titles, divisions, locations) relate to each other in person. I heard an executive tell someone they wouldn’t connect with them on LinkedIn because they were of too low a status, and their more important connections might notice. 

When you see these kinds of behavior, or experience it yourself, what do you do?

I used to get angry and frustrated. I would be quick to identify the villain - the bad boss, the sender of the nasty email - and blame them for my unhappiness at work. But after thirty years of working in corporations, I realized there is a never-ending supply of villains, bad behavior, and potential unhappiness.

Lately, I’m trying to respond differently. I ask myself, “Which seeds will you water?”

It’s a simple metaphor I found in the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, and the question has been helpful in determining where I put my energy.

“In the depth of our consciousness, there are all kinds of positive and negative seeds - seeds of anger, delusion and fear, and seeds of understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. Many of these seeds have been transmitted to use by our ancestors. We should learn to recognize every one of these seeds in us in order to practice diligence…The practice is to refrain from watering the negative seeds…and recognizing the best seeds in others and watering them.”

When something negative comes up, I have a choice. I can nurture my anger and indignation. Maybe I even spread the story so I can shame the villain while infecting more people with negative feelings. Or I can recognize that, if I look, I can find many more examples of behavior worth celebrating, I can also choose to lead with my own positive examples, practicing the kind of empathy and generosity I wish to see in the workplace.

This doesn’t mean I have to ignore bad behavior entirely, or never act on it. I just don’t have to strengthen it.

The older I get, the less I think of the workplace as being comprised of good people and bad people. Instead, we’re all just people, each with our own stories and struggles, our own good and bad seeds.

Which seeds will you water?

When the baby cries

I was in a hotel room, sleeping deeply, when I heard a baby screaming in the room next to ours. Its crying was so loud and urgent that it yanked me awake.

I was immediately irritated, even angry. Goddamit, why can’t that baby be quiet? Then I heard the father yelling, sounding desperate, “What IS it?! What is your PROBLEM?!” I started to judge him for the way he was reacting. 

It was the that I remembered a practice I had read about recently called tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “sending and taking.” 

When the baby cries.jpg

It’s a simple practice. If someone is suffering, you breathe in, as if you’re taking in that suffering, and you send out thoughts of happiness or comfort or whatever might provide relief. It’s an exercise in compassion. 

I tried it. I thought of the baby, breathed in its confusion and pain, and breathed out soothing thoughts. I thought of the father, breathed in his frustration, and sent him calm and patience. I reflected on how I had been in similar situations many times, and how upsetting it could be.

My judgment and irritation melted away, and the baby stopped crying. I was incredulous at first. Did tonglen really work? Before drifting back to sleep, I remember thinking that I had just tapped into some kind of superpower. That feeling didn’t last long, however, as a few hours later the baby woke me up again, and this time I was in no mood for tonglen. Nevertheless, that night of broken sleep made it clear I had a choice of how to respond to upsetting events, and that the compassionate choice made me happier.

You can practice tonglen on yourself too, when you’re hurting in some way. Maybe it's when a driver honks loudly behind you, or you read an upsetting story in the news, or see someone begging on the street. Whatever the emotion is - irritation, anger, disgust - you don’t have to suppress it or berate yourself. Just take a moment to feel it, examine it with a sense of curiosity, and reflect on all the other people on the planet who are going through something similar. Then you breathe in for all those countless people, including yourself, and you breathe out relief.

The next time the baby cries -  when something or someone upsets your - see if you can practice “sending and taking.” Catch the initial feeling; breathe in suffering; breathe out compassion. As you practice, you become kinder to yourself and others, and you see just how related and interconnected we all are.

“We have to take care of our own first.”

A friend of mine went back to his old neighborhood and was talking with friends he hadn’t seen in a long time. At one point, the conversation turned to politics, and the topic of immigration came up. One of his friends made it clear where he stood.

“We have to take care of our own first.”

I immediately wondered who “our own” might actually include. Would it be all Americans or just people in his part of the country? Would it include the many millions on welfare? Those who can’t afford health insurance? People who were otherwise different from him in terms of religion, race, or sexual orientation?

It’s a primal instinct to want to take care of our own. The field of evolutionary biology describes how the bonds formed by many species who live in groups lead to pro-social behaviors that help the group succeed and pass on its genes.

Yet humans have taken this to odd extremes. Our definition of “our own” can change from moment to moment based on the context we’re in. Research has shown, for example, that even 11-year old boys on different teams at summer camp quickly form into us and them, and good and bad behaviors stem from those arbitrary boundaries. The same pattern plays out in large organizations, where no matter how we draw the lines, the infighting remains. 

The suffering that results, in the workplace and around the planet, is incalculable. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We’re no longer in small hunter-gather groups struggling to pass on our genes, and we don’t need to be victims of our biology.

To improve how we treat each other requires us to be aware of our natural tendencies to divide and diminish so we can extend our sense of relatedness - our sense of “our own” - to a much bigger group.

It requires an open mind to see that the other side is actually not a side at all, but human beings remarkably like us if we give ourselves the space to imagine it. 

It requires practice. Small steps, over time, with feedback and peer support, can help us gradually develop the compassion and empathy we need to make us all happier. 

This is the work we can and must do.

Man rescued from Houston floodwaters by human chain. Picture: Storyful

Man rescued from Houston floodwaters by human chain. Picture: Storyful

Pema’s dishes

When I first read this story, it made me optimistic. “If this can happen to her,” I thought, “then there’s still hope for me.” It’s from Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön, the renowned Buddhist nun.

“I had just finished my evening practice. I had been practicing all day, after which you might think I would be in a calm, saintly state of mind. But as I came out of my room and started to walk down the hall, I saw that in our serving area someone had left dirty dishes. I started to get really angry.
Now, in the retreat we put our name on our dishes…So I was walking down and I was trying to see whose name was on those dishes. I was already pretty sure whose name was on them, because there was only one woman of our group of eight who would leave such a mess. She was always just leaving things around for other people to clean up. Who did she think was going to wash these dishes, her mother? Did she think we were all her slaves? I was really getting into this. I was thinking, “I’ve known her for a long time, and everyone thinks she’s a senior practitioner, but actually she might as well have never mediated for the way she’s so inconsiderate of everybody else on this planet.”
When I got to the sink, I looked at the plate, and the name on it was “Pema,” and the name on the cup was “Pema,” and the name on the fork and on the knife was “Pema.” Needless to say, that cut my trip considerably. It also stopped my mind.”

My first reaction was “So it’s not just me.” Even the most spiritual, compassionate, highly trained person gets angry sometimes, and makes up stories in her head. It’s part of the human condition. 

Then I noticed how she handled it. No additional drama. No self-recrimination. I imagined her smiling and shaking her head, thankful for the lesson manifested by some dishes. People make mistakes, and part of the practice is learning how to pause before you get carried away with the storyline, to be open to other possibilities before you react and to offer loving kindness for yourself and others when you do.

“Everything we meet has the potential to help us cultivate compassion and reconnect with the spacious, open quality of our minds.”

A tale of two inboxes

Imagine you’re on holiday and you think about checking email from work. How does that make you feel? How do you deal with that feeling?

I’m off this week, so this was more than a thought exercise. Over several decades, I have learned to dread email while I’m on vacation. When I ignored it, my background stress would accumulate and burst into the foreground. When I checked it often, there was bound to be something upsetting that would color my mood for the day. Gradually, I developed a system whereby I would hide my phone and limit my email-checking to specific times, but even that didn’t eliminate my anxiety.

This week was different. As I thought about the mails I had received, they were almost all positive and helpful. For sure, some involved “work” - follow-ups or requests or some kind of issue - yet even those emails were friendly and nicely-worded. “It’s odd,” I told my wife, “but I actually look forward to checking email now.” 

Of course, I’m working for myself for over a year, but I don't think that explains the difference. Companies aren't necessarily bad and being independent isn't necessarily good. Instead, I think the difference between inboxes isn’t due to whether you’re an employee or not, but due to the culture of your organization, and how people feel about being a part of it. 

I claim that even in big companies we can learn to relate to each other - and to ourselves - with more compassion and generosity, with more kindness. We can discover how much more effective and fulfilled we can be. It requires behavioral change at scale which makes it difficult - and yet that’s something I’m confident we can accomplish. 

My old inbox used to contain things done to me, and my new inbox seems to contain things done for me. Which inbox would you rather have?