What Joe Biden Can Teach Us About Digital Transformation

When it comes to digital transformation, I’d like to suggest an unlikely source of inspiration: Joseph R. Biden, the 46th President of the United States.

I’m not suggesting President Biden is a master of implementations or integrations. Instead, he offers a lesson in communication. “Pick up your phone, call your mother, read her what you just told me,” he likes to say when aides use language he feels is overly academic or elitist. “If she understands, we can keep talking.”

Simple, straightforward communication is effective communication.

I refer to this as “the spouse test.” Passing the test is simple: If your non-technical, non-IT spouse can understand the project, its need, and its benefits, you pass. If they look at you like you’re speaking a foreign language, you fail.

Unfortunately, when the spouse test is failed, chances are the digital transformation will fail, too.

From manual to mobile

Too many IT leaders use impenetrable industry jargon when selling digitization initiatives to non-IT employees.

Take, for example, the cautionary tale of one major U.S. city’s transportation authority. It wanted to update its subway system maintenance process by replacing a morning meeting run via paper and pencil with a real-time dispatch via an intuitive mobile app.

The benefits were straightforward—more efficiency, clarity, and accountability—but the explanation was not. Rather than emphasizing the time it would save everyone and answering various employee concerns, it instead focused on the agile development process, intelligent work order routing, and the future potential of IoT-enabled devices.

For employees already skeptical of IT and worried about the impact of automation, it sent the wrong message. Unsurprisingly, the initiative failed.

It’s a reminder that technological capability is rarely at fault when transformations fail. As one digital transformation maxim states, success is 70% people, 20% process, and just 10% technology.

Three steps to building trust

Ultimately, the spouse test isn’t meant to be taken literally. Rather, it’s a rough measure of IT’s ability to earn the trust it needs to drive a successful digital transformation. Here are three steps to building that trust.

1) Ditch the acronyms

Let’s be honest, most people have no idea what CMDB (configuration management data base) or ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) mean. Why, then, do we pepper our explanations and proposals with such terms as if they do?

It’s not only confusing but flat-out unnecessary. After all, I have the faintest idea of how an internal combustion engine works, yet I still know enough to take my car out for a spin.

The same is true in the world of technology. When I met with a large manufacturer who wanted to better utilize IoT sensors, I didn’t explain the importance of a CMDB—though that is, in fact, what they needed. I knew my executive audience wouldn’t care, and it would only emphasize my lack of manufacturing experience.

Instead, I explained how ServiceNow’s “asset inventory” could help the organization better understand which sensors were on which machines—leading to better maintenance and lower cost of operations; and which machines supported which business services—leading to better allocation of resources and increased availability and production yield.

In other words, I explained the impact and used my language to demonstrate empathy for their situation. As Joe Biden and any good salesperson will tell you, this empathy makes all the difference when persuading people to act in a new and different way.

2) Practice active listening

How we talk is important, but how we listen is critical.

It’s a skill I worked on daily in my previous life as a small-town journalist. Just as I would never dictate a story to my sources back then, I never dictate a project’s needs to my process owner now.

Talk less, listen more.

In my experience, IT is quick to enter with a preconceived notion of what needs to be done and to explain that notion as if it were simple. That may be true, but the devil is in the details, and without active listening, chances are you won’t understand the real problem they’re trying to solve.

Moreover, nothing sparks resistance like being told how to do your own job or that it’s easy and can be automated.

Instead, it’s about asking the right questions, listening carefully, and repeating what was said to indicate thorough understanding. This is active listening, and it is key to building trust and developing a sense of partnership.

3) Pick low-hanging fruit

Unfortunately, that trust is often lacking. Given 70% of digital transformations fail, it’s easy to understand why.

It’s said that success breeds success, so it’s important to start small and demonstrate positive impact before moving on to pie-in-the-sky ideas. If the transportation authority had chosen just one problem to solve—for example, excessive paperwork caused by a clipboard-based process—I suspect they would have achieved a different outcome.

Remember, there’s nothing wrong with grabbing low-hanging fruit. What’s old hat to IT is often groundbreaking to the business. But that first low-hanging fruit depends on passing the spouse test—so ditch the acronyms, eliminate the jargon, and communicate in language your spouse, mom, or dad would understand.

Kevin Barnard is a senior director in the Chief Innovation Office at ServiceNow. He is a hands-on practitioner who is passionate about making the world of work, work