Andrew Maher – Transformation and the Digital Landscape

by | Oct 1, 2019

Dr. Andrew Maher, Chief Digital Officer, Aurecon.

Jen Frahm: Hello, everybody. Welcome to the latest podcast episode of Conversations of Change. You’re with Dr. Jen. It’s been a little bit of time between drinks, very important reason for those who aren’t up to speed. I’ve launched a new company, The Agile Change Leadership Institute, with Lena Ross. Where we’re offering online certificate programs for leaders looking to upskill in agile change.

We’re also offering inhouse workshops for agile change practitioners, so change managers looking how to do their work in agile environments. And we also have a change capability program for managers in your organizations who are struggling with new ways of working.

I’ll put links in the show notes on that for you. So that’s what’s been keeping me busy. But it is with great joy that I’ve been able to come back to this podcast, and in particular bring to you some really interesting work that’s been done by a previous client of mine Aurecon. And I’d like to welcome to the podcast, Dr. Andrew Maher, Chief Digital Officer. Welcome Andrew.

Andrew Maher: Thank you very much, Jen.

Jen Frahm: Hey, it’s pretty cool to have you on here. This is … a Chief Digital Officer is not the most commonplace of roles. Tell us, what does a Chief Digital Officer actually do?

Andrew Maher: Well, Jen, I think over 100 years ago you would have been saying the same thing about the Chief Electricity Officer. And there were a few of those at the time who were helping firms move from steam engines, and hooking them up into the electrical grid. And once that job was done, we didn’t have Chief Electricity Officers. So the CEO became the Chief Executive Officer I suppose.

But at the moment, we have quite a few Chief Digital Officers around the place and our jobs, or job, is to hook pretty much existing firms, not the startups and so forth, they don’t really need this sort of thing, but hook up existing companies into the digital world. And rethink ways of working, look at business models, and think about the sorts of services that we might be offering in the future.

So it’s a transformation role, really. And it’s one that I would not expect to be around in the years ahead.

Jen Frahm: I really enjoyed that as an analogy, but that got me curious, what do you think you’re going to be doing in 20 years time?

Andrew Maher: Well, what I was doing beforehand. And the thing is someone asked me to reflect on my career recently and they said, “What do you think sums up your career?” And I thought, “It’s just dealing with change, that’s all I’ve ever done.” But I trained as an architect, and that’s where my PhD is, is in architecture. And I’ve maintained my architectural registration, although I’m not doing too much of it right at this moment. So I think when I land on a plane that last bit to fill in the “…what’s your occupation?” I don’t write down “Chief Digital Officer”, I write down “architect”. And architects deal with design, they deal with uncertainty. Those sorts of things. So yes, it’s what I was always trained to do.

Jen Frahm: That’s fantastic. That’s fantastic. Andrew, digital transformation, bit of a buzz word. And the more I speak with leaders, the more I find that it has a very different meaning to different people. What does digital transformation mean to you?

It’s about finding balance

Andrew Maher: Well, I suppose I gave a little bit of away before, but it really is about thinking about the ways of working, and looking at the way the technology has impacted that, role’s, skills. And so there’s an element of transitioning existing employees and helping them think about, “How am I going to work in the future?” So that it’s the working side of things. And there’s an optimization bit of it. So looking at what we offer and what we do at the moment. And is that the way that we should be doing it? And then there’s an opportunity side of it as well.

So it’s balancing up the optimization through digital tools, techniques, ideas with the opportunities of well what could we offer into the future? And what are the new opportunities for us? So that transformation is going from one way to another way, really. And for Aurecon, which is a professional services company, it’s engineering design around infrastructure and buildings. I mean, we’re still going to be doing that in the future. It’s just we’ll be doing it in a different way. And there are things that we don’t do at the moment that we will be doing in the future. And that’s really exciting, to think about what are the new sorts of things that we’ll be doing?

Jen Frahm: Yeah. Yeah. One of the reasons why I was really keen to have you on the podcast is that you guys have just produced the first of a three-part risk research program I think it is. With the first one being the Digital Landscape Report. And it had some really interesting stuff in it. And I think what I’m always looking at when I’m working with clients is what’s on the horizon. So whilst they may have a sense of this is the change we need to design for, it’s almost how are we ready for the change of the future? And I think we’ve got some good insights in your Digital Landscape Report. Can you tell us, how did that come about? What was the process, and perhaps the research that went into it?

Andrew Maher: Well it started three years ago. And I really wanted to do a bit of a litmus test to think about, or to understand, if we were going to start offering services, or what might those services be? And we exist because our clients buy our services. What were our clients thinking? And so we did a piece three years ago, and we called it Our Digital Future. And we went out and we did in-depth interviews with our clients all around the world. And then we went through it all and looked for common topics, and we grouped those topics into themes. And we brought together four themes.

And for me, that was really sort of a state of play. A current state assessment, at the time three years ago. And we have just seen things move so quickly, which is why I think I’m going to be out of this role before I know it. Because there is a great deal of transformation going on. And so it was really time to go back and understand what the current thoughts were, and also to get a sense of where people were thinking … what they were thinking about for the future as well.

So the next Our Digital Future is as you said, it’s broken up into three parts, which we’ve released the first one. The landscape, which is to understand the current … the updated state I suppose. And yeah, so it’s a continuation. And we’ll do it again as well.

Jen Frahm: Yeah, great. I felt that there was quite broad application in this, so it wasn’t just about Aurecon’s clients. What’s your view on this in terms of what’s the user case? How can leaders use this report?

Andrew Maher: Yeah, that’s right. One of the main things we did this time was … and for me it was really about getting some action behind what’s happening in the future. Because I picked a few things that I could see three years ago. This is the North Star, this is where we’re going, this is going to be the future. And very, very quickly the future hit us with it. And so one of the things I’ve done is employee a futurist. And she is … and this time with this research, she got together with her network, and her network’s network, and we actually went out and we interviewed not just our clients, but we went out and interviewed futurists all around the world to get their ideas as well.

And that’ll be coming in the next a lot of reports. And that’s also helped influence what the questions would be. So the first stage was to go around and talk with these people in many countries, and to get really a global view of … and we’re looking at where a firm, a professional services firm, might operate. But not just within our clients’ realm, but to also give our clients a sense of that the world was changing. And they want to also look beyond their organizations as well.

Jen Frahm: Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s often really tempting to benchmark within your industry, but I think it’s so much more valuable when you benchmark outside of your industry. And look for what else is out there.

Andrew Maher: And it’s also good with, … because when we’re looking at construction, we often think of that as being a laggard industry, or at least many people in construction do. But construction is benchmarked against other industries as being laggard. So if you are only to look at construction, it wouldn’t give you anything really.

Finding new benchmarks

Jen Frahm: Yeah. It’s actually something that came up this morning. I was hosting part of the Agile Change Leadership Institute. We’re hosting regular breakfasts with leaders, and running lean coffees with them. So to discuss what’s their challenges in leading agile transformation. And one of them came up with this challenge that when in a laggard industry, and this whole notion of business agility, well you can’t do these things in an agile way. This isn’t about products. And so, from a construction perspective, can you do that in an agile way? Can you have an MVP of a bridge? How does that translate into your world?

Andrew Maher: Yeah, of course you can. Because there are some really interesting characteristics of construction. One is that it’s project-based. And many, many hugely vertically integrated firms and industries have tried to reinvent themselves to become more project-based. But construction is forever being project-based. Well, not forever, but at least for the last 150 years has been project-based. And so it’s very used to having different organizations come together and form around a project, and then disband and move onto the next project.

What it’s really bad at is taking new knowledge that gets created on those projects, and new knowledge is always created on those projects, and taking that back to either the parent organization or onto the next project. And so that’s where new ways of thinking about knowledge sharing and change back into the parent organization. They’re the opportunities that we need to grasp now.

Certainly there are … I don’t think you can … I mean, it’s a fantastic position to be in, to be able to look at other industries and learn from them.

Jen Frahm: Yeah, I think it’s critical. And I’ve spoken about this before. From a personal perspective, I put a lot of stock in what I call horizontal learning. In that learning outside of my field, or introducing ideas from outside of my field into my current practice, is really, really important. And I think the same approach stands for organizations.

Now, one of the things that struck me in the report, it said that not many key decision-makers understand what “going digital” means. Really? Are we still saying this? Like in … I found that one a bit interesting. I would’ve thought that we had more people in senior roles understanding what going digital means.

Andrew Maher: No, that’s still the situation we find ourselves in. And I think that is also a key marker which will … if you go a bit further into an organization, you’ll find out how far. Whether they’re just spinning their wheels, or whether they are really making head roads into transformation, it’s whether it’s been led and understood and communicated from top. If the key decision-makers have got little idea about what it is, and they’re just paying lip service to it, very unlikely to be going anywhere.

Jen Frahm: Oh, that’s a bit bleak. That’s a bit bleak. Doesn’t suit the optimist within, Andrew.

Andrew Maher: Well it’s an opportunity, Jen.

Jen Frahm: It is. It is.

Andrew Maher: The opportunists say, “Well, all the others are asleep at the wheel. We get to do something.” In fact, somebody said to me recently, a leader of another firm said, “We couldn’t understand what Aurecon was doing for a long time. We just thought they’d lost their way. And then we realized they were way ahead of us.” And I thought, “That has been the best compliment I could get.” But it just makes me want to work harder, rather than take it for granted.

Jen Frahm: I can get that. I see that. I think one of the other probably more optimistic lines I read in the report was around many organizations believe that digital will allow them to be more efficient and prolong the life and utility of their assets. And obviously, again, I get a lot of one of the obstacles to change in organizations is we want to sweat the asset. And we don’t want extensive tech debt in the organization. And it sort of strikes me that there’s a contradiction there. Any thoughts on that?

Andrew Maher: Yeah. Well you could take that as being look, just leave everything in place. But no, I mean, there’s another way of looking at it as well. In fact, we had a client recently who said, “Look, if we can do a deep dive into data and analytics around how we use our assets, and how we can better utilize them and better optimize them, then we will put off any more capital expenditure.” And in that sort of scenario, you think that they were actually saying, “Well look, we need to think about what we’ve got differently.” And so, therefore, that was their route into a whole new area of thinking. But, so it depends on the perspective of the client. If it’s just leave us alone and we’ll just leave everything in place, then yes, they’re not going to go anywhere.

Jen Frahm: Yeah. Yeah. Respondents didn’t see digital as particularly important in generating revenue. Did this surprise you? Because again, as you probably heard about my tone of voice, it really surprised me.

Andrew Maher: It was the biggest shock of everything. Of all the results, really, to see that. I was just amazed that people were not looking. They’re looking … so what it does show is that they’re thinking, “Well, we’ve got the existing organization, how do we speed it up? How do we optimize it with everything that’s in place?” But we’ll just run with the same model, just operating faster into the future.

And you will very quickly spin yourself into the ground, I think, if you do that. Because your current operating model may not be built for the future that’s coming very quickly at you. And if you’re not thinking about, “Well, how do you generate your revenue? And is that what clients want from you anymore?” It doesn’t matter how fast you do it, it will disappear. There’s lots of famous examples of organizations that do that and aren’t around with us anymore. So that was the biggest shock for me, that people weren’t looking at that.

Jen Frahm: I think one of the things that struck me, and so maybe this is a reflection of if you haven’t been through some form of digital transformation with organizations, you don’t know its potential. You don’t realize that it opens up an interconnection with customers and clients and employees, which is around new knowledge, new ideas, all that kind of stuff. So what you think is your revenue now could be completely different in 18 months time, when you’ve got these expanded networks through digital platforms. But maybe you’ve kind of got to go through it once or twice to actually understand the potential. And if you haven’t been through it, you actually can’t see that potential.

Andrew Maher: It could be. And it could also be that … and people, you hear people saying, “Oh, we’ve got initiative overload.” And that’s a common phrase to sort of say, “Leave us alone.” But it’s not necessarily just around digital transformation. It could be anything that you want to do which involves change. But yes, if you do have a capacity to change, and if you aren’t going through some change or another, it will build resilience and a capacity to say, “Okay, well …” And especially if it’s well communicated. If it’s not well communicated, then that doesn’t do anything for anybody. But I think you’re right. Yes. If you do go through it a number of times, and you’re going to have to keep going through it at the moment.

Jen Frahm: Yeah. It’s that being open to, “I don’t know what the future holds”, too.

Digital Transformation for an exciting future

Andrew Maher: Yep. Yep. You see when we do little proof of concepts around ideas that we have. And when we do them and you look at the new skills that are going to be required, and you’ll look at the new types of work that are going to come along, you can’t help but be optimistic. And so you do have that sense on one side, but then you also know that unless you provide training and help people adjust, there will be winners and there will be losers.

And I’m not just talking within our firm, I’m talking society more broadly. And so it will be hard for some people to adjust. And for some people, what they’re doing will disappear. And it might be that they do fall through the cracks, and that’s where society needs to come in and help them. Not everyone is going to be a winner when society changes.

Jen Frahm: Yeah, I think automation is a really good topic of that vein, in that it feels like we’ve got a really polarized public narrative around automation. And it’s either it’s doom and gloom and the robots are coming, and we’ll all be ruined. Or it’s this, oh no, you don’t know what the jobs of the future going to be. And you who have only ever done this mechanical manual process all of your life will be able to morph into this new digital way of working. It doesn’t feel like there’s a middle ground there at the moment.

Andrew Maher: Yeah. So I like to, sometimes on LinkedIn or on social media or something, when I see something that where I can get a sense of where there’s some new skills that are going to be required in the future, or somebody who’s done something small, but you can see how it will expand, I’ll put it there and I’ll tag it, skills for the future. Or something like that. Because having small examples like that gives people an indication of what’s coming. But if you just say, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine,” it’s not very helpful either.

Jen Frahm: Yeah, actually I quite like that as an approach. That’s a good one. The survey results showed a spread in who should own digital. So speaking of polarized, this was actually far from polarized, it was all over the place. What’s your view on the answer to this question? Who should own digital in organizations?

Andrew Maher: Well, my view is that it needs to be a business owner. And it needs to be a senior business owner. And we are seeing a spread of titles. So it’s not just about Chief Digital Officers. There are other roles, Managing Directors for Digital and Chief Digital Executives, and things like this. But it’s … fundamentally I think it’s if the business needs to own it, and it needs to be at the very top of the organization. So in the C-suite, with a seat at the table, and at the decision-making table. And the ones who are getting confused but say, “Yes, we’re doing some sort of digital transformation,” are those that have handed over to IT.

Andrew Maher: And this is really interesting for me, because where it sits with IT … IT is a very mature area of business now. And there are very few organizations that are developing their own IT programs. What they are is a very good set of project managers, and people who can implement new bits of software and so forth, but from vendors. And so largely what they’re doing is vendor management in IT. Now that is not around really thinking about what new business models are, or what the skills are the future needs to be.

So the organizations that have just sort of handballed it over to IT are also the ones that are saying, “We’re actually not sure where this is going, or what it means for our business.” And you can see why they pair it up with IT. But it’s a fundamental mistake to do so. So it’s where it sits within the business, and at the top level is where we could see organizations really picking it up and moving with it.

Jen Frahm: Hmm. Interesting. I have to say, I still don’t know myself. I don’t have a firm opinion on this. And the more I work in organizations, I see different potential homes for it that make sense. And I also see some really great IT areas that you go … actually, they’ve taken their understanding of IT beyond what we would have thought. And they’re doing great work with it. But yeah, it’s interesting.

Andrew Maher: It’s like any other part of the business, you need to be doing that. But in IT, it’s such a mature stage, that you really have to be thinking about who the best vendors are to be working with. But once you’re working with vendors, you’re also playing in a red ocean where anybody else can go and pick off those vendors. So it’s not really necessarily giving you a difference in the marketplace. Other than you fundamentally have to do it.

Jen Frahm: Yeah. I guess also when you’re in a mature space, it’s a lot harder to unlearn what you know. There’s that beauty of beginner’s mindset too in not knowing things, and designing completely different because you actually don’t know the answers.

Andrew Maher: Yeah. There’s many more paths. There’s fewer parts in a mature market.

Jen Frahm: Yeah. You’ve got some great case studies in the report. I was, of course, curious about insights on the organizational change that was needed to result in the outcomes that your case studies talk about. Did you get the opportunity to capture much of that in the conversations? Appreciate you can’t fit everything in a report.

Andrew Maher: Yes, we did. And I think with all of them, you could … and the successful ones, the biggest challenge is really the leadership, and getting the commitment of the leadership, and to own it. Both own it, and to communicate it to the rest of the organization. And that it was across different parts of the organization, that it doesn’t just sort of sit off on its side somewhat. So that was probably a common theme, was that the leadership had taken this on and had gone to the lengths of actually really getting a deep understanding of what it meant for the organization. 

Jen Frahm: Yeah. It’s so important. So important.

Andrew Maher: It is.

Jen Frahm: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Working in change consulting, we often focus on change readiness. Now you called out five elements that were critical in the research data. So upskilling staff, improve and automate systems, transform your business model, develop new products and services, and manage assets. Again, I was really surprised with this, because I didn’t see mindset in there. And from a change readiness perspective, for the work I do, the mindset is everything. Did that come through at all, or was it just not there?

Andrew Maher: No, no, that’s absolutely there.

But for me, it’s really an overarching cultural requirement that’s important to all of those elements. So not one to be singled out on its own, but you absolutely need to have changing mindset. That’s key. Critical. We’ve linked that in with the communication as well.

Jen Frahm: Yeah. Yeah. And I think it’s really important from the perspective we say it’s an overarching, but it’s often the one that’s missing. So they’re still trying to do those other five areas. But without the mindset there, and finding that it gets quite frustrating with what they do. If you look back over your career … so you mentioned that the beginning, that your career, that the common theme has been change. And you’ve also talked about the importance of communication. What would you say have been the hallmarks of great organizational change that you have experienced?

Andrew Maher: When anything really moved, the hallmarks have been that the people at the top of the organization said, “Now is the time. We need to do this. You get on with it and go ahead with it. But we’re backing you.” And I think for me that is the … whether you’re a first-mover, whether you’re a fast-follower, it doesn’t matter. But if you don’t have that, then that’s that … if someone just says, “Look, we think it’s interesting. Off you go, off to one side, and just develop something interesting, come back and tell us at some point,” you won’t go anywhere. But having the leadership engaged and directing it, and owning it as well, really is the key thing to have anything move.

Jen Frahm: Yeah. What would be your advice? So a new leader comes to you looking for advice on sponsoring digital transformation. What are you going to tell them?

Andrew Maher: I’m going to ask them some of the same questions that you’ve asked me today. “What does it mean? What does it mean to you? Where is it going to sit in the organization? Are you personally invested in making this happen?” I won’t be expecting to hear about the minutiae of what it needs to be here or there. But it’s really the narrative of is it a guiding principle for where the organization has to go? What does it mean to the people in the organization? Are they going to be supported? And that sort of thing.

That’s the sort of narrative that I would expect to be hearing from a leader who is going to be engaged with it. And that’s the way I’d guide the conversation as well. And people do come and ask. People have come and asked for lots of lessons. And I go into the way that we’ve structured things here and how we measure progress. All that has to be in place, but you need the person at the top of the organization to say, “It’s time to do it.” And it’s time to do it for broader societal reasons than just “Guess what, we need to make sure to tick the box on digital transformation.”

Jen Frahm: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Excellent. Are you up for a quick game of word association?

Andrew Maher: Sure.

Jen Frahm: Okay. Five qualities in change leadership. What does vulnerability mean to you?

Andrew Maher: Being prepared to … say you don’t know.

Jen Frahm: What does empathy mean to you?

Andrew Maher: I think understanding that actually, even though you’ve understood everything, that not necessarily everybody has. And not expecting them all to be at the same point at the same time.

Jen Frahm: Excellent. Curiosity?

Andrew Maher: Follow your nose and go and do some experiments.

Jen Frahm: Great.

Andrew Maher: Find out what’s interesting. Make sure that you’re interested when you can turn up to work.

Jen Frahm: Okay. That was still curiosity?

Andrew Maher: Yep.

Jen Frahm: Okay. Courage?

Andrew Maher: Even though nobody is prepared for it, you’re going to get up there and explain this to why you have to go down this path.

Jen Frahm: That is brave stuff. Last one, self-compassion?

Andrew Maher: I sort of think about the way that I work in cycles. So I need to go out and run around, and talk about things, and explain what we’re doing, and to engage people. But then I also need to have the time where I just go away and just have some contemplative time. So I need to make sure that I’m looking after me as well. Otherwise it will just be exhausting.

Jen Frahm: That’s sensational. Thank you, Andrew. Andrew, you’ve been fantastic with such generosity of your time and your thoughts on this. Let me check in. Is there anything that our listeners can do for you? What do you want them to know or do coming out of this podcast?

Andrew Maher: Well, I think if people were excited about the changes that they can see … if they can do something about encouraging younger people with what they might do in the future, and what skills they might develop in order to thrive in the world that we’re entering into, I think that would be fantastic. Because as somebody who has children about to enter university, I think about that a lot. I think about, “Well what are the skills that people are going to need?” So I think going and talking and offering people opportunities to come in. And we run a whole lot of internships and all that sort of thing, so that people can test themselves in the workforce, and test their ideas. I think I’d like people to open themselves up to that.

Jen Frahm: That sounds an admirable path forward. Andrew Maher, thank you so much for your time on this Conversations of Change.

Andrew Maher: Thank you, Jen.

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