My transformation journey as a leader in DNV

by | Oct 21, 2021 | Insights and Inspirations

Ed note: DNV is a partner of the Norwegian Red Cross Society and IFRC. They are providing mentorship and guidance on digital transformation and leadership for IFRC’s Digital Transformation Team and the Solferino Academy. This is a post in our series on leadership.

The world is changing so quickly, that if you stand still, it’s like moving backwards. In other words, there is no option but to transform.

In 2015 we embarked on our digital transformation in DNV, and it’s been an exciting journey both for DNV and for me as an individual, that we’re still in the middle of. In this blog post, I want to share my transformation journey from a leadership perspective, and some of my reflections and key takeaways from these years that I hope will inspire you in the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

Of course, I already knew this in theory, but one of my key learnings is that change really is as hard as they say, especially when we need to change our own behaviour. And change takes a lot of time. When dealing with change, I have learned that if we are patient and persistent and take one step at a time, then change is in fact possible. Here are some of my most important takeaways for successful transformation, and staying relevant as a leader in 2020 and beyond – regardless of the kind of transformation you are going through.


My key takeaways are:

  1. As a leader you need to start by setting a clear direction.
  2. Then, you need to let go of your urge to control and give your employees the freedom and autonomy to decide how to do their job. If your direction is clear, there is no need to micromanage.
  3. Face outwards and not inwards. This helps you stay relevant in times of transformation. And make sure everyone around you does the same.
  4. Experiment. Experiment. Experiment. This is the best way to fail quickly and learn quickly – you adapt in a very fast way.
  5. Make data-driven decisions based on what you learn from your experiments, instead of making decisions based on assumptions and experience (that might be outdated).
  6. The best way to succeed, is to be open and transparent

Before diving into these things, let me first tell you about my journey. When we embarked on our digital transformation, I was working in the Leadership Development team in our Group Centre. I was therefore in a unique position to read up on all the relevant theories, create a roadmap for change, develop training that we rolled out to thousands of people, develop new frameworks to change our routines and be part of rolling this out in the organization. I got to experience what worked and what didn’t work, but all from a distance – and more in theory than in practice.

Going from theory to practice is very hard, so after a year of maternity leave and some soul searching, I decided to do exactly that. Face change and transformation head-on. I left the safe harbour in our development team and joined a business unit as Head of Innovation and Portfolio Management. My mandate was to change the way we work with innovation and my goal was to accelerate the number of successful commercial innovations in our business unit. So how did I use my theoretical learnings?


Clear Direction 

Number one. As a leader, you need to start by setting a clear direction. Articulate the purpose and vision of the transformation, why are we doing this and what do we want to achieve. With millennials growing up, we see an increasing number of employees wanting to work towards something that matters. In DNV we are in a unique position with a purpose of Safeguarding Life, Property and the Environment – and so are you in the Red Cross, you are in a great position with such a compelling purpose towards both staff and volunteers. However, make sure that doesn’t make you lazy. You still need a clear vision for your transformation at every level of the organization. A common trap that I see, are leaders not able to articulate the why and what, and rather start telling people how to do their job. I have been frustrated many times by the lack of a clear direction, and quickly understood how important it was to get this in place in my new business unit. However, I found it really hard to do. So, my solution was to get some help. I gathered our whole leadership team in several sessions with a facilitator, and the result was an innovation thesis – the direction we wanted to go with our innovation efforts. The thesis is now used every time we select which ideas to invest in, and is also communicated to our whole organization so they know which kinds of ideas to investigate and pitch.  This will be revised and refreshed on an ongoing basis. It’s not great yet, but at least it’s a start.


Autonomy

Number two. You need to let go of your urge to control and give your employees the freedom and autonomy to decide how to do their job. Autonomy has so many benefits. It’s proven to increase employees’ motivation across the whole world. Shifting the decision-making down the hierarchy speeds up decision-making, which is key to succeed in such high pace environments. Furthermore, you ensure decisions are made closest to where the action is happening. What I find is that the clearer my direction is, the easier it is to give teams the needed autonomy. But as soon as I’m unsure about the direction, it’s really easy to revert back to making decisions that I should have delegated to others – and others even come to me to make decisions for them.


Face Outwards 

Number three. Face outwards and not inwards. Change is happening so quickly around us, that we need to stay updated on external trends to stay relevant. We used to say the half-life of knowledge for an engineer in the 1930s was 35 years – a whole working life. Whereas for a software engineer today, many say it’s as little as one year! You need to know what is happening in the world – with your competitors, with your partners, your staff, and your volunteers – but most of all it’s about really understanding your customers and their needs. In my everyday life with a busy work schedule and a two-year-old at home, I find that I don’t have enough time to read the latest books and articles, or take all the relevant courses or attend seminars. But a very effective way to get the needed insights is to change your working routines. And this is what I have done together with my team. We have implemented a design thinking approach (similar to a human-centred approach as you have chosen in the Red Cross/Red Crescent), that really forces us to continuously turn outwards. For each product we are developing, we have to do market research and competitor research, and we have to experiment with customers – this is the only way to get funding to continue. 


Experiment

Number four. Experiment. Experiment. Experiment. To make sure we learn as quickly as possible from the outside world, we need to experiment. Experiments make us fail fast and learn fast. Rather than spending a lot of time thinking, planning and analyzing – just design a very simple experiment that will help you validate or invalidate one of your assumptions. Often our decisions are so influenced by our unknown assumptions, that we make very poor decisions. Or we struggle to make decisions at all because we have a lot of known assumptions. We try to map all these assumptions and test them one by one. Then each little experiment is very low risk, and we debunk a lot of myths and long-standing assumptions. It’s actually quite a lot of fun – especially when we realize our assumptions were completely wrong. And it helps us move forward quickly. Our continuous experimentation will also feed into the revision of our innovation thesis when this is on our agenda early next year.


Data-Driven Decisions 

Number five. You need to make more and more data-driven decisions based on facts from your latest research and experiments, and not past experience and assumptions. Past experience can be outdated and biased. Ever heard of HiPPO’s? The HiPPO effect is the where rather than making decisions based on the available data, the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO) affects the decision. These people are usually senior in the organization and their opinions influence the group’s discussion and decisions. In order to overcome the HiPPO issue, we set up a decision board that I’m heading up, that’s been trained to make decisions based on data. We’re still not great at it, but we’re really trying. There will still be many decisions that you need to make based on experience, considerations of people and other perspectives and inputs, but more and more decisions require new data and evidence to keep on top of current trends and impacts.  


Open and Transparent

Number six. The best way to succeed is to be open and transparent. Share your successes and share your failures. It’s the only way we can learn from each other. We are really trying to make the decision board a safe space for all teams to share what’s going well, what’s not going well and where support is needed. In addition, we need to lead by example and be open and honest about our own successes and failures. As a leader in 2020, humility is key. There is no way we can know everything. Our employees know much more than us about most things. That’s why we set a clear direction, let them do what they’re great at and learn from them along the way.

In a nutshell, what I have done is work hard to change my routines. It’s been a roller coaster with a lot of ups and downs, and many situations where I’ve felt like I’m close to drowning. But slowly, these new routines and behaviours are starting to feel more and more natural both for me and the team. The goal is for this to be our new culture – just the way we do things around here! I still have a long way to go, and we still have a long way to go, but we have identified what needs to change for us to succeed and we have established the routines and work processes that we believe will get us there. In the end, I believe we have really transformed the way we innovate and lead innovation – a very important part of any digital transformation. And these leadership traits that I researched in theory, have really helped me on my leadership journey.

I started out by saying change is hard. And it is. So how do you get started? My key advice would be to start small. Start by choosing one thing that you will do differently starting TOMORROW!

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