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Digital Transformation as an Endurance Sport

Service Designer Kevin Ehman draws parallels between his experience with endurance sport and his work in digital transformation initiatives with government.

When people ask me what my hobbies are, I usually say something along the lines of long jogs in the dark woods, alone with my thoughts. It can sound existential (and perhaps a bit strange to the uninitiated), but that’s the reality of it. I’ve spent the past few years focused on training for competitive endurance sport objectives. Last summer, this meant trying to run the West Coast and Juan de Fuca trails in one continuous push. This has also meant ultra-distance races, all-day mountain adventures, and long-distance cycling schemes. By most mainstream definitions, ‘ultra distance’ means running further than the 42.2 km standard of a marathon or an imperial century (100 miles) for cycling. You’re likely wondering how this aligns with digital transformation.

This evolution came after a lifetime of consistent involvement in sport, usually involving a big cardio engine (a youth spent on the soccer pitch sets you up well as an adult runner). Since giving myself up to the long-term process necessary to achieve my goals in ultrarunning, I’ve noticed many parallels to my day job, designing services within digital transformation initiatives in government. Likely this is because I am admittedly a huge nerd for both, and fascinated by how structure and rigour can make all the difference in actually achieving desired outcomes. 

Endurance training takes discipline and patience. So too does large scale transformation in the public sector. In ultra distance training, routine and structure make these feats much easier. I believe that digital transformation doesn’t have to be hard for large, complex organizations. Rather it is the absence of requisite rituals, systems, and cultural norms that makes transformation so challenging. Well-established endurance training principles can provide us with a new way of looking at our individual and organizational challenges associated with transformation.

Let’s first examine the fundamentals of building endurance. I come from the school of Steve House and Scott Johnson. Their 2014 book Training for the New Alpinism completely changed the way I thought about training and inspired me to adopt a more structured approach with bigger goals. The no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone model really connects for me, precisely because it doesn’t offer any shortcuts; you have to want to do the work (and lots of it) to get the results. Their approach centres on three core training principles: continuity, gradualness, and modulation.

Continuity

It can’t be a casual relationship. 

Continuity in training refers to maintaining a regular schedule of training with few interruptions. You have to be motivated and disciplined to fulfill the requirements of the plan you lay out. Obviously, there needs to be some flexibility to account for the unexpected. Lapses in training do happen. They can be managed, but they cannot be overlooked. A dedication to consistent practice needs to come first. 

Transformation demands a culture of consistency.

Continuity in transformation means the rituals and language of digital transformation must become common and habit; only through consistency can a culture of organizational progress and renewal emerge and sustain. It is important to engage employees in a range of transformation initiatives, not just digital project after digital project (more on that in a bit). One-off transformation initiatives in the public sector are usually rife with challenges or fail, due to disconnection from larger, cross-organizational commitments, supported at the highest levels. Routines give us a feeling of purpose – this is why consistency is so important. 

OXD illustration representing continuity in digital transformation

Gradualness

Physical adaptation takes time.

Gradualness is an acknowledgement of the body’s limited capability to adapt to the training stimulus. Your body’s numerous systems (cardiovascular, nervous, muscular, and endocrine) require time to adapt to the various stresses (inputs from training, be it running or cross-training) you apply with a training load. Gradualness is a virtue that cannot be overemphasized.

Transformation is incremental. 

Gradualness means transformation initiatives must be incremental, slowly increasing in ambition and scope. This is applicable at all scales, from the projects a program area tackles to the entire strategic thrust of the organization. In concert with continuity, this allows for a socialization of ideas, learning by doing, and learning from critical reflection. Gradualness in this context borrows the prototype/test, rinse/repeat model advocated by design approaches and takes it meta; starting small, growing incrementally, building on what works, and throwing away what doesn’t. Government cannot go from a legacy of waterfall project management to full agility overnight. Transformative processes and new ways of working require muscle memory. This takes time and tenacity. 

Modulation

Switching things up is positive.

Modulation is the undulating level of training stimulus that gives your body a chance to recover its homeostasis (biological equilibrium in living organisms) after the peaks of intensity in your training. But it will also allow you to overload those intended systems and then put them into the next and higher crisis state with the new, higher training load. Put another way, endurance athletes need periods of intensity and periods of recovery. A higher training load increases our capacity to run far and/or fast, while rest prepares our bodies for the stress of a higher training load.

Let people embrace diverse roles.

For many, there’s a joy to be found in variety. In the desert of legacy digital services, a never-ending working life of fixing what’s broken can feel like banging your head against the wall. It is important to engage people in a range of transformation initiatives and activities, not just digital projects. Transformation efforts shouldn’t perpetuate silos and internal monocultures. Long-term, variety in one’s work has a net-positive effect on happiness. 

It’s in the short term (our hours, days, and time-boxed project weeks) where we seek focus on the task at hand, as feelings of productivity are the reward. In my experience, the happiest people are those who have tried their hands at many things, be it projects of differing texture or an array or roles within teams. Fulfillment at work looks different to everyone, but never let fear of the unknown stop you from attempting something new or different. Growth always happens through the discomfort. 

The work is a marathon. 

The human body has an amazing capacity to adapt to physical stress. However, it does this best if that stress is applied in a constructive, consistent, and progressive manner. This stressing of our systems is how we grow stronger and more capable. We also require appropriate recovery to truly reap the benefits. I’ve experienced first hand how this approach pays off over the span of years. But it requires a stoic outlook and view to the long game. 

Public sector culture is full of maxims. One I initially resisted but have come to understand as hard truth is that the work is a marathon, not a sprint. The pace of change in government bureaucracies is certainly no explosive CrossFit workout. More like your Saturday long run at a comfortable pace, more focused on steady, incremental growth over rapid (yet limited) short term returns.   

For those who have been part of the public sector innovation experience, I hope these metaphors resonate. For those who have yet to be part of a transformation project—if you work in or around public service, it’s inevitable—I hope you can glean something useful to help you prepare. I really can’t over-emphasize the imperative of making the methods and culture of change habitual. Addressing things at the root (that is, causes, not symptoms) is the best way to transform the systems, processes, and values within an organization. In sport, as in life, there are no overnight successes. My passion is getting outside and doing the work required to become a better endurance runner. This means a regularity fuelled by tenacity and a deep enjoyment of the grind. As House and Johnson say, you can’t coach desire. This same basic approach of consistency, discipline, and enthusiasm can be applied to the journey of digital transformation in the public sector. Dedication to the process is what will deliver results. And this journey should be about both the ends and the means: progression through structure, and learning from the practice while delivering on the goal. 

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