Your firefly culture is holding you back from true digital transformation

It is very hard to change company culture. I have never had anyone say we need to change the way we fundamentally tackle problems. In retrospect, this makes sense, because my managers were not high enough within the organization to affect change at the highest levels and the need to show results within the budget cycle typically didn’t lend itself to a true culture change. I realize now that just like fireflies, organizations develop a rhythm and it is this rhythm that separates innovative and transformative companies from followers who never achieve the success of their peers.

I have worked in several companies and for many managers and in every single case the messaging was that we needed improvement however I realized that it is very hard to change culture so the effect of any individual change was limited.

Some fireflies are not flashing in sync

Nature is amazing and it is incredible to see how hundreds, or thousands of fireflies can synchronize their flashes.

The same thing happens in organizations. Have you ever seen a company say that they want people to spend less time in meetings while at the same time chastising those who don’t include “everyone” in decision making? I have been in this situation and I can tell you that decision by committee is not inherently better. In fact, the more people involved in any initiative, the worse the outcome. I attribute this to the Dunning Kruger effect.

The more people you involve in a transformation initiative, the more likely the discussions will deteriorate to bike shedding discussions.

Conversations with many people that lack expertise in a subject degrade to trivial discussions

Years ago, I remember being in a staff meeting with the then CIO of the company. The discussion was of a future that was less dependent on Microsoft and more open to non-windows devices. It was clear at the time that iPhones would change the corporate landscape and leadership knew that things were going to change. Internet Explorer was the standard, but people like me had started using alternate browsers. What struck me most about that meeting was that the ambition to be less dependent on Microsoft and more specificallyInternet Explorer didn’t match the decisions that were being made. If you want to see change in five years, the time to start is now however almost every tool that was being implemented only worked on Internet Explorer. There was no mandate from the top that new applications should work cross-browser. The rhythm of the company was to stick with the current standard so since that was IE, that's what was required. Even running a different and better browser was frowned upon.

This conflict in messaging vs actions drives analytical people like me nuts. People who are empirical in nature look for patterns, cause and effect, etc. so when we see opposing goals, we call it out. In order to affect change I needed to be persistent. I’ve had managers tell me working on something was “not my job” and later see the invention turn into a patent.

I have also seen people be ostracized for thinking differently and others be recognized and promoted for “fitting in.” I’m not suggesting that you want people in your organization who don’t work well with others. I am suggesting that you need to seek out the divergent thinkers and see if there is a grain of truth in what they are saying. Otherwise you are just trying to get them to flash in sync with the rest of the organization.

One firefly can only affect its neighbors

Even in my most successful transformation initiatives, the radius of transformation has been limited to my sphere of influence. Sure, some of my tools and processes got global and cross-functional acceptance, but the underlying principles never took hold because they were too radical for the organization at the time. I was not part of the IT organization so the things I did were typically seen as shadow IT. Instead of focusing on what I shouldn’t be doing, it would have been more progressive for them to see how I was practicing Agile principles when no one else in the organization understood the Agile Manifesto. They could have inquired about how my project was doing DevOps before that was in style, or how it was that this non-sanctioned product was extremely well received, and people sought me out to help them move their manual processes to this system.

True transformational change has to come from the top. If you want the organization to be more innovative, you need to find the obstacles that hold people back from being innovative. Often times politics and bureaucracy have far more impact on an initiative than the solution itself. If you force everyone to comply with existing tools and processes, then you are imposing a constraint on the team that will limit innovation.

A typical way this manifests itself is leadership pushing the idea that one platform or process can solve every need.  This can come in the form of imposing that a single group do data transformation, or a visualization tool be the way that everyone can do analytics.  I have never seen one tool that is good at everything and you need to balance the single solution with an unmanageable array of tools and processes.  A healthy organization is a learning organization that is always open to improvement.  When management encourages pushing boundaries and not taking anything as fact then the company can innovate.  The best example of this is how Elon Musk encourages his employees to have a first-principles approach to problem solving.  In a technical interview a few months back it was very interesting to hear how his team simplified manufacturing by getting rid of parts and challenging established norms in automobile construction, here’s the part of the interview where he describes the process.

As a leader, you need to look for the fireflies who are using first principles to deliver innovative solutions and nurture, or create, a corporate culture that truly challenges what has been done without artificial constraints.

Reasoning by first principles removes the impurity of assumptions and conventions. What remains is the essentials. It’s one of the best mental models you can use to improve your thinking because the essentials allow you to see where reasoning by analogy might lead you astray.

Most fireflies eventually comply, or fly away

At every organization I have worked I have been able to leave a transformative mark, but in many cases, it was through shear perseverance. At my first internship at IBM in the early 90’s I automated a manual process that took almost 2 hours to do into 30 seconds. I was young and I was not constrained to using Lotus-123 which was what they were using at the time. I used Excel macros and figured out how to automate FTP to bring files to a local computer etc. I was doing RPA before people coined the term. As a manufacturing engineer in the late 90s I implemented a barcode system for a warehouse and learned that I could get a wireless card for a computer we used on the shop floor and connect it to the corporate network. This was essentially wi-fi before that standard even existed. I delivered many projects, and most were things I defined, but the challenge of getting approval from management eventually led me to seek other opportunities. This cycle happened several times until I got to Amgen where I stayed 10 years. The difference there was that during my career I had several managers who encouraged me to solve problems and challenge norms. This didn’t mean everything was easy, on the contrary, change in large enterprise is very hard, but having someone who had my back and who gave me the opportunity to do things no one else had before was the key difference.  

Not everyone has the drive to push for change when faced with a lot of resistance and many employees eventually give in to the company norms. Others simply leave the organization. Process improvements require culture improvement. If the messaging does not match action people will notice and resentment will grow.

When a firefly doesn’t flash like the rest of the crowd, they are left with two options; adjust and synchronize, or find another sparkle(a group of fireflies)

How do we change the flash for all?  

True change comes by really challenging norms. Does this process really need to be done by that group? Are there ways we can eliminate waste? Is getting another signature or manual inspection really going to give you better outcomes? Human behavior is far more powerful than any technology or process you put in place and if one group is made the de-facto decision making group for any part of a process then you will get solutions that are optimized from their perspective. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen cost used to justify a bad decision. When you analyze an entire system you will find that in order to optimize the whole, you need to sub-optimize certain parts.

Focus on the needs of users and the organization and find a way to get leadership onboard because things will be a lot simpler if you have others helping you slay the corporate dragons. One way to do this is to use a framework like the Job to be done.


Company culture and change management are areas that don’t get enough attention when trying to improve processes in an organization. People do what they can within their constraints and management keeps wondering why their company is not as innovative or as agile as other companies. It is far simpler to focus on getting more staff or changing technology, but true transformation comes from the mindset of the organization. Leaders who want to have a lasting effect need to focus on first principles and be willing to evaluate and challenge de-facto standards. I have never seen transformational change come from incremental improvement, the companies who really innovate think and behave differently. So the organization has a decision to make, will they re-synchronize to a new flash or will the new fireflies be forced to synchronize to the status quo.

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