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How to Avoid the Digital Transformation 'Gates of Hell'

“You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.” Tom Petty

No, really! What’s more, I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t back down either.

Here’s the thing, these are the gates of hell on earth that I’m talking about. It’s a tourist spot in Turkmenistan. I suspect the late, great Tom Petty had the real deal in mind when he wrote I Won’t Back Down in 1989. The Darvaza gas crater, also known as the “door to hell” or “gates of hell” is deep in the heart of Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert. The fiery crater has glowed day and night continuously for since 1971.

Oddly enough, the crate is man-made. It was created by accident by Soviet scientists who were trying to solve a crisis in a hurry. And, it carries lessons on how to avoid creating big long-term digital issues, when trying to fix a crisis situation. That’s worth pondering, given the recent special report by AppDynamics where 76 percent of IT executives expressed concern about the longer-term impact of digital transformation initiatives that were rushed through during the COVID crisis.

Oops, we started a really big fire!

Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union in 1971. Soviet scientists went to the Karakum desert to drill in what they thought was a huge oil field but actually was a cavernous pocket of natural gas. The cavern collapsed beneath the weight of the drilling equipment, triggering a cascading effect which opened up other craters too. Soviet secrecy being what it was, there’s no record of the details of the accident, but it is believed that there were no fatalities.

On the debit side of the ledger, what they ended up with was a really big hole more than 60 fee deep and 230 feet wide that spewed methane profusely and constantly. Soon, nearby wildlife started to die. The scientists were so concerns about the flammability of the gas that they lit the crater on fire.

Before we beat up on the poor scientists any further, I need to mention that this is fairly standard practice. Burning off excess natural gas that cannot be captured is called “flaring” and it happens even today. The scientists thought the excess gas would burn out in a few weeks.

That was fifty years ago. The gates of hell show no signs of cooling down, and by some estimates may burn for one or more centuries. Oops, indeed!

Avoiding the common mistakes leaders make in a crisis

Don’t get me wrong. This article isn’t about perfect decision making, or even average decision making, in the midst of a pandemic. Crisis situations are stressful enough without worrying excessively about the long-term impact of the hurried decisions. That’s the cost of crisis management. This is about avoiding huge existential blunders by following a select few, low-overhead disciplines.

As rushed digital transformation continues to be the main strategy to keep operations running in most enterprises, here’s five quick tips to avoid opening up the gates of hell.

1. Free up your team for decision making

There was a time during this pandemic when leaders had to scramble to provide clear guidance to the rest of the organization. In the digital area, for example, this may have been about ensuring connectivity for the employees for remote working. However, beyond the first few days of scrambling, you need to be disciplined in pushing decision making downwards.

2. Be open to new approaches to old problems

The organizations that have performed the best on digital transformation (i.e. two years of digital transformation in two months, as Satya Nadella put it) were the ones that scrambled the best. They adopted digital solutions for non-digital problems. Maintaining that openness to change is key.

3. Be an active listener

If you are surrounded by a relatively good team, the information that signals potential long-term disasters is likely already there. You need to hear it. You can then decide what to do with it.

4. Work from a plan, or make one up quickly

If you were even halfway prepared digitally for such a crisis situation, that’s great. If you were not very prepared, but were able to scramble successfully, congratulations. In either case, it’s time to build a long-term digital plan to capture the digital gains you made during the early scramble stages. Don’t waste the opportunity. Plan digital transformation part two.

5. Don’t forget to review as soon as you can

Right about now, you’re probably dying to get past the “abnormal” work processes of the crisis and get back to normal. I hope we all do that soon. However, let’s not walk past one of the most important learning opportunities of a lifetime. An after-action review of what worked and what did not doesn’t need to be onerous. It simply needs to occur.

The AppDynamics survey results of the dangers of rushed digitalization during the pandemic is likely fairly normal, because the initial stages of the scramble are, well, rushed. Sensing whether the rushed digitalization already carries a small seed of a digital gates of hell, or has the potential to create one – that’s an important part of the role of leadership during a crisis. That’s up to us.