Jo Wolfe: Seven unexpected things my dad taught me about digital transformation

At 72 our columnist's dad doesn't know the difference between an emoji and an Instagram story, but she can't ignore his influence on her career

Jo Wolfe
Jo Wolfe

Through a combination of hard work and bravery my dad (you can call him Len) got himself from the housing schemes of Glasgow, through apprenticeships and night classes to a career as a chartered surveyor.

In late 2014, my parents moved from the remote Scottish countryside to an apartment in an iconic art deco Grade 2 listed building in Glasgow’s west end. The residents might be on the older side, but it’s an eclectic and vibrant community.

Unfortunately, not enough had been invested in the upkeep of the building and the central boiler (one massive contraption to heat all 100 flats) had been getting a bit crumbly. Unless something radical was done, the heating might break down for good. That’s no laughing matter in a Glasgow winter.

With his background in property, my dad could see that the building needed to be brought into the 21st century with a new heating system, so he decided to volunteer his time to make a new heating system happen. Some of his neighbours had other ideas.

A few residents wanted to put off changing anything for as long as possible. Others wanted to take matters into their own hands with inferior solutions. They were initially reluctant to have him on their committee. Does any of this sound strangely familiar from your digital projects?

Fear not, Len had a plan.

I’ve realised that if I follow the seven secrets to his success, my efforts to bring about digital change in charities will go even more smoothly.

Find an ally My dad found Jimmy, a fellow retired surveyor who also understood what needed to be done to save the building. Together they set about winning hearts and minds on the committee and in the community.

I’ve had similar experiences in my charity sector roles. Change programmes and influencing endeavours have gone more smoothly when I have had a peer to buddy up with: hat-tip to incredible allies Dina Bhadreshwara (from Action on Hearing Loss days), Sam Sparrow and Jess Holland (when at vInspired), and Sarah Ross (Breast Cancer Care’s extremely talented assistant director of marketing and communications) to name four.

Vary the messenger Although dad knew his stuff when it came to buildings, he kept his ego in check and knew recommendations would sometimes carry more weight if they came from another expert.

This can be a challenging area for digital leads. Of course, we know our stuff, but our colleagues see us every day and can start to take our skills for granted. Sometimes it can pay to vary the messenger: ask a team member, manager or supplier.

Speak to people face-to-face dad worked with the chair of the committee to hold surgeries and give residents an opportunity to ask questions about the plans. Over a two-month period he spoke to at least three-quarters of the people in the building.

It’s tempting to hide behind our screens and think "I’ll just send an email", when picking up the phone, jumping on a video call or (best of all) sitting down face-to-face would work much better. If we want to change someone’s mind about digital, the least we can do is take time to talk to them.

Create documents that make sense to your stakeholders My dad hand-drew a beautiful Gantt chart translating engineering work into a jargon-free, easy-to-digest timeline. He handed out copies at his surgeries so that everyone was on the same page.

I cringe if I see digital professionals blind people with science when trying to make their point. And I’ve definitely been guilty of it myself over the years. When communicating with stakeholders, keep it simple and take a leaf out of Len’s drawing book: make assets that work for them, not for you.

Speak truth to power My dad wasn’t shy about making his point. He knew that what he was saying was right for the building and its residents and he would practise having difficult conversations with mum beforehand.

In leading digital change programmes, sometimes I’ve been guilty of pushing too hard, but at other times I haven’t pushed hard enough. It takes a lot of courage to say what needs to be said and to stand by it. And having a run through in advance is also a good call.

Earn a seat at the table dad eventually made it onto the committee. People who weren’t sure about his expertise a couple of years before were won over in the end. Although he might still have got sign-off for the change programme without it, having a seat at the table definitely helped him seal the deal.

Within charity digital, we often talk about needing digital professionals in senior leadership positions before we will see real digital transformation. That’s starting to happen now at charities such as Parkinson’s UK and the Scouts. It might have taken a while, but inspiring digital leaders are earning their place.

Persist It took two-and-a-half years for my dad to convince residents to go ahead with the new heating system. My parents called to tell me the good news straight after the decision was made. They must have realised I’d been drawn in to the drama as if it was a TV soap.

My dad’s grit and determination is a timely reminder of something I’ve known for a while: it takes time to bring about meaningful change. In the fast-paced world of digital we can get distracted by the next big challenge, exciting role or wicked problem. Dad reminded me that sometimes you have to dig in and tough it out to make a difference.

Jo Wolfe is managing director for London at Reason Digital and a former assistant director, digital, at Breast Cancer Care

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