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Piano Lessons, LEGOs, and Digital Transformation

Cindy Olsen Senior Manager, Brand and UX, Micro Focus
Photo by Will Porada on Unsplash

In my teenage years, I tried to learn how to play the piano. I already played an instrument quite well and wanted to study music in college. Try as I might, I never mastered more than enough to pass my classes. Indeed, many people struggle with the instrument. Consider all the things a pianist must do at the same time:

  • Their eyes must read two lines (clefs) of music simultaneously. The left hand plays one clef, and the right hand plays the other. And each clef defines the notes differently.
  • At the same time, your hands do multiple things. They must play rhythms that are coordinated or syncopated (off the beat). There are only 10 fingers to play the 88 piano keys in whatever order the composer has written. Pianists must find them all without looking. Then, throw in the foot pedals.
  • Your brain has to synthesize all of this together, plus add in normal musician stuff—tempo, dynamics, artistic interpretation. Constantly looking ahead in the music to anticipate what’s coming up next is critical. And if it’s in an ensemble, you must coordinate with others as well.

The conundrum of doing so many things together at the same time—and extremely well—to produce even passable music bested me. In the intervening years, I’ve learned some of the reasons why.

Fighting Nature

It’s in our nature to do one thing at a time. Even though many of us try to juggle and multitask, most psychologists agree that the idea of multitasking is a myth; we are wired to be uni-taskers. Those who try to multitask are more prone to mistakes.

We also focus on what we perceive to have the highest priority. That, too, is wired into our brains. For most organizations, the focus is to make money today so you can keep the lights on. Procrastinating what "might" happen tomorrow comes easily. It’s all controlled by your limbic system—what master marketer Seth Godin calls your "lizard brain." You solve the "keep the lights on" problem first so you can stay in business. Then you move on to focus on what comes next.

It sets up a conflict because in today’s digital world, the "what comes next" isn’t months or years away; it’s days—or sometimes even hours—away. If you let your lizard brain rule, you will not be prepared.

How the Digital-Transformation Paradox Is Different

Clearly, successful pianists have trained their brains to master multitasking despite their biological dictates. For them, it boils down to practice, practice, practice. Practice reinforces experience and understanding and makes the required cognitive process easier every time they sit down to play. Malcolm Gladwell famously posited the 10,000-hour metric as the basis for world-class proficiency.

Is that all organizations need? Endless hours perfecting their "skill"?

According to Wendy K. Smith and Marianne W. Lewis in Both/And Thinking: Embracing Your Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems, experience is important, but it can reinforce a single way of thinking. 

"Though our habits can be powerful forces in our lives, helping us achieve our goals through consistent effort, they become problematic when they are too rigid or automatic," the two authors explain.

In business terms, an organization’s significant commitment to past strategies and investments can lead to an unwillingness to do things differently. Smith and Lewis cite LEGO as a prime example.

In the early 1990s, LEGO was succeeding by every organizational metric imaginable, owning 80% of the construction toy market globally. Its product would go on to be named "toy of the century." But in the late '90s, when Lucasfilm proposed a partnership of the two companies as part of the marketing of the Star Wars prequels, a LEGO vice president was quoted as saying, "Over my dead body will LEGO ever introduce Star Wars." Now more than 30 years later, six of the 10 most-owned LEGO sets, according to BrickEconomy.com, are Star Wars–themed.

What happened? In the late '90s, competitor products started to challenge LEGO’s market position; chief among these were digital and computerized games. As the market changed, LEGO restructured, and many at LEGO lost their jobs.

"The remaining middle managers were swimming in tensions between innovation and efficiency, modernization and traditions, flexibility and control," wrote Lewis. "LEGO leaders were caught in a pattern of either/or thinking—either they held on to their long-successful strengths, or they shifted to new ventures, risking all they had worked to create."

Clearly, LEGO shifted to embrace these tensions, expanding into partnerships and more. And the classic plastic blocks are still a part of nearly every child’s experience—all because LEGO chose to shift from the "either/or" thinking that had originally made it successful to the "both/and" thinking that allowed it to move into the next millennium—becoming, maybe, even more iconic than before.

5 Ways for IT to Move Forward with Digital Transformation

The tensions between today and tomorrow sit at the heart of IT strategy. IT organizations face the dilemma of how to manage both simultaneously. They need to move from clinging to the mindset of "this is how we’ve always done it" to being flexible enough to simultaneously embrace success and look toward the future.

Here are five things that organizations can do to overcome the tensions of digital transformation:

  1. Focus on updating, not replacing. Enterprises invest significant capital and resources in their technology choices—and are often reluctant to abandon them. But digital transformation doesn't mean digital replacement. Even when the technologies are older, there are ways to make incremental steps toward digitalization. For example, infrastructures that include mainframes and applications built on COBOL can make steps toward virtualization and containerization. Additionally, many organizations have started to move the intrinsic value of those infrastructures to the cloud.
  2. Incorporate—and use—feedback. Digital natives are used to giving feedback to enterprises and having them act on it with immediacy. When you get that valuable input, you need to have a way to feed it into your software development lifecycle (SDLC) and open that market before the opportunity passes. In manufacturing, this is called just-in-time delivery. In software development, this feedback is part of a business value stream that feeds your software development process—or digital value stream. The old waterfall style of developing software is quickly slipping into history. Managing your value streams to maximize software delivery is key. Having an easy-to-use, transparent, value stream–management tool is a great help to making software development transparent—showing you where your value truly lies.
  3. Automate to reduce risk. Many IT processes and practices were developed before there was any type of real automation or operational control. For instance, IT organizations manually created and used cards to program computers, while typists manually entered data into databases. All of these manual processes were fraught with the possibility of error. Now, not only do we have robots that automate assembly lines and manufacturing processes, we have robotic computer programs that automate tasks and processes to remove the risk of error. Combined with machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI), automation drives the risks and costs of these routine, mundane tasks out of the operations lifecycle.
  4. Augment your analytics with AI and ML. In the past, organizations collected data into spreadsheets that ran thousands of lines long. Humans had to sift through these spreadsheets to surface any bits of wisdom and feed them back into the business. This process leaves a lot undiscovered. Today, organizations collect the data that their digital-first technologies produce into data lakes. From there, businesses need analytics solutions that use AI and ML to surface business-critical decision points in minutes—not hours or days. These digitally assisted insights can make the difference between getting ahead of your competitors and getting left behind.
  5. Take a proactive approach to cybersecurity. We are long past the days when our passwords could be as simple as "12345" and still keep our technology secure. The breach risk for organizations grows as fast as does the motivation for cybercriminals, so you have to evolve as fast—or faster—than the cyber criminals do. This requires a two-pronged approach. You must protect the data and systems that you already have from both insider and outsider threats. And you must always be looking to the future—to figure out where threat actors might come after you next. Cyber resilience is an always-on, board-level imperative for every organization.


Practice makes perfect—for pianists. Organizations undergoing digital transformation, however, need more flexibility. They need to embrace the double vision needed to focus on now and prepare for the future. Relying solely upon your strengths can add blinders to your strategy; you will need your full field of vision to navigate the competition, new markets, and new technologies that come your way.

Accept that the game is changing—and that today's success is no more than preparation for innovating your future. By embracing the tensions of digital transformation—the now and the next—you build a pathway to digital success.

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