Why does adoption of new technologies or business models so often fail? Because trying to fit new ways of working into systems long-established for a different style of working makes a difficult task harder.

Image of a urinal

The writer Caitlin Moran made the following comment a month ago:

My favourite analogy is comparing Have I Got News for You, etc, to a urinal. Both were built for men. I would not wish men to stop using them for a second. And, as a woman, I probably could use them – if there were nothing else available. But it would be with the knowledge that I would look uncomfortable compared with all the men around me, and I’m going to leave my arse exposed for people to comment unkindly about.

It was an article discussing why there are so few women on TV but you could apply the comment in many industries. A new book is being published in May – The Confidence Code – that looks at why women lack confidence compared to men and what to do about it. The solution is the same old story: ‘Man up!’ If women and other minorities want to get ahead in business and politics then learn how to behave like those successful (mostly white, mostly taller) men.

It’s as helpful as saying that the only way to take a pee is to use a urinal.

If you want more diverse representation at the top of organisations, you need a more diverse system to accommodate differences in behaviour. Expecting everyone to conform to the current established stereotype is a lazy strategy that is doomed to fail. This is a challenge that all change initiatives face.

Many new technologies struggle to be adopted successfully because the design of the system is forced to conform with established methods and beliefs. A classic example I have experienced in recent times has been the introduction of electronic document and records management systems. Invariably, if it is a public sector organisation, the system will be required to conform with centralised procedures designed and established in the paper-based era. Digital information has fundamentally different traits to physical information and requires a different approach to archiving and management. It’s a lesson that is still being learned.

Many digital trends are pointing to significant workplace disruptions in the coming decades, led by automation and analytics taking over jobs that until now required human effort and/or expertise, and with mobile social networks circumventing traditional decision hierarchies. But the biggest challenge will be realigning business and social systems to benefit from those trends instead of being in rising conflict with them.

Before introducing a new technology or business model, ask first if the current system shares similar limitations with a urinal. Does it have a design that lends itself to one specific style of interaction that may no longer be the only way to complete a necessary function?


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Flickr image ‘Urinal Girls’ kindly shared by Mike McGrath

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