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Digital Transformation and the Power of Storytelling

An Interview with Andrew Lam-Po-Tang

July 6, 2015

How better to start a story than with a big bang?

That’s how Andrew Lam-Po-Tang describes the time in 2012 during which explosive, disruptive forces were impacting Fairfax Media, an Australia- and New Zealand-based company whose 400 or so brands include newspapers, magazines, radio networks, and digital media.

Andrew [Sydney, Melbourne, London, 1993-2004] saw this “big bang” as exerting pressure on Fairfax from five fronts—social media, mobile Internet, cloud computing, print decline, and media consumption.

“It was a new universe in which the company had to operate and evolve,” he said.

As CIO, CTO, and director of group services at Fairfax, Andrew spent three years at the helm of the IT team exploring how best to use rapidly evolving technology to drive the company’s digital transformation. 

His team tackled the challenge by first asking the CEOs of the company’s business units what they wanted to achieve within the context of this new universe.

It then put together a set of capabilities—a target state pared to five key elements: audience obsessedsocialmobilevalued, and lean and agile—to help those leaders achieve their objectives.

This target state boiled down to collecting and storing audience data and then making that data available for use in terms of metrics and dashboards, and in algorithmically driven user experiences; monetizing Fairfax products via social media and tapping into social-media feeds as potential sources of content; creating awareness around the potential of mobile Internet; creating new sources of value and monetization by accelerating digital transaction businesses; and stripping out and variabilizing costs. 

It was Andrew’s job to reorganize the tech team to deliver against those capabilities.

“In considering any initiative, product, program, or decision, I had to ask myself a simple question: how would that action get us closer to our target state? If I was unable to answer this question, I had to then ask, should we even be doing it?

Also, he says, as the business got tougher, smarter, faster, and leaner, the impact of even a single, simple mistake could prove costly.

He cites the example of the member of his team who accidentally deleted the backup store for a key business. “All of it! A simple ‘Oops! I hit the wrong button’ type of mistake, but one that took nine days to rectify.”

“So how do you guard against such mistakes? Most clients will say they need to fix their culture—fix the way they think about these sorts of problems, anticipate them, and change the way they work so that their people care about getting things right at the first time of asking.”

This brings us to a guiding principle Andrew likes to draw upon, something he calls ‘What I learned in the neonatal intensive care unit.’

In 2012, his wife gave birth to a baby—Dorothy (Dot)—who was born with severe heart defects. Within the first four months of her life, Dot had endured two lengthy open-heart surgical procedures.

“We spent a lot of time at the hospital and got to see, firsthand, how incredibly high-performing teams managed high-risk situations—situations far more important than anything I had to deal with in a business context. Babies’ lives were at stake.”

Andrew says he has used his observations from that experience to provide a story and a learning opportunity for his team to connect with—but never without first stressing that Dot pulled through her ordeal with flying colors and is today healthy and happy.

“When, as a parent, you spend 24-hours a day in an NICU, one of the first things you notice is a simple and powerful practice they use, something that I dubbed ‘check and check again.’ The little patients have medication and treatment and drips and all sorts of stuff that needs to be administered on a continuous basis in different frequencies and different dosages. However, each and every time you change an environment, you introduce an element of risk and the potential to make mistakes".

So how does an NICU team make sure that it gets things right each and every time? By checking, and by checking again.

For instance, a NICU nurse must get somebody who is not involved in the day-to-day care of a particular patient to independently verify every step of the drug administration process: patient’s name, medication, precise time medication is to be administered, device that’s to be used, dosage—every single step.

“And this happens not once, but multiple times a day,” said Andrew. “They never skip this independent validation process.  And it really works!”

The questions he brought back to his technology managers were, “are you aware of your processes of delivery, of your go line, of your change procedures?’ Have you thought about having a buddy help you check everything?”

This simple process, he says, brought about an immediate uptick in results.

The other thing Andrew observed in the NICU was something he called “story time.” In Dot’s case, for example, each medical professional who came into her room had to be brought up to speed about who Dot was, what her care was about, what was happening at that precise moment, and what was supposed to happen next. 

And they did this by telling Dot’s story—a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It would start, “Hello, this is Dorothy Lam-Po-Tang. She joined us two weeks ago having had an open heart procedure.” The middle part of the story would be about what had happened that day, and the end would be about what was expected to happen over the course of the next treatment, the remainder of that shift, the next day, and beyond.

Each new person in the chain would pick up Dot’s story and become the holder of that story. 

“Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways we have as human beings to impart information. It is primal within us. We live to tell stories; we live to hear stories.”

And so Andrew encouraged his technology teams to become storytellers. “What's the story of your system? Where does it begin? Who’s in it? Who needs to hear it? Have you rehearsed it? What have you done so far? What needs to happen next?

“You might be surrounded by all the data in the world, but are you thinking about how to best internalize that data and to make it real for you? If you’re dealing with a mission critical system, being on top of that data and insight is really important.”

He commissioned a customized presentation and storytelling course for the IT leadership team—a strategy that has since been pushed out to many more people across the technology group and has even been picked up by Fairfax’s core business.

Before he knew it, he found people were using slides as a way to support their stories. That, he says, was really powerful—and reminiscent of his days at BCG.

“I didn’t learn everything in the NICU. Long before that, I’d owed a great deal of what I’ve achieved to BCG. There’s pretty much a bit of BCG in everything I do today.”

The Fairfax transformation strategy, he says, is a great example.

“While much of our analysis was not necessarily visible, I was absolutely disciplined and rigorous about making sure that as each team made its case for change and developed its proposals, it was thorough in martialing its arguments and in pitching them effectively.

“Storytelling was one of the crowning glories of my time at BCG. It had an immediate impact on my effectiveness and I’ve carried that with me ever since. The cool thing is that—and I know BCGers appreciate this—you can learn story, you can teach story. It’s a really powerful tool set.”

Digital Transformation and the Power of Storytelling
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