Are you institutionalised?

Paul Boag

For institutions to adapt to the digital economy they need to overcome legacy thinking. That requires digital professionals unencumbered by institutionalised thinking.

One of the main themes of my new book Digital Adaptation is that organisations need to change in order to adapt to the digital economy.

This change will only happen if there are people within the organisation willing to challenge the traditional ways of doing things. Organisations need mavericks to threaten the status quo and disrupt existing organisational structures. The problem is that many existing employees are too institutionalised to bring about this change. The question is are you one of them?

None of us like to think we are institutionalised. Web professionals in particular like to consider themselves progressive. We like to believe that we are held back by colleagues or organisational structure. However, sometimes those barriers are more in our minds than in reality. We have become institutionalised by the organisations for whom we work.

If we are going to effect change in our organisations we need to learn to identify institutionalised thinking in our own minds and be willing to challenge them.

For example, have you ever said any of the following things when confronted with a new idea for digital adaptation?

  • We tried that a few years back and it didn’t work.
  • That is not how things are done here. We would never get away with it.
  • We will never get people to agree to that.
  • That may work elsewhere, but we are different.

Let’s take a moment to look at these statements and see why they are institutional thinking.

Held back by the past

If you work as part of an in-house web team for any length of time; of course you have tried most things at one stage or another. However, the landscape is constantly evolving. Something that failed to work two years ago might be perfect today. In fact I think we often try things too soon as web professionals because we live at the cutting edge of technology.

For example we owned smartphones before the mass market and so may well have talked about mobile before our organisations were ready to hear that message. Now that mobile has become mainstream we may well find them more receptive.

When it comes to the web, timing is everything and so we cannot afford to be held back by past failures.

Self censorship

I am amazed at how many web teams censor themselves. They reject ideas because they don’t think others will except them without ever testing that assumption. They give up before they have even tried to fight the battle.

Many times I have been told by web teams that I will never get an idea past a certain person, only to discover that person turned out to be very receptive. If we are going to bring about organisational change, we need to jettison the defeatist attitude and stop holding ourselves back.

The ‘we are different’ argument

This is my personal favourite and another form of self censorship.

When working with internal teams I often refer to success stories by other organisations in the same sector. I do this to show that change is possible and in the hopes of breaking defeatist thinking.

Unfortunately one of the common responses to this is “that might work elsewhere, but we are different”. Of course you are different! Every organisation is different. However, if you use that logic then there is nothing to learn from any other organisations and that is simply not true.

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To suggest that you are different is so often just an excuse for facing the uncomfortable reality that another team has been able to achieve what you have not. Yes, you are different, but that doesn’t mean you cannot be inspired and learn from the experiences of others.

The morale of this post is a simple one, watch your thinking. Sometimes an internal web team can be its own worst enemy if you allow yourself to be institutionalised.

“Man portrait” image courtesy of