Why our fear of technology is greater than our fear of death

In 2015 Chapman University in the United States undertook researchers to find out what Americans feared. 1,500 participants ranked 88 different items on a scale of one (not afraid) to four (very afraid). So, what did they find?



It turns out people (or American people at least) are more afraid of technology than they are of death.

​Of the top five fears in the survey, three were technology related. Cyberterrorism came in at number two, corporate tracking of personal data came in at number three and Government tracking of personal data came in at number five. In fact, robots replacing the workforce (25), trusting artificial intelligence to do work (34), robots (38) and artificial intelligence (40) all ranked above ‘death’ which didn’t make an appearance until position 43.

​So why are so many people more scared of technology than they are of death?

​In general, the things we fear have three common characteristics:

​Firstly, the outcomes are undesirable. People who suffer from acrophobia, or a fear of heights, don’t fear heights per se, they fear what would happen if they were to fall. We are more likely to fear things where the outcome would be to either lose something we already value or miss out on something that we really want.

​Secondly, the outcome is somewhat uncontrollable. Galeophobia, or a fear of sharks is compounded by the fact shark behaviour appears unpredictable, they are much faster swimmers than humans are…and it’s hard to see them coming. To assert control people with galeophobia are likely to avoid going in the water altogether (and for extreme sufferers this might extend to avoiding inland lakes and rivers even though there is no possible risk of sharks being present).

​Thirdly, the outcomes feel unavoidable. Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears because in our day to day lives spiders are so hard to avoid. You might argue that people with galeophobia can avoid their fear by avoiding swimming at the beach, but as soon as they go near a large body of water, even an inland lake with no possibility of sharks, their fear once again comes to the surface.

​At this point it is also worth defining the subtle difference between fear and anxiety. Although closely linked, one way of understanding the difference between the two is familiarity. Fear is a based on genuine, well understood threat whereas anxiety is a mostly unfounded feeling of concern. From this perspective a fear of heights, sharks and spiders can be seen as quite legitimate, on other hand, very few people are familiar enough or informed enough about artificial intelligence to be genuinely fearful. It is more likely that they are suffering from a bout of digital anxiety.

​Now back to our comparison between the fear of death and our fear (or anxiety) around technology.

​It is fair to say that both technology and death can create undesirable outcomes (though death perhaps more so) and in our current reality both technology and death are unavoidable. The real difference between the two is that we have a greater sense of control over death than we do over cyberterrorism, artificial intelligence and robots. This is not to say that we can cheat death over the long term but on a daily basis we have a fairly well tuned sense of how to avoid it happening prematurely (such as looking before we cross the road and not drinking paint stripper).

​But it’s not just at a societal level that these anxieties about technology are being experienced, they are just as likely to occur within organisations. Some of the fears identified in the survey can be directly linked to the workplace (robots replacing the workforce, trusting artificial intelligence to do work). In addition, there are also more immediate issues that people are dealing with such as how to use the new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system or who might read what I write on Slack/Yammer/Microsoft Teams.

​It is perhaps unsurprising that in the current era of organisational digitisation (or digital transformation) has seen an escalation on technology related anxiety. The desire to roll out multiple technology solutions quickly means that people are being given less time and less support to build familiarity with the technology they are expected to use. This lack of familiarity means people are both less likely to see the opportunity that such systems offer but also, they are more likely to catastrophise the outcomes of getting it wrong. This in turn leads to them exerting what limited control they feel that they have over technology, they take every opportunity to avoid it. As a result, organisations are experiencing an increased sense of ‘push back’ on technology deployment.

​This anxiety around new technology is not new. We have most recently experienced concerns about WIFI frying our brains, prior to that it was the risks associated with sitting too close to the TV, before that it was concerns about telephones being the communication device of the devil (and this was prior to the inception of telemarketing) and earlier than that again was a belief that the speed of steam powered train travel would make our bodies explode.

​In each case people have eventually managed to overcome these anxieties and as a result take advantage of the opportunity that each of these technologies represented. Eventually our experience of artificial intelligence, robotics and CRM will be no different. The question is, are we willing to wait for this anxiety to dissipate naturally over time (in which case we forgo the short-term benefit that such technologies bring) or do we intervene to help people overcome these anxieties sooner?

​A successful intervention is fundamentally based on helping people building familiarity. To build familiarity we need to provide users a safe and supported environment in which to experiment and test out new technology, and if we want people to start actively experimenting we first need them to believe that doing so is worth their time. What this means is that ultimately, if we want people to overcome their anxieties and adopt new technology we first need to help them identify what’s in it for them, not necessarily what’s in it for us.

​Most technology decisions are so often made by a small handful of people for benefit of the organisation. This approach is based on the premise that employees have no choice as to what technology they use but this is not true at all. People always have a choice, they have a choice to avoid, a choice to subvert, or more drastically, they have a choice to leave.

​If we want our digital transformation programs to succeed, if we want people to adopt and use the technology solutions that are being deployed, if we want to build an innovative culture that helps us retain our best talent, then we will first need a rethink on how we engage with, understand and support our people to use the incredible technology that is now available to them. 

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

The power of choice

The power of giving people a choice lies in what their decision tells us. If we insist that people use a particular piece of software or work in a particular way, we may find out that there are better ways for things to be done.

The PC era of technology was defined by the standard operating system. Computers would be preinstalled with Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. People were largely expected to do their work with just a handful of solutions, Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook. This used to make a lot of sense, firstly because there weren’t that many other options to choose from and secondly, end users mostly lacked the knowledge and skills to identify other options and use other options.

But we are now operating in a new era where much of the software we need is now web based and can be purchased on a subscription basis. There is now an incredible number of options that can be accessed cheaply and easily, and from any device we choose to use. But most organisations provide little or no opportunity for people to have a say in the technology they use.

Now we could pretend that people don’t have a choice. That, as employees being paid a salary, they should be expected to use whatever technology and tools they are given, but the truth is people always have a choice. The first, the smallest, and perhaps most common choice they have is to abstain, to actively find ways to avoid using the solution they’ve been given. The second, medium sized choice is to go and source an alternative (and in a world of web based software that you can purchase with a credit card this is not all that difficult). And although it seems a rather drastic response, the third possible choice is to resign. In fact research shows that when high performers don’t get the technology they need to do their best work they are twice as likely to leave the organisation.

Once we accept that people always have a choice, the next question is ‘how can structuring these choices help provide meaningful feedback to the business?’ Providing people a certain level of choice as to what technology they use (or even whether they use the technology or not) helps organisations understand whether the tools being provided are what people want and need. Clearly, if our people adopt and actively use the technology solutions they are provided then we are doing a pretty ace job. But each of the alternatives: abstinence, seeking alternatives and abandonment give insight into what might be wrong.

Abstinence suggests that either the espoused or actual value proposition for the end user doesn’t stack up. If someone is unwilling to try the solution at all, or tries it and then discards it soon afterwards, then we need to accept that for whatever reason, it doesn’t appear to be a good use of their time.

If someone is seeking alternatives then it reflects a belief that there are better, more useful or usable solutions available than the one that’s been provided….and if they are also unwilling to tell you about their proposed alternate it also implies that they don’t trust the IT department to work in their best interest.

Perhaps the most worrying of all is resignation or abandonment. We generally abandon something if it has no perceived value now, or in the future. The decision to resign implies that not only is the current technology inadequate but there is little hope that this will be addressed in the immediate future.

We are in an era of rapid digitisation. In many cases organisations are rolling out multiple large technology solutions that have the potential to provide incredible value to the organisation…if they are used effectively. On the other hand, if these solutions are not embraced or are not used effectively the benefits will go unrealised and all that the organisation will be left with is the cost.

People always have a choice and the success of our digital transformation projects ultimately rests on what people choose to do. Once we acknowledge this then clearly the best course of action is to help our people make better, more informed choices…whatever the outcome of those choices might be.

If you’re looking to start a digital transformation program for your organisation but having a hard time getting the ball rolling, head over to the Digital Champions Club to see how we can help you through the process.

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

The divide between IT and…well, everyone else in your business

Back in around 2007, I spent a few a few years working for Rio Tinto. It was my first and only proper corporate job…and it came with a proper corporate IT team. When I started there the IT team was located just a couple of floors below me, but even then I only remember meeting one member of the IT team face to face. His name was George. Unlike the rest of the IT team that stayed at their desks, George use to walk each of 20 odd floors of Rio Tinto employees every couple of weeks. He would drop by each desk, identifying problems people were having, and showing them simple tips and tricks with their laptop or Blackberry (it was 2007 after all).

Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

…That was until the Helpdesk function got outsourced to India and then I never saw George again, or anyone else from IT for that matter. Getting IT issues fixed ended up being a lot harder and often it was just seemed easier to leave them broken.

Many would find this a rather typical experience of corporate IT. The commoditisation of IT services and the pursuit of lower costs have seen many IT functions either outsourced or rationalised out of existence. But the impact of this is much bigger than the pain and frustration of end users not being able to get simple computer issues fixed. The big cost is in the unrealised potential of new technology solutions to be applied within an organisation.

There is little doubt that some of the biggest opportunities in modern business are being driven by innovations in technology. Yet if the people who understand the technology aren’t (or can’t) effectively engaging with people in the operational side of the organisation, many of these opportunities will never be identified, investigated, or ultimately implemented.

This physical separation between people in IT and operations is just a facet of the IT-Operational Divide. In addition to the physical divide, there is often also a language divide (people in IT and operations use different words, abbreviations and terms), a role divide (people in IT and operations work in fundamentally different ways and don’t understand how or why that is the case) and potentially even a respect divide (IT professionals are often seen as a roadblock and struggle to get the respect of their peers).

As long as this continues, the impact on the bottom line has got little to do with what the cost of the IT function and a lot to do with the improvement opportunities that are never identified.

To proactively realise these opportunities, we ultimately need to overcome the IT-Operational divide…and somewhat ironically the best way to overcome the divide would be to get IT and operational people working together to realise some of these opportunities. But left to their own devices this is unlikely to occur (like mixing oil and water this may initially require a bit of shaking, or for the nerds out there the addition of an emulsifier). Instead organisations need to provide a structured ‘learn by doing’ approach that facilitates direct engagement and breaks down the physical, language, role, and respect barriers that are currently holding the organisation back.

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

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Simon Waller is a author, speaker and trainer helping organisations get more out of their technology. He is also the founder of the Digital Champions Club, a program that develops internal digital experts who can identify, investigate, and implement the technology projects that matter.

An Unstoppable Force and an Immovable Object

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Ultimately, a lot of energy gets consumed for very little result. Of course most objects are not truly immovable and if we apply enough force we can get our way. But much of this energy is wasted and, if we’d used it elsewhere, it is likely we could have achieved so much more.

In the Digital Champions Club we try and avoid projects that require people to be coerced rather than be convinced. There are so many improvement opportunities out there. You can generally cherry pick ones where each and every stakeholder is a winner. When you find these projects, people that might have otherwise seemed immovable are suddenly anxious for the project to start, thankful when it has been completed and interested in whatever you propose next.

The best way to deal with immovable objects is not to apply more force, it’s to show them it’s in their own best interest to get out of the way.

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

Same methodology. Different delivery.

I’m not normally one for self promotion so please forgive me for the following email (or see the content as being of such significance that I was left with little choice). Following is the briefest of summaries, then feel free to read on, delete or (should the idea of self promotion be so unbearable to you) unsubscribe.

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There has been much success.

New programs now available.

Read on?

Much of my work over the last 12 months has been focused on working with organisations to develop digital champions. This started with the Digital Champions Club, a process improvement program for SMEs using digital technology as a catalyst. It resulted in me writing a book called The Digital Champion: Connecting the Dots Between People, Work and Technology and has also seen me running the Breakfast of Champions and speaking at events around the country.

During that time I’ve had heaps of feedback on the digital champions approach (in summary – two people giving two hours each per week to deliver a $100,000 in value in a year), both from members who have been a part of it, and from outsiders who might like to join. As a result I am now launching two new ways for organisations to engage in the digital champions approach.

DCC Elements the smaller of SMEs

Some SMEs really wanted to be a part of the Digital Champions Club but didn’t feel they had the resources (financial or human) to fully commit to it. DCC Elements is the same methodology and contains all the same elements that have made the Digital Champions Club a success, but delivered through different channels and at a lower price.

Applications for the December bootcamp are now open. If you want to find out more about the Digital Champions Club and the different membership types, check out digitalchampions.com/memberships-and-pricing.

Digital Champions for Government

The other area where I’ve been doing a lot of work over the last 12 months has been in local government (mainly helping senior leaders cope with growing information pressure by adopting a digital first approach).

At the Municipal Association of Victoria’s Technology Conference in August, I gave a keynote called Why the IT Department Needs to Die that outlined the need for a new approach to digital within local government. Given it was a conference for IT professionals the feedback was surprisingly good and I am now talking to a number of local councils about Digital Champions for Government.

If you work in government and are interested in a rigorous, targeted and supported approach to improving process and building digital capabilities, you might want to check out digitalchampions.com/gov

That is all.

We need to improve before we innovate

Innovation might have been the buzzword of circa 2013 but for many organisations it is still preferable to talk about it rather than actually do it. Why?

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Because the way most organisations approach innovation is painful at best and destructive at worst.

When we expect innovation to be game changing, future making or next generation we end up overlooking small regular improvements in our search for big, one-off transformations.

There is a mistaken belief that big one-off transformations are easier because we only have to do them once. But most people don’t like this type of change because

 it’s big
        and it’s irregular

IT’S ALL TOO MUCH.

The change doesn’t stick.

And we slowly slide back towards the status quo (at which point we then start planning our next big, one-off transformation).

Don’t get me wrong, people can handle change. In fact we do it all the time (and generally without the need for change managers to be involved). It’s just much easier to change a little every day than a lot now and then.

And it’s easier to innovate if you’ve already got a culture of improvement.


  1. Fancy a game of buzzword bingo?
  2. Innovation vs ingenuity: is it just semantics?
  3. Something I wrote about evolution, revolution and approaches to change
  4. At least 5 reasons why small projects are more successful than big ones

Should we be doing nothing?

Atlassian describes itself as a do-ocracy. Google spends huge amounts of time and money working on projects with no clear commercial application.

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Why is it that the most successful tech start ups spend so much time doing new things (often without clear direction) rather than perfecting the old things that they are already doing?

Let’s take a moment to compare three things we could do, nothing, one thing andlots of things

Doing nothing is really a commitment to doing the same things that you’re already doing. Doing the same things is a great approach when

you’re 100% sure of the thing you need to do…

….and you’re already doing it

If you’re not already doing the thing you need to be doing, then doing that one thing would be better than doing nothing.

But neither of these are good approaches if you don’t know what you need to be doing. If you’re not 100% sure of what you need to do, then doing nothing is not a great approach and the false sense of security that comes with doing one thing is potentially worse.

What successful technology companies realise is that the direction is clear, even if the destination is not.

There is no progress made by doing nothing

A much better approach is to do some things, lots of things. Not all of these will be the right things but some of them just might.


  1. What the hell is a do-ocracy?
  2. A book on doing something (actually 50 things)
  3. Google X: How doing the wrong thing is often the right thing

Is your budget killing digital innovation?

 We have been told that nothing is more certain than death and taxes, but given the extraordinary ability for large multinational companies to avoid paying tax I would argue that in the modern workplace this should be rephrased as ‘death and budgets’. We can avoid taxes but we can’t seem to avoid budgets. 

In fact, these two events, budgets and death, are more intrinsically linked than we might otherwise think. I would argue that budgeting is one of the biggest barriers to pursing innovative opportunities, and in a world of digital disruption this could ultimately prove fatal.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with budgeting. A budget is ultimately just a guesstimate about the future. In times of relative stability (which we are clearly not in) it might even be possible to guess with relative accuracy. But it is always a guess and almost 100% of the time our guess will turn our be wrong (it is just a question of how much and in what direction).

If you think about it, guessing the correct dollar amounts across the various line times in your budget 12 months from now is less likely than picking winning lotto numbers…and with less upside. The only difference between guessing at lotto numbers and guessing at your budget is that with your budget you can manipulate the outcome. And this is where the problem with budgets comes in.

In practice, we don’t see our budget as a guess to be disproved. We see it as a target to be met. In fact we generally get rewarded for meeting the target, even if this just means making the headline number add up and manipulating all the line items within it. By treating it as a target to be met, and by want of potential rewards for doing so, we are often motivated to forgo what might otherwise be valuable opportunities if it result in an unforeseen expense outside of our original guesstimate.*

* In fact this is only one small issue with budgets, it turns out that they really aren’t good for a whole bunch of stuff that we use them for including resources allocation and planning. It is worth checking some of the stuff on Beyond Budgeting or at least look at this article in the Financial Times

So what has this got to do with digital? Well digital initiatives are particularly susceptible to being missed when it comes to budgeting. It is a space that is moving fast which means that trying to plan 12 months ahead is challenging. It’s also an area where a lot of people are under informed (if not completely uninformed) which means opportunities are more likely to be missed from budgets in the first place. And it is also an area that traditionally has required cross departmental collaboration because the point where cost is incurred (such as the IT Department) is not the same place where the technology is deployed and the benefit accrues (this in turn means that there is no incentive for the  IT department to spend outside their budget).

Here are three recent real life examples of clients missing digital opportunities that can be directly attributable to budgeting

  • A Director could not supply iPads to her direct reports because although she was willing to buy the devices out of her own budget the IT Department would need to support them…and they had no budget to provide additional sim cards.
  • A company insisted in providing each of their executives with a suite of free apps with limited functionality because they had no budget for apps…even though they cost only $40 per person (equivalent to 30 minutes of each of the executives time).
  • An organisation wouldn’t pay for a training program that offered a 1000% return on investment and would save each of their executives two hours per week because it wasn’t in the budget…instead the executive team would have to wait and maintain their current levels of unproductiveness for another 12 months.

Not all of these opportunities are particularly large, but that’s the point. It seems that we are so beholden to our budgets that we don’t even have the discretion to act on the small opportunities, even when they offer extraordinary return on investment.

So good riddance to your 2015 budget. Let’s hope your 2016 budget is a better one.

 

News from the Digital Champions Club

Normally I’m not one for much self promotion but I’ve mentioned the Digital Champions Club a few times recently and want to give you a peek behind the curtain so you can see what’s being going down.

Curious? Read on!

Damn it, I have some other pressing spam messages to delete but what the heck

We held our first Digital Champions Club Boot camp for seven enterprising digital champions at the beginning of March. The event included the extraordinary Mykel Dixon hosting a conversation about culture and purpose, the enigmatic Paul Gaudion discussing digital projects at John Holland and the wonderful Kate Fuelling helping mentor and support members. Thankfully, we also had Dave Dixon there to capture the event on film and he’s pulled together a short video which brilliantly captures the intent of the Digital Champions Club…in under 1 minute. Take a look.

And everything now looks shinier

Whilst this has all being going on behind closed doors we have also been working on changing things out the front. To make it easier for SMEs to connect the dots between their people, work and technology, we’ve just launched a new website (you can check it out at digitalchampionsclub.com) and added some great new events…and the first of these is completely free.

Yes, some things are free…

Every few weeks I will be hosting a virtual conversation with small business owners on how to identify the next generation of digital opportunities for their organisation.

You can find out more by visiting the website and clicking on ‘Join in the Conversation’. Each virtual conversation is limited to just 20 participants to give space for interaction and questions so it would be wise to book early to get your preferred date and time.

…but others are not

Apart from the free virtual conversations, I will be hosting a series of breakfasts at the end of May for organisations who want to take the next step in identifying and developing their digital champions. The ‘Breakfast of Champions’ will be held in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and will cost $79 for a double ticket including breakfast and a copy of my new book The Digital Champion: Connecting the dots between people, work and technology.

We will have the dates finalised shortly, but if you are interested please email me so you are at the top of the list once the events are launched.

Did you say a new book?

Yes I did. Almost a year to the day after publishing Analogosaurus: Avoiding Extinction in a World of Digital Business I am just finishing the final draft of The Digital Champion: Connecting the dots between people, work and technology. In a way the first book was a book for the managers and executives who needed a gentle shove towards embracing a digital future, the second one is a practical guide that shows organisations how to do it.

If you would like to make a small contribution to the book, you could help by giving your feedback on the cover design. I’m currently running a design contest on 99 Designs and you can have your say here.

When the drought turned to flood

I read an article recently that said that following the Afghanistan war, the US Army completely changed their information sharing policies. It turns out that the Army had important information that could have saved lives and assisted their own troops but the ‘need to know’ approach to information management meant that the right information didn’t get to the right people fast enough. The new approach is to share information on a ‘need not to know’ basis. Rather than ‘is there anything I should tell you?’ It is now, ‘Is there anything that I should hold back?’

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Over the last couple of decades, we have moved from a world of information drought to a world of information flood. When you are in drought, you hoard the things that are scarce and the ownership of this resource is a source of power.  The problem is the same hoarding mentality doesn’t serve you well in an information flood. Hoarding information just means you are more likely to drown in it.

[tweetthis url=”http://bit.ly/1PRgA0X”]In an information flood, value is created by diverting the resource to where it is most needed.[/tweetthis]

In an information flood, value is created by diverting the resource to where it is most needed. In the US Army’s case, this was the troops on the ground. Think about which of your mindsets and approaches to information management are based in a scarcity or drought mindset rather and an abundance or flood mindset. Are they still serving you or is it time to update your tools and techniques to a world of information overload?