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June 14, 2021
4 min read

Mad Men vs Math Men: An Expert Insight on the Importance of Dreaming Big 

Henk Jan Gerzee is a digital leader, transformer, and tech innovator with 25+ years of international experience in the consumer goods, information and aviation industries. He believes in creating value through values, for all stakeholders. He is passionate about applying data and technology throughout the value chain, from innovation, to operations, to selling and marketing, to hiring and retaining talent. He embraces change, as the world will never move slower than today. With a strong purpose and his digital lens, he builds winning teams to transform businesses to digital leaders. As a member of the leadership team of the Royal Schiphol Group, Henk Jan led the transformation to become Europe's best digital airport and is currently helping airports around the globe in their digital transformation.

We sat down to discuss why he believes it's important for organisations to embrace uncertainty while dreaming big.

How would you define digital transformation?

I view digital transformation as a way of unlocking superpowers. It's difficult to summarise it in one sentence, hence why so many definitions exist. But in my eyes, it's a mixture of leveraging data and tech to discover new ways of working while transforming company culture.

Can you expand more on what these superpowers are? What is it that makes a power 'super'?

The power is always there, but it only becomes 'super' once we truly understand how to utilise and turn data into accessible information. Superpowers are vital for both customers and employees. We have to give them the right information and ask the right questions to provide them with power. Things like data and technology can help us unlock these powers. The more actively we strive to discover superpowers, the easier it is to overcome increasingly complex challenges.

Is it a lack of superpowers that triggers a digital transformation? What's the key starting point?

It all begins with culture; that's the real starting point. I like to refer to Don Draper's Mad Men series. The series portrays a rowdy, hierarchical, work culture full of submissive staff. This is a pretty striking difference compared to the reality of work culture today, particularly in leading digital companies. Now there's much more value placed on a 'Math Men' culture. We've shifted from a world where decisions are made through experience to now being made through data. Hence this transition from 'Mad Men' to 'Math Men.'

In many cases, organisations stuck in Mad Men culture are the most in need of a digital transformation.

Was this the case for your work at Schiphol? Is this what triggered the organisation to undergo a digital transformation?

Not exactly. For anyone entering the aviation industry, especially when you come from a different industry background, it's quite a shock. When I joined the Schiphol team in 2018, one thing that majorly stood out to me was how airports are managed as if they're the only one in the world. This entirely internal and siloed focus, from a passenger's perspective, is highly unproductive and inefficient. This was obvious through decreasing NPS scores, frustrated staff, and frequent complaints from airlines. There was a strong rationale for change, especially from my external perspective.

And I assume this is not just Schiphol, but it applies to a lot of airports. What other patterns of mistakes have you noticed across airports? What other issues and opportunities have you noticed across other airports?

One thing which a lot of aviation organisations get wrong is refusing to adopt a fail-forward approach. I believe this is one of the key reasons why airports struggle with digital transformation. There's too much risk, too much at stake. Taking risks is very alien to the safety message of airports and flying. However, the only way to progress or transform is through promoting this growth mindset. Reminding the team that it's ok to fail; in fact, it's essential in order to push us forward, enabling us to learn quicker and seek resolutions.

So when an organisation is undergoing a digital transformation, where did you notice the most resistance from the team?

The most challenging transformation factor was within the autonomous teams. Transitioning to autonomous teams means removing the number of layers within an organisation, which is not an easy process. By eliminating layers, you eliminate the authority of certain members of the team. There's often a lot of resistance here; those who were once high on the hierarchy face a flat autonomous team which is important in innovation.

How did you overcome this resistance from the team?

To undergo a digital transformation, every team member needs to be on board with the idea and striving to reach it, working on shared goals with clear deliverables and external partners adding capabilities when needed.  So it's crucial to listen to any resistance from the team. An essential element is respecting them. Try to position yourself in their role and understand how they may be feeling. Through collaboration, co-creation, and respect, you're able to overcome any resistance.

If digital transformation is so good, why isn't everyone doing it?

That's a good question.

Any innovative, creative, or big and bold idea comes from a dream. One of the main issues with today's work culture is the room to dream. How many people in an organisation have the opportunity to dream or the time? How many spend time looking outside instead of sitting in endless meetings that lack any radical ideas. For me, that's a major issue. To get everyone on board, you need a shared single dream or vision. Many organisations are not advocates of this or perhaps don't place enough emphasis on it, and that's where they get stuck in a rut.

Do you have questions on how to encourage your organisation to dream big? Or perhaps you're stuck in a Mad Man culture. Let's set up a call to discuss the future possibilities of your organisation. Contact Jonne