High Modernism and Successful Digital Transformation

9 minutes read
Adam - 29.08.2022
Why the failings of high modernism can teach us about successful digital transformation

Recently, in an act of mental self-flagellation, I picked up a book about High modernism in state design…😓. 

Why? Well, because Statecraft and high modernism have impacted some of the greatest nations in history and all our everyday lives in myriad ways. In short, it’s important.

This is part 1 in our series surrounding high modernism and Digital transformation.

Over the course of this week, we are going to be releasing 4 blogs that share insight on:

  • Why you should take small steps and iterative implement your plans
  • Why you should always favour reversibility. 
  • How vital it is to plan with Function in mind
  • The need to be flexible and plan on surprises. 
  • How you should accept all forms of knowledge and plan on human inventiveness. 

Part 1. The past should always inform the present

The book “Seeing Like A State” by James Scott speaks about how the eminent state designers ( Le Corbusier, Lenin, Stalin, Napoleon, Cromwell… all the nice guys ) throughout the last few centuries have an overwhelming belief in technology and science aimed to implement projects and schemes to improve the human condition engineering both society and nature.

However, often due to rigidity, dogma or hubris have ended up failing and creating bigger issues for the populace, those who they were ultimately aiming to benefit.

We can learn a great deal from this book about modern approaches to digital transformation projects.

Processes that are effective are subtle, unassuming, purpose-driven and mix the technical and the physical knowledge of the knowing & unknowing participants. 

One of the striking aspects of this book is how the modern world has been so fundamentally shaped by processes we are aware of in application, but not in design. That is the mark of a highly effective transformation project. It is ever-present, yet almost imperceivable.

In this blog post series, I’m going to explain the lessons we can learn from it to improve digital transformation projects and revenue operations focussed teams.

What do forests, rice, cows and surnames have in common?

There are many applications of High Modernism (HM), but it is always characterized by unwavering faith in science and technology as means for reordering society and nature

In the book, Scott focuses on State building. Which in essence is creating a country - a very large transformation project of people and nature. 

For a 'country' to function correctly, it needs to be able to facilitate the management, extraction and measurement of its resources (both material and social). If it cannot, it will fail to survive. When operating at a macro level there’s a lot of “noise” from different areas making statecraft difficult, leading many to push for simplification and standardisation. As we discuss in the examples below, standardisation can be a successful method but can lead to mixed outcomes.


When scientific forestry was originally developed, they didn’t look at forests as areas hosting life and requiring protection; they looked at them through an economic and commercial lens. The wood within those forests, especially Elms, was of great value to the empire. So they developed “scientific forestry”, a process of clearing the land of “unnecessary” biodiversity and planting the required trees in logical linear rows. The goal was to facilitate better management and extraction of resources plus a “pleasing visual” aesthetic in the forests.

This radical simplification was so successful that it reversed domestic wood production decline and became the standard for global wood products that is still used to this day.

How do forests relate to digital transformation projects?

Organisations encountering a new CEO often push for "streamlining" projects. They look at the core aspects of the business and align them with core processes, stripping away anything deemed redundant. This can be assets, processes or even whole departments.

Rice & Cows

Measurements are set and agreed upon standards. A centimetre in South Korea and Peru both have the same definition/measurement. But this was not always the case. Measurements were almost entirely localised based on the customs of the community involved. 

In Malaysia, the distance between houses was often measured in "Rice cooking". For townspeople, the time it took to get from point A to B was representative of the time it took to boil a pot of rice.

In Ireland, farms were measured using Cows i.e a "One cow farm - a farm with enough land to graze one cow. 

In France, in the 1800s a "Pinte' could be 0.93, 1.99 or 3.33 litres based on the region you lived in and the preferences of the town. 

All of these examples came from the local knowledge and the common phenomena experienced by the people. 

This is almost impossible to decipher. So, many state builders had to by decree, education and at times force, create universal standards of measurement in order to reduce the complexity of the localised community. In doing so as above with the Foresty example, they created a more efficient state. But, it was often a hard-fought battle that in turn removed the traditions of the people it involved.

How do rice & cows relate to digital transformation projects?

Looking at this through a digital Transformation lens, when setting core objectives and key results, leaders will often look to a standardised and measurable set of KPIs and OKRs for their teams. This is necessary to create alignment across all parties.


Many people often attribute certain mysticism to their second names..."The Connelly's are known for being stubborn"... " The Smith line has always been brave" etc, etc. And while those stories may be true, Surnames were merely a tool of the state to improve the tax collection of the populace.

When the state needed to tax effectively it was incredibly difficult to differentiate "John A" from "John B" so the Surname became one of the most powerful tools for administration. Surnames were normally very simple yet informative based on factors such as:

  • Paternal Lineage (John's Son - Johnson),
  • Attribute (Simon is short - Simon Short),
  • Place (John From Lancaster - John Lancaster),
  • Employment (John makes clothes - John Tailor) 


This again is a simplification required for the administrative state. This compromise has to be made because it's much harder to administer simply "John" and still harder still to administer "John Son-of-David-who-works-as-a-tailor-lives-in-Essex-is-short-and-likes-hobnobs".

The truly administrative ideal would be UIDs so "John 123AB" but an extreme of this level would no doubt create mass resistance within the community for very little gain.

How do surnames relate to digital transformation projects?

As anyone who has worked with me will know I have a fondness for naming conventions. Audible groans from team members can be heard when I mention “Good work guys… but that's not the right naming convention on this document”.

For a successful digital transformation, the reason behind naming conventions is clear - as, in the example above, an organisation without a clear schema is nearly impossible to report on. So whilst you may not see the importance of this in your day-to-day working life when you take a step back and try to report, measure or organise collective activity a simple and effective naming convention is vital to success.

The quote below comes from Herbert Simon and his work on decision-making in administrative processes:

"Administrative man recognizes that the world he perceives is a drastically simplified model of the buzzing, blooming confusion that constitutes the real world. He is content with this because he believes the real world to be mostly empty - that most of the facts of the real world have no great relevance to any particular situation he is facing and that most chains of consequences are short and simple" 

- Herbert Simon (How organizations can be understood in terms of decision processes)

His point is that a state requires decision-making based on a course of action that is satisfactory, not maximal.

When planning a digital project you need to be aware of tightening the scope of the data and the objectives to only look at what is satisfactorily required for the new state, not every element within it. You should also understand who and what you are going to be leaving out in this new world and plan for the impacts of this as best as possible.


What can you take from these examples? 

“Simplification” is a powerful method for organisations. But it is actually anything but simple to achieve. In order to reduce the noise and focus the task, schemas must be created to allow for strategy.

Mapping and standardising the landscape before beginning a project is vital to its success. But you must also be sure not to over-collect data.

A shared language and understanding of your business landscape must be created to allow for project planning. Shared languages are the only reality that a state understands and enables it to run effectively. Shared languages do strip “Context” from the individual. Land deeds, passports, and medical records are all synoptic data points for a state, but they will never tell me if Steve from Leeds likes 2 sugars in his coffee on a Wednesday or if he is somewhat not over his last relationship. A state has no reason to collect this data and attempting to do so would create huge levels of “noise”. 

When planning a digital project you need to be aware of tightening the scope of data to only look at what is required for the new state. You should also understand who and what you are going to be leaving out in this new world and plan for the impacts of this as best as possible. Employing a certain degree of flexibility is key so that you do not miss any key factors. However a large, messy and miss communicated space will make it impossible to manage. 

Digital transformation pushback

Simplification and standardisation can be met with resistance and pushback as removes the established ways of working.

A good process creates incremental change in small steps over a long period so that the knowing or unknowing participants eventually don’t even notice it.

This leads on to the final and most pertinent point, do not overreach too soon. Incrementality over a long period of time will lead to natural adoption and less resistance. Or put another way… How do you bend an Oak Tree? By guiding its branches.

Key Takeaways

  • Digital transformation projects require a degree of simplification of language
  • Too much data is as bad as too little. Data must be right for the context of the project
  • Do not overreach too soon. Small incremental steps will affect change more


“In an experimental approach to change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our interventions in advance. Given this postulate of ignorance, prefer wherever possible to take a small step, stand back, observe, and then plan the next small move.”  J.C Scott

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