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Published October 15th 2018

Interview: Hyper Island’s Anna Carlson on Personal and Digital Transformation

Hyper Island is helping individuals and companies survive in a world of rapid transformation. Here we chat to Anna Carlson about how change always starts on a personal level, even if you're dealing with a huge organization.

When Anna Carlson started working at the UK’s first social media agency in 2007, social media, blogging, and widespread uptake of the possibilities of the internet were all in their infancy.

“There was a kind of an instinct that business wasn’t just becoming more technical and exciting, but it was changing more fundamentally from a more ethical and human standpoint,” she enthuses. It sounds like a crazy time to be getting into digital.

Fast forward 11 years and Anna’s still working in digital transformation, but things have advanced a lot. To start with, her old agency NixonMcInnes is no longer around – the McInnes part is now Brandwatch’s CMO. Meanwhile, social media’s role in a company has evolved from seemingly trivial experiments to a business-critical source of data and customer interaction. The world feels like a very different place.

After a session with her current company Hyper Island at Global Brandwatch Day earlier this year, I was excited to chat to Anna about her thoughts on digital transformation and to hear more about her pathway to this innovative company.

Get ready to hear all about the personal side of digital transformation.

Changing education for changing times

Hyper Island is a creative business school that was founded in Sweden 20 years ago. It works with individuals as well as companies like Adidas, TUI, IKEA and Unilever to help educate people on survival in our ever-changing world.

While it might be a school, Hyper Island offers no ordinary education. They strive to break people out of the classrooms, allowing their MA students to work on real briefs from real companies.

“Classrooms and schools were built to create compliant people who were ready to go and work in the workplace of the time which tended to be industrial,” says Anna.

Hyper Island, described as ‘digital Harvard’, aims to prepare people for a very different workplace.

Broadening perspectives

“The very core of Hyper Island’s methodology is about that mindset shift – curiosity, continuous learning and not having to know all the answers. Taking in many different perspectives and forming your own perspective by applying critical thinking,” Anna explains.

Bringing in multiple perspectives and building your own path on what you learn is certainly something Anna lives by. She tells me about an epiphany she had about her life – that it’s possible she’ll be working till she’s 65 or 75 and that means she can have lots of different careers, at lots of different paces. It inspired her to start learning new things – she’s done a lot of short courses over recent years, in everything from interior design and nutrition to bee keeping and sign painting, and spends a lot of her free time creating art. We both agree that whatever ‘extra curricular’ activities you do in your own time, there are always lessons that you can bring into your work.

“For example, you can steal models from architecture and bring them into organizational design. There are often interesting parallels you can bring in from subjects adjacent to what you do. I do a lot of art outside my work and I’ve been really productive in that over the last year and been much more into sharing stuff, and in a weird way it’s made me more brave in work.”

Inspiration can work the other way, too – after spending a lot of time discussing design thinking and processes at work, Anna began to apply it to other parts of her life. Frustrated by the amount of time she spent travelling, she began to spend that time sketching or researching. “By the time I’d come home from my work trip I had an idea that I just had to paint or had to make,” she says.

Meanwhile, she took other aspects of working life and applied it to her creative endeavors. “In my work life I have mentors, people who give me advice and coaches, but I didn’t have that in the creative side of my life. As soon as that started to come in, it was really helpful and inspiring.”

At Hyper Island, personal transformation is key to broader-reaching change. Anna says, “It’s about learning about yourself – how you deal with change, what your response is, how you interact with other people.”

Recently, a big client commented on how unique their experience with Anna’s team was. During a “check out” session at the end of their time at Hyper Island, people began to share their experiences of their own transformation, as well as what they’d be doing differently at work. Anna told me that her main client’s feedback was “You can’t unlearn that – once you have a shift in the way you understand yourself, you can’t go back.”

Collective mindsets as key to digital transformation

There are all kinds of problems that living in a digital world throws up for companies big and small, from agility to the changing role of leadership. As we speak, it becomes clear that the kind of change we’re discussing isn’t so much about tangible things or actions – structure, skills and tools – as it is about mindset. In fact, when comparing an organization’s attitude with its structure when approaching digital transformation, Anna says it’s 99% about attitude.

We’re living in exciting but scary times, she says.

“In 20 years time we’ll tell our kids ‘I lived through the digital revolution’. It’s a bit like the industrial revolution and the consumer revolution of the 50s – you know, it’s such a sticky, messy time and the Blockbusters and the Kodaks are falling away really, really quickly.”

She’s right – looking at Fortune 500 companies between 1955 and 2017, only 12% of them are still around.

What’s killing off the so-called ‘dinosaurs’? It’s not Millennials or e-commerce that Anna cites – it’s harmful beliefs. “Every old legacy company is going to have complex systems that are difficult to break, but the hardest thing to break is harmful beliefs that hold you back,” she says.

In one of Hyper Island’s MA modules, students are asked to put themselves in the shoes of large companies that have gone under – what are the dangerous beliefs that made them vulnerable? Examples include ‘We’re the best,’ ‘Our customers are loyal and always will be,’ or ‘Those smaller companies will never be able to catch up with us.’

“It’s those beliefs that kill companies, not the way they’re structured or set up.”

Sugar rush

When Hyper Island pay a visit to a team, the inspirational sparks that come from a training session can get everyone excited.

“It’s like giving kids sweets at a party – they’re going to want to run around when they get out. They’re going to want to do things, be inspired and change the way they work in their organization.”

But there’s definitely a challenge that comes with this.

She continues: “If we don’t work with the leadership who can unlock those opportunities for them, then those people will go back into the organization and be like kids who are high on sugar but can’t move. They might be more despondent than they were before, they might even leave.”

For Hyper Island, without buy-in from the senior leadership team of a company, their work can be challenging. While change might not have to happen from the top-down, that doesn’t mean that leaders aren’t important in enabling and encouraging it.

I ask Anna a question that I know will be difficult to answer. How long does digital transformation take? Of course, it’ll be different for all companies depending on their current maturity and size, but can she give us a ballpark figure?

Anna’s not going to give me a straightforward answer, and after chatting about it I can see why.

She gives the example of the Hyper Island part-time MA: “After the first couple of modules, you have people coming back in, talking about the changes they’ve brought to their work, the promotions they’ve had. It’s amazing to see how quickly that change happens.”

Essentially, digital transformation can start straight away. But maintaining the momentum between training sessions or moments of inspiration can be difficult – it’s easy to have a really good training course, bond with the people and make commitments to changes, but then fall back into old routines when you’re back in your regular environment.

To use Anna’s earlier analogy, a sugar rush might get the ball rolling. But it’s a healthy diet of learning, sharing stories of success and failure, reflection and experimentation that keeps transformation flowing for both organizations and individuals. And there’s no saying that digital transformation is something that will start and then end – with innovations in tech happening every day, it’s going to be an ongoing process.

When’s it time for change?

In a time of rapid change, learning and un-learning as individuals and organizations feels necessary. But how can we know that it’s time for change?

Perhaps it’s something that we feel – Students who enroll on Hyper Island courses have often hit a crossroads or get itchy feet or get frustrated with their current position.

Perhaps at an organization-level, it’s harder to detect the need for change. If it was easy, we probably wouldn’t have seen so many ‘dinosaurs’ bite the dust in recent years. Perhaps, instead, it’s about snapping institutions out of collective harmful beliefs – only then will they see the way forward.

You can find Anna on LinkedIn here and she shares her latest art projects on her Instagram here.

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