What lies at the heart of digital transformation? As someone who spends a great amount of time talking to people about DX, I’m often asked this question. And as someone’s who’s been involved in some pretty complex and costly transformation projects, I can’t overstate leadership’s central importance to successful transformation within practically any business.
But why leadership? Why not technology or a team of external, black-suit-and-sunglass-donning millennial consultants who’ll make you stare into their memory-eraser and cure you of every misconception you ever had about digital.
You see, concepts like leadership and hierarchies have taken a bit of a bad rap as of late, yet, in a time of mass disruption and unparalleled uncertainty, nothing is more critical than competent leadership to ensure any business navigates these uncharted territories.
A case of misplaced focus
Anyone who denies technology’s vast influence on society is, to put it bluntly, naive. Technological innovation is behind practically every disruptive wave that’s hit humanity in recent years. Facebook, Google, Uber, Amazon and Tesla are just some who are reshaping much of our society by producing work and entertainment platforms, goods and other services that are challenging the way people think, do and learn.
Yet, with respect to digital transformation and your business, the question shouldn’t be, “So how much tech do I need to be the next Google?”, nor should you obsess about being the first in your niche to have real estate on the Android and Apple platforms.
Success in the digital age is by no means a case of keeping up with the Jones’. Instead, focussing on the transformative effects technology has on your people, and how you as leader can facilitate that transformation to the benefit of the business is where you’ll uncover your digital “niche”.
It’s no secret that companies are throwing copious sums of money at “transforming” their businesses from a technological point of view. Yet, what is glaringly obvious is that most companies simply expect their people to follow an entirely new script without getting them involved, inspired and excited about their role in this new continuum.
It’s time to lead from all fronts
It’s a reality that decisions made behind closed boardrooms and during executive getaways won’t materialise the transformations businesses covet. One just has to think of the false starts by companies like General Electric, Nike and Proctor and Gamble to see the results of expensive DX initiatives spearheaded by overly-ambitious, technology-obsessed decision makers.
Gartner frames leadership in the digital age this way, “In the digital environment, leaders cannot simply “manage” work. They have to engage their workforces and inspire people to participate. It’s not enough for leaders to know what they want to achieve when starting new initiatives; leaders have to listen to employees from the outset, asking them how they see proposed outcome.”
This approach leads to businesses identifying problems and opportunities that are unique to themselves and their customers. Leaders who are prepared to initiate open dialogue and have their decisions influenced from an inverse top-down approach are the ones who will get a better perspective on how to transform their businesses uniquely, sustainably and profitably.
Where to start?
Initiating a new, digital leadership style requires decision-makers to ask some tough questions about themselves. For incumbents, the comforts of visible hierarchies of command, structures and functions could very well blind side them to the personal changes they need to make to facilitate transformation within the business.
Further, these institutionalised traditions may be somewhat challenged by technology, but can only be totally undone by a change in human behaviour. Thus, leadership that’s prepared to expose itself to the “conflicts” inherent in more collaborative decision-making and democratised ways of working will ultimately reap the benefits of prioritising the human element that’s key to true and lasting transformations.
It’s from these conversations that we’ll get the data, insights and perspectives we need to chart our way through what appears to be a long road of continued testing of our perceived limits. Once we’ve succeeded in crossing this divide, questions round technology and all the rest tend to answer themselves.