Strategy and execution on the path to Digital

Over the past 6 months I have been absorbed in research around where the business world is at with regards to transitioning to digital. It is safe to say that digital is probably the most overused word at the moment and it means very different things to different people. Digital could be seen as a buzz word but I like to think of it as a reference to the movement from old to new.

Digital is not just about technology, it is not just about creating efficiency and it is not a summary word for mobile or online. Digital is all of these things and more.

The transition to digital is re-imagining a world where there is greater connectivity, greater value in the interaction between supplier and customer and greater value in using technological advancement as a vehicle for change.

My most interesting observation over the past 6 months has been that big business is struggling to cope with transition to digital far more than the small business’ and startups. You would think this is obvious given how much more complex the challenge faced by big business is. However I do not believe complexity is behind why there is such a struggle.

After consultation with a number of large organisations it is clear that one of their biggest challenges is not only how to get started, but importantly, who owns this transition to digital? Is it technology, marketing, product, operations or a new breed of capability all together known as “Mr or Mrs Innovation”?

Smaller businesses tend to have one or a few people responsible for all these departments and therefore the mission is just to get in and get the job done. The big businesses on the other hand want to plan, plan, plan. They want to clearly define the map before they start, when the truth is, in this new world all you have is a compass there are no maps yet.*

Eric Ries‘ book The Lean Startup shows us that this method of defining the perfect plan with all the hypothetical assumptions driving a big bang transformation, is far less effective than breaking down these hypothetical assumptions and testing them via a series of experiments, before wading into the depths of transformation. This is difficult for big business who want to believe that there is a definitive start and end date to a transformation. They equally want to believe that there is a definitive budget that can be signed off. The fact is with technology, customer demand and emerging markets changing so quickly, these definitive plans are like a ball and chain weighing down an organisations ability to thrive in the new digital world.

It is clear to me that large organisations need the support and leadership of an advice group who is charged with regularly challenging the assumptions and old process methods, as well as educating the business leaders through the journey to a new digital existence.

The advice group needs to be made up of people who would be considered themselves early adopters. There must be a healthy balance of technology, design, creative, operational and finance/legal representation in the advice group. There must also be an influential leader preferably from outside the organisation who has the ability to link all these personalities together and challenge the challengers.

The key is to remember that customer trends and emerging markets are moving at such a pace, that knowing your customers present and future demands can no longer be solely via statistical research and bench marking. This means that strategy is moving on from the old SWOT analysis planning with a big bang delivery, and being replaced by experimental planning directly involving target customers supported by fast paced, iterative releases of always evolving products and services.

*I did steal this reference of compasses and maps from a truly inspirational leader in the digital and change space, Joi Ito – Director of the MIT Media Lab. If you have not heard of Joi, I encourage you to watch his TED talk Want to innovate? Become a “now-ist”