Monday, 29 December 2014

The eight traits of a digital business

I'm using the lull between Christmas and New Year to gather my thoughts from 2014. It's been a crazy year: it feels like digital has finally hit the boardroom agenda in a more fundamental way than a technology or marketing investment. 'Early adopter' leaders understand that there are radical productivity and competitive advantages to adopting a digital culture and are thinking how to create one.

That's not to say that I haven't seen a large number of executives and boards who want to brand a vanilla technology or go-to-market tweak as a radical digital initiative. It may surprise you to know that I have no issue with the latter approach to growth - I'm not a zealot and frankly many organisations do not yet face an existential crisis caused by the digital economy. Still more simply don't have the operating platform (capital, cultural, technological) in place to make any sort of radical change. The trouble is that if you brand something as a fundamental change then people will expect one. It's better (in my view) to be honest and say that now isn't the time for radicalism and reserve the opportunity to make the major change later.

Anyhow, one of the most subjects I talk about with organisations is what a digital business looks and feels like. Inspired by a colleague who came up with his own 'traits of a digital business', I've jotted down eight themes. I'd be interested in any of your views on how these are framed...


  1. Think exponential: dedicate resources to finding 10x ways to enhance productivity. Accept that some of these ideas will fail and embrace the lessons from them.
  2. Acquire digital capabilities: Combine new skills with the best existing talent to create digital teams that demonstrate the practices that the organisation is trying to achieve in the long term.
  3. Execute lean: learn to do everything in short sprints, from radical innovation to mundane processing. Empower team to enhance, pivot and kill tasks.
  4. Emphasise communications: select and incentivise leaders to understand, embody and promote the digital change. Create structures to actively engage everyone with digital working practices. 
  5. Put people first: always think about what outcomes people need and want first, not about existing processes, products and services. Your own people are as important as your customers.
  6. Use new ideas to solve old issues: look for new ideas to solve old issues. Don't be blinded by the status quo. Don't be deceived by the Tyranny of the Business Case.
  7. Design work as well as Design Thinking: design is the differentiator in digital, but most important is the combination of talents that deliver it. Remember to focus machines on the systematic, humans on the empathetic.
  8. Focus on value: don't get distracted by beautiful design or shiny technology: focus on value for shareholders and understand that people need real incentives to change.
That's where I am right now. One thing I definitely need to get in there is the value of generalists over specialists. I worry that many people associate winning in digital with the acquisition of deep, narrow specialists such as data scientists, coders and creatives. Those are all important, but the real niche skill that's required is the broadest - super-smart, inquisitive and creative generalists who bind things together, keep things focused on value and ultimately lead projects to completion. There are remarkably few people like this. Finding and developing some more is just one of my challenges in 2015.

Hope that was interesting!

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