“Digital strategy.” This phrase is coming up more and more in board- and executive-level conversations across industries. Increasingly, most organizations seem to have recognized the need for a well-defined, cohesive, and, in most cases, organization-wide digital strategy.
Consequently, investments are being made, special project teams are being formed, tours to Silicon Valley are being organized, agencies and consultants are being hired, new business models are being contemplated, and technology providers are being invited for presentations and demos.
That is all great progress, except too many companies fall short right at the starting point: execution. And to be blunt, strategy without execution is hallucination.
Consider the moment a young diver reaches the edge of the diving board for the first time. She has studied up on the mechanics, positioned herself properly, and can visualize what happens next: an elegant descent into the water, not a splash in sight.
But once shaken from her daydream, she’s still on the board’s edge. Her strategy to dive–sound as it may be–has been foiled by a failure to act.
As leaders in our companies, we’re at risk of the same perilous fate, talking at great length about our digital strategy but never following through with swift action that the world of digital demands.
This action should be examined through two lenses; one that focuses on getting it done and another on getting it right. For our timid diver, getting it done means overcoming inertia and heading into the water, no matter how messy and erratic the motion may be. Getting it right will be an iterative process that requires measurement, self-evaluation, and adaptability.
But to keep the analogy complete, we must challenge our aspirant diver with another adversary: time. Envision the diving board slowly receding away from the water’s edge. If she waits too long, she’ll find the target has moved; the pool is now a speck in the distance. Her leap–her moment of strategic execution–is met with unforgiving concrete.
It’s a painful lesson to learn, but a reminder for the rest of us, that windows of opportunity in the world of digital stay open only so long.
It hasn’t always been this way. Major strategic transformation in a large organization–say, when an accounting, human-resources, supply-chain, or IT operating model is overhauled–may play out over 18 to 24 months. There is time to contemplate, time to dip toes into the water. The target is more likely to be under control because the transformation is being driven from inside of the organization.
With digital, however, we can’t be as lax. This strategy and transformation is being driven by the customer, not by the organization. This rapid pace of change due to a customer base growing more digitally savvy by the day must motivate us to act with swiftness.
My observation is organizations that execute digital strategy better than others typically share three commonalities:
● They recognize that digital strategy is different: These organizations acknowledge upfront that the approach made for previous strategic transformations might not be suitable this time around. They also recognize this strategy will be led, influenced, driven, and controlled by their customers. Consequently, they move away from the traditional model of defining a strategy internally and then executing it over a long period of time, with incremental tweaks to the new model of co-creating a digital strategy with their customers by executing digital tactics with agility, learning from them, making quick strategic adjustments, and, finally, defining the strategy through its execution.
● They understand that digital is everybody’s job: Until a few years back, having a separate digital unit within the enterprise was acceptable. Typically, this unit would have undertaken special projects for ecommerce, mobile, digitization, innovation, etc., and would have been the center of excellence for all things digital.
Today, this is no longer effective or sufficient. The board needs to set the digital agenda; C‑level execs need to be cognizant of the new business models and ways of working that digital can enable; HR needs to have a plan for identifying, recruiting, and retaining digital talent; product engineering needs to consider digital experience engineering as a part of its product management process; marketing needs to exploit digital channels for better customer engagement; sales needs to understand how it can improve its effectiveness; finance needs to understand the implications of digital technology on future cash flow; and so on.
Digital is now everybody’s job. However, it doesn’t become everybody’s job unless it takes center-stage on the board’s agenda.
● They appreciate that digital strategy will be executed through technology: Like every other transformational strategy that came before it, digital transformation will be driven by a combination of people, process, and technology. However, in this case, the core change is driven by the technology–technology that your customers are using to engage with your brand. You cannot control what technologies your customers will use, but you can control the technology that you use to engage with them, no matter where they are and what technology they are using.
Consequently, the sooner organizations commit to an integrated, comprehensive, and actionable digital customer-engagement platform, the less time they will spend on systems integration and the faster they can exploit the technology to deliver their digital transformation. To extend the analogy about the diver, a diver can’t rely on a diving board that is held together with duct tape. Similarly, organizations that do digital well understand they need an integrated platform rather than a custom-built integrated set of tools.
In this digital world, where your digital strategy is being led and shaped by your customer, you may be doing a lot of thinking, talking, and planning internally–but until you actually dive in and start executing with agility and learning fast, you might just end up hallucinating about digital transformation.