Digital transformation, leaders and space time curvation

There will be no digital transformation without strongly involved and committed leaders. Achieving digital adoption (ie : using digital technologies for existing initiatives and keeping new digital born initiatives in hermetic silos) was hard enough without tehm but the need has become even more imperative now that’s the entire enterprise needs to be reinvented, from business models to internal operations, including customer relationships and technologies.

What do I mean by leaders involvement ? For a long time and as long as the technology side was prevailing, they only had to say “that matters, we must do it” or “I’ll be the sponsor of the initiative” and, then ignore it, just be informed about the major steps and, in the end, congratulate or punish the people in charge.

Digital transformation is skydiving for leaders

For leaders, digital transformation looks like skydiving.

Before what the needed to know it that it was about getting into a plane, jumping, opening one’s parachute and landing.

In the first days of enterprise digitization, they needed more. Knowing how it works, basic knowledge about winds, updrafts and downdrafts. It was enough.

Today it’s “since you know the basics, you’ll get into this plane and jump in duet with the instructor. Then a second and a third time. After a couple of jumps you’ll be able to jump alone. Then you’ll teach your employees how to jump, where you’re all going to jump from, where you’ll land. But they won’t trust you unless you jump alone, in front of them”.

Skydive Fear

Would you do you first jump with an instructor who has never jumped ?

And that’s the problem.

To get there, one needs to understand everything that has to be taken into account for a jump. To be reassured and acquire the good practices to make the right decision at the right time. Then observe other skydivers to see what they do. Then strike out.

Some need more time than others to get things. Others to observe. Others to jump. Some need a lot of time at every step. But they don’t have time.

Leaders must care about the present and the future at the same time

The difference between leaders and the ones in charge of managing innovative initiatives is that the ones walk on a new ground (which does not mean without any trap) and the others have to manage the present and prepare for the future. They can’t say “stop caring about today, focus on tomorrow”. Since they lack time to care about a dying present, they don’t have time to learn about the future. They will take time but on a long timeframe.

But they don’t have this long timeframe either. Sometimes their competitors are already ahead, sometimes new ones are stealing their market shares, sometimes the customer does not agree to wait before going elsewhere. I don’t even mention the stakeholders who care about the future of their money but also want their investment to pay today, which is not helpful either.

We could expect that, today being the result of yesterday’s decision, they just have to focus on tomorrow but that’s not the way things work.

Most of all, digital is fast. They need to start now. Show quick results. If it’s easy to achieve a couple of things on the visible side of the iceberg, the impacts on the invisible one are so big for whom gets the whole picture that they prefer to think twice about trying anything.

Digital acculturation and space time curvature

The problem of digital acculturation makes leader try to transform what is a long timeframe for them in a short timeframe from the enterprise, to try to curve the space time. Unfortunately, if many technologies that would have looked like SciFi 30 years go are now available, no one has found a way to get rid of the theory of relativity.

People are the slow factor in digital transformation, people acculturation is key but it won’t happen without leaders acculturation. I use the plural for leaders because if an inspired CEO is helpful, he needs to drag the whole C-Suite with him.

He should also be able to drag his board but, as shown in this McKinsey document shared by Dion Hinchcliffe, long is the road.


So, how to move forward ?

The first – and worse – way is to go too fast. Strike on without being ready, without a clear understanding not of what digital transformation means in general but what it means for a given business, having prioritized the jobs to do, understand the side effects and build a large consensus.  What works for side and specific initiatives rarely not work for global transformation.

The second is to take one’s time. From committees to think groups, there are many ways to start a reflexion and never turn it into action. Meanwhile things change. The better sometimes is the enemy of the good.

In digital one learns by walking provided leaders acculturation is not sacrificed.

Businesses need to find the right mix. Drive the long and necessary acculturation of the boatd while experimenting even it means “hosting” the latter outside of the company if the conditions of success are not met internally. Acculturate oneself, discover, build one’s own vision of digital transformation and what it means for the company and, at the same time, identify initiatives that may already be there under the radar, intrapreneurs, fields of ideas (yes…there are some in every business). It’s possible to find the right balance and do both at the same time but there’s one condition : having the right to fail, be agile and able to pivot when necessary.

Learning by doing is possible is possible and is even the best way provided some cultural requirements are met.

No company did ever transform without its leaders, and even less against them

There’s no magic wand but something is sure : digital transformation leads nowhere if leaders don’t take time to understand what it’s about, what others are doing and imagine their own future. It’s long, difficult, it adds to an already heavy workload but there’s no other solution. By experience I can tell that whoever has ever worked on such projects will tell you that the exemplary and visible involvement of leaders is key in the transformation process.

No company did ever transform without its leaders, and even less against them

In 80% of cases, failing at digital transformation is caused by decision making at the C-Level

A recent report says that stepping down at the time to make decisions accounts for 80% in digital transformation failures even if the diagnostic was right. The less ones understands, takes time for acculturation, live and personify the future, the more difficult it is to make the right  decisions.


Image Credit : Space Time curvature by agsandrew, Skydive Fear by  Pressmaster via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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