“In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leak” – Warren Buffet

That sinking feeling that something “big” needs to be done

It might start with a shift in the competitve environment, a technological requirement from one part of the business, which turns out to spark a chain reaction. At some point, you will hear more and more of the following within an organisation: “I can’t do the tasks I am asked to do now, because I don’t have the tools/information etc.”. Or: “if we continue to do things the way we do, we won’t be able to meet our targets”. And mostly, also “I don’t have the people with the right skill set to do this”.  Risk is: if no action is taken, things will slow down, frustration will start seeping in, results will decline.

It is possible to hide behind this trend for a while, because everyone is busy in their jobs as it is. But really only: for a while. Because whether you are facing regulatory changes or competitive threat, there will come a point in time when there’s a serious deadline, when something needs to have happened by a certain date. So, can you afford not to start doing “something” today?

Hierarchical leaders and change

I have been known to be one of the tedious “naggers”, always with a view to the future deliverables or better solutions, and how to get to them, as well as outlining the risk of “stalling”. This is, by the way, super annoying for most hierarchical business leaders in less advanced and competitive industries, who prefer to live in the “here and now”, who simply find change exhausting, and when change requires technology and serious commitment and step changes (and lots of money), they find it simply scary.

It is in these organisations, I find, that the very top management does not understand the intricacies of the business, the nuts and bolts, the creaks and the many workarounds created to “make do” over time. Whilst that in itself is a problem, the real problem in my view is that this type of leader does not know the people in the business well enough, their motivators, their skills and experiences, their capabilities, their leadership potential. Why? Because they assume that the directives they gives are being executed without being questioned and that things will run smoothly unless someone screws up. Top-down to the bone. If something does not work, the solution is to find the culprit.

So, if the business landscape slowly shifts around such a business, if all of a sudden competitive threat increases, is it possible to still blame someone who works for you? Or maybe, maybe leaders may need to recognise that either they have missed the boat instead of driving it, and even if that is not yet the case, they’d better move quickly, but of course they won’t know how… cue back to the fear factor.

So, how do you get over that fear?

There is no easy way around that: making drastic changes to ones business model is scary. All of a sudden, technology terms senior management have never been confronted with are thrown around without anyone even blinking. I still chuckle at the reaction of a CEO when first confronted with the term “Master-Slave relationship” when discussing data processes, but it is a good illustration (and yes, for everyone in the Depeche Mode generation, that song WILL pop into your mind).

Senior management now have to understand their business in more detail than they used to (have to) do, no, now they also have to make decisions based on technology and (if the business is that advanced) data trends, nothing they are experts in, so of course it is scary. I believe, however, the scariest thing is the time required, the personal effort and strength it requires to lead such fundamental change processes, or even the entire refocussing of the business.

If top management does not embrace changing the business model, possibly the business purpose wholeheartedly, people will notice, people being all sorts of stakeholders including your shareholders. Without a strong sense of ownership and some sort of “contract” with the senior leadership team, the “project” is doomed, in one way or another, from the start. You will also “need” the people you might have thrown directives at previously, really need them, their insight, their expertise, their time and most of all: their total commitment. We will talk about people more in a different article, but for any CEO or senior manager starting on a path as groundbreaking as digitalisation of their business:

This must matter!

Even if you were “tagging along just fine” before embarking on this journey, you won’t if you fail to go through with it. Detours, flat tires, all permitted, but one thing needs to be clear: going back to the “old ways” won’t be an option. So, will it be tedious? Will it be a huge amount of work? A massive personal effort? Is there risk? Will one have to radically evolve as a leader? Will people be asked to leave? Will people you don’t want to walk away?

The answer to this is: absolutely (possibly minus the last point).

So, if embarking on this journey appears interesting and has raised curiousity – bear with me for views on external consultants, freelancers, agile software development projects, re-aligning teams, renewed skill-set assessment, resistance, conflict and mediation, power struggles and motivation. Go with me through the motions of a journey through digitalisation and change… and please share your views and experiences!