So why is it then that we are in the year 2018, and many of us … should we say middle-aged … executives still struggle to find a foothold in the digital age and are unsure of which way to go?

Based on my personal experience as an … experienced is a much better word than middle-aged … executive and based on the challenges I encounter when working with clients as a consultant, I have reached the conclusion that many executives hesitate to begin a digital transformation for two reasons:

  • They are basically afraid to fail because they know that most mistakes are expensive
  • They forget that their main task is still to lead and not to become digital gurus

Think big, start small

Mistakes cost money – everybody knows that. That is why we call them mistakes. That is also why most executives (and employees) prefer to avoid them, as mistakes can hurt the bottom line and rarely help you reach your personal KPIs. So why is it then that everybody is preaching that you should celebrate mistakes when talking transformation?

It is because you learn from your mistakes. For every step in the wrong direction, you become surer of the right direction. And fortunately, mistakes do not have be expensive. My recommendation in any transformation is to think big but start small. In short, it can never be a bad move to begin your digital journey. Yes, you may make mistakes along the way, but it will never be a mistake to get started. As an executive, it is your job to keep focus on the company’s overall strategic objectives while still being open to the notion that there are many ways to get you there.

You may begin by reviewing your processes and making simple, administrative improvements using digital tools that can e.g. help improve your response time or give you faster access to necessary information. That kind of minor optimisations will often be enough to motivate both the executive team and the employees to take further steps into the digital landscape as they begin to realise that digitalisation will benefit their work day. The critical point is to create a sense of openness towards the transformation journey that you are about to embark on, and baby steps rather than quantum leaps can in fact help get you going faster. Also, you will not lose as much sleep, worrying about what your initiatives will do to your bottom line.

My point with the above is that, at the end of the day, transformation is essentially about transformation of people. Without a motivated executive team and employees, you will never succeed with your initiatives, and it may therefore be very much worth your while to spend some time on building confidence in the technology among your employees. Transformation is essentially an exercise in trust that will make great demands of you as leader. It is your job to make your employees realise that the technology will also benefit them, not just the business.

Remember to lead

That brings me to my next point. As an executive, you should still think business and should still lead your business instead of spending valuable time on trying to understand all the technological opportunities waiting out there. I can guarantee you that Niels B. Christiansen is not trying to become an expert in AI, but he understands the competitive benefits that AI has given LEGO. For example, LEGO has been able to reduce their web sales costs by a third thanks to AI, which has provided LEGO with invaluable customer insights.

As an executive, it is in all respects your job to be a role model, and that means that you have to be open and positive with respect to the opportunities and challenges of technology if you want your people to do the same. You do not have to become the latest digital guru, but you do have to extremely good at spotting talents and opportunities.

The next step in the process may hurt a bit because you will have to shut off your inner control freak. Or at least turn it down. Invite relevant external parties to join you, preferably people with completely different skill sets than your own, and make sure to mix it up to set the scene for some innovative solutions.

The good news is that you do not have to come up with the great ideas yourself. But you do have to set the direction and for example set a target for improved customer understanding with the requirement that the solution is digital. And then make room for others to come up with the strong solutions. The Danish insurance agency, Topdanmark, has for example brought statisticians, chemists, psychologists, developers, IT operations employees, etc. together for discussions on various AI solutions in plenum.  In this specific situation, friction and disagreement are good, because it is in that very field of tension that the strongest solution will be developed.

What is step one?

As stated, I do not think that there is any wrong first step, as long as you take a step. My advice would be to take a deep breath and remember that your principal task is to lead others by being a good role model that shows openness to new, digital opportunities and by setting the direction for the development of your company.

You can also begin to consider how to best ensure that business, IT and development begin to communicate as that is often not the case. But this golden triangle is the essence of the cross-organisational cooperation that will form the basis for your digital transformation.

But remember, your job is first and foremost to lead.

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