You would think there would be a greater sense of urgency. After all, latest estimates suggest as many as a third of today’s businesses will fold in the next three years, simply because they can’t compete with digital disrupters that are now emerging in every sector.

The facts are well known. If you haven’t made the transformation to a digital organisation you won’t be able to compete yet the number of businesses that haven’t brought their transformation over the line yet is shameful. There are also many organisations that believe they had it wrapped up, only to discover the fundamental truth that transformation isn’t about digitising your existing business, but completely re-inventing it. In fact, what many have done by adding greater efficiency to an out-dated model has actually speeded up their demise.

A recent survey among thousands of businesses revealed that while over sixty percent of organisations understood the need to transform only twenty-one percent of these actually had a plan. You may think you can wait until you see the whites of your disrupters eyes, but that’s a fatal mistake. The initial transformation of your business is likely to take around three years (M&S have a five-year plan) and progress doesn’t wait for laggards. What’s more, re-engineering your business is just the start. You then have to operate as a digital business, which is a state of constant change. Nothing will be the same for you again and few leadership teams will already have the skills or experience to operate in the digital economy. You need all the time you can buy to get this right.

Business leaders’ fear of the unknown is perhaps the most common reason for transformation paralysis. However, many of those who think they are tuned in and switched on are “dad dancing” through business.

You can’t blame today’s business leaders for their reticence. For many, introducing a transformation strategy to their organisation is like a turkey voting for Christmas, but, just as the digital future demands flexibility on all levels and in all things – itself a concept that will strike fear into the hearts of senior executives born into a world of rigid processes and structures and three-year plans – the key to survival in today’s C-suite is adapting to the new business philosophy.

So, what has changed? Well, for one thing hierarchical structures don’t “do it” these days and senior executives need to wise-up. The simplest and quickest way any organisation can tune-in to the digital marketplace is to become more democratic. Well over half the workforce in most organisations are already digital natives – that much is a fact of life – and today’s successful businesses leverage this. Transformation doesn’t happen in the boardroom, but neither will it happen fast enough without the skills and experience of it’s senior officers. However, the digital paradigm demands that adapt a different role. Business leaders now have to be facilitators. There’s a business speaker called Rene Carayol who, in a recent talk describes today’s approach to business as “challenge up, support down” which I quite like and there are numerous new practices creeping in to business that facilitate this philosophy. I personally prefer the idea of “driving up and supporting down”, but that’s maybe semantics. I recently described how employees at every level of an organisation can harness internal stakeholder events to drive organisational and cultural change. those of you who want to make a start on a strategy like this can download a white paper to help you at

There’s no doubting that the digital marketplace is a scary place for many business leaders. It does, after all, contradict pretty much everything they have come to regard as the facts of life, but no business can afford to be held back by reluctant managers. So, how can those of us who are more comfortable in the new paradigm and have a better understanding of how it works, help company directors and managers gain the confidence to start moving before it’s too late?

I’m encouraged that consultants appear to be developing a consensus on a few key points. Things like the need for focus and the role brands play in that, the realisation that transformation isn’t an IT project and to some extent the scale and complexity of the transformation challenge, not to mention the fact that in reality transformation never ends. Business life in the digital marketplace is a state of constant change. Business leaders may be reluctant participants in the digital journey, but it’s not difficult to understand why. The root cause of their fear of the unknown is a lack of consistency in the advice they are receiving.

This is partly because the digital world is new territory to all of us, but there are many people and organisations out there who, despite not really grasping the issues, still represent themselves as experts and give very mixed advice. To the average CEO this must look like total confusion.

It makes sense, when we become aware of consensus on specific subjects for us to highlight them, but, sadly there are consultants, mainly those who don’t really “get it”, who consider the conclusions they come to regarding some of the key challenges as their intellectual property, which, of course is a nonsense. I’m not condoning representing other people’s ideas as your own, but few ideas are unique and we need to emphasise the common ground shared by consultants and advisers. This is the lesson learned by ecologists in their debate about climate change and marketers and business advisers can help remove obstacles to transformation for our clients by recognising it.

I’ll be introducing a few initiatives in the New Year to assist with this. Meanwhile let all of us who give some thought to how we can reduce the confusion that is discouraging businesses from doing what they need to do to survive in the digital economy.

Phil Darby
December 11, 2018

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