Mankind is incredibly adaptable. It is, after all the key to how we became earth’s dominant species.

However, we can also be tenacious. No more so than in our resistance to change. And, that’s a problem, because, in the pursuit of what we have imagined to be a worthwhile objective, we have accelerated the pace of life to such an extent that many of our more fundamental practices and principles no longer work. 

We have to change in order to continue pursuing our objective. However, change is a lonely place, a daunting prospect, full of the unknown and we don’t want to go there.

This is the digital dichotomy.

Understanding the digital dichotomy

To have a hope of resolving this we must first try to understand what’s behind these behaviours.

It’s pretty obvious there’s a sliding scale of individuality that applies to the human race. At one end there are those who are most comfortable when they have rules to follow and their choices are limited. At the other are people who resist any notion of control and strive at every opportunity to make unique choices and challenge the status quo. 

If this is correct, people like entrepreneurs, creative folk and innovators represent the less conformist end of the spectrum. Meanwhile members of dictatorial societies perhaps, sit in the least individualistic side of centre.

We have seen where some of the countries of the former Communist Eastern Block have appeared slow, by Western standards, to grasp the opportunities of post-Communist liberalisation. In the absence of the rules that governed their behaviour under Communist rule, many found decision-making uncomfortable. Still today, sections of society, typically government employee, but also those in many businesses, prefer employment where they not expected to use initiative and they can avoid engaging with their employers’ brands.

Why we need transformation not just change

My job as a marketer is to align organisations to opportunities. To do this usually requires change and often this is quite radical. Right now we are adapting to the digital era, which could arguably be the biggest step-change in history. Anyone leading a business today is facing new and very different challenges to those of their predecessors. This requires something more than mere change. Which brings us to today’s dominant theme — business transformation.

At this point it is perhaps worth acknowledging, without going into any detail, a couple of the side issues associated with transformation. The first is the distinction between change and transformation 

This subject has dominated the transformation agenda. The fact that so few business leaders really understand transformation is borne out by a survey by Forrester that revealed 21% of business leaders believe they have “done it”. So, let’s quickly bury that argument.

Transformation isn’t something with a beginning an end. It represents a switch from a state of order and routine to one of where change is continuous. For most organisations, the initial switch is usually pretty radical. Basically, it’s the result of a review of the organisation in the context of the new paradigm. This forces the organisation to question its relevance. 

If this is executed diligently most businesses will discover they aren’t as relevant as they had supposed. To address this requires them to do most things fundamentally differently. 

Perhaps the most significant difference to previous eras is speed. In the new economy change is not only continuous, it’s more rapid than anything we have experienced to date. Customer needs change in response to things like technology, learning and social migration and products become obsolete as a result. Literally on a daily basis. That’s why transformation is never done.

Transformation isn’t “digital”

The other important thing we need to understand is that transformation isn’t “digital”. Those who insist on talking about “digital transformation” have to take responsibility for the failure of business leaders to understand the subject. That, in turn, has caused the failure of more than 70% of transformation projects and the consequent folding of many of the businesses concerned.

Digital merely describes the current technological era and, like everything else, that will pass quickly. Digital technology’s time is already showing signs of coming to an end. Soon we will be dealing with the demands and opportunities of quantum computing and nano technologies. So we need to get a move on!

The fears that fuel resistance

Now that’s out of the way, we can turn our attention to the question of how we are going to resolve the digital dichotomy.

Every piece of research I’ve seen into why transformations fail attribute failure most often to the absence of CEO support. (Whether we agree or not that it’s that simple, it remains a dominant factor). So, it seems to me that what we have to do is make reluctant business leaders feel more comfortable with the prospect of business transformation. 

Greater comfort, means less agonising, quicker decision-making and faster progress and if we are going to get back into step with the pace of life that’s exactly the kind of efficiency we need.

Let’s start by understanding the fears that are causing business leaders to pull up the drawbridge.

Legacy business leaders were educated and have operated exclusively in an era when the dominant management model was founded on hierarchy and processes. Because evolution has been relatively slow to date, rinse and repeat has been at the heart of business.

We’ve recognised the vicissitudes of businesses performance as they transition through periods of rinse and repeat, which we’ve referred to as “transactional”, until the model fails and has to be replaced with something new. Every transaction phase has eventually run out of road and been replaced by a “transformational” one and once the transformation has been completed the business reverts to transactional again. However, when the landscape changes as rapidly as it does now, routine and the inflexibility it represents, becomes a burden. Businesses these days have to transform as they transact.

It’s important not to underestimate the challenge that represents for legacy leaders, who have little or no experience of the skills, and approaches involved in running a business without three-year plans, hierarchy and rigid processes. 

Cut and paste philosophy has also applied in a broader sense. Success for traditional leaders has been a matter of applying the lessons learned while tackling previous challenges to solving newly emerging ones. However, the challenges of the digital economy are very different to anything we’ve experienced in the past. In fact they are always unique and, as such, require a wider range of completely different and ever-changing skills than any one person could hope to possess. This reveals the shortcomings of command-and-control.

The era of adaptive managers

Harvard professor Ronald Heifetz describes the leadership we now need as “adaptive management”. This requires people who can think on their feet. Whose primary skill is problem-solving rather than managing processes. 

Furthermore, because they don’t have the knowledge to dictate to employees they need to become facilitators or coordinators of a far more democratic structure.

The other significant weakness of traditional management is its reliance on command-and-control. Despite their denials, most legacy businesses have a degree of command-and-control about them. This has come about because businesses have traditionally grown from a one-man, product-focussed operation. The game being to deliver a single product or service repeatedly and as fast as possible. 

There‘s no room for questions or variation. People are hired to punch a hole in a washer and that’s it. Managers tell them what to do and make sure they do it. For this to work though, there has to be a general acceptance that leaders are infallible and that’s this approach’s Achilles heel. Even if they are not infallible, successful managers have tended to be those able to convince their workforce, investors and partners that they are.

When traditional leadership becomes incredible

The advent of digital technology has seen to it that we are all smarter these days. Employees definitely aren’t as gullible or willing to accept dictators as they have in the past. We also all now understand that the challenges of the digital world require a far more diverse range of skills than any one person could hope to master. Thus, the illusion of command-and-control and infallibility become unsustainable.

This is like Kryptonite to traditional business leaders, who, by definition, believes their justification rests on a general perception of their infallibility.

The only way to tackle this is with coaching and mentoring. It works too. Maybe, not as quickly as we would all like, but I’ve seen entrenched dictators become facilitators and themselves feel liberated as a result. Well, it must be tiring and stressful maintaining an aura of infallibility!

The good news is that senior executives who have been in business for decades have an important role to play in a digital business, if they are prepared to adapt and maintain a more collaborative approach to management.

And that is very much the answer. We can’t expect legacy managers to relinquish their quest for infallibility without first showing them the alternative.

Key traits of new era leaders

One of the key components of the re-born business leaders’ role will be to undo some of the damage years of dictatorship have inflicted on their busines.

Businesses that have operated under command and control conditions evolve a particular workforce model. One where employees feel value is in their dexterity dexterity — executing orders quickly — rather than their mind. These are businesses where everyone keeps their ideas to themselves, often believing they have no value. Employees are less engaged, so it’s harder to build the community that both transformation and ongoing success is reliant upon. Recruits to these businesses are selected, often unintentionally, and advancement within the organisation is dependent, on conformity, whereas we now know that diversity is what drives the innovation every business depends on.

The leadership team in businesses like this will usually have arrived at their position of influence on the basis of longevity and not rocking the boat. These senior managers are rarely the calibre of their counterparts in more liberal businesses. This breeds an engine room without initiative and, therefore, a business that can’t innovate.

Of course, this is a simplified view of a complex subject, but I hope it will prompt at least a few agents of change to start their transformation journey from the right place. Research tells us beyond any doubt that if business leaders aren’t introduced to their purpose at the beginning of a transformation, the prospect of overcoming the digital dichotomy will be no more than a pipe dream and the failure of the project and probably the business is guaranteed.

Phil Darby
February 14, 2022

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