Digital leadership: adapting for the new normal
Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time for businesses to act, not react.
While New Zealand has been enjoying 2021 with no Covid-19 lockdowns, many other parts of the world are doing it tough. Any organisation that has made the effort to adapt to a digital model since the novel coronavirus broke out should start to see the benefits.
Perhaps one of the biggest mind-shifts business has had to make is the understanding that digital isn’t a thing, or a channel, or any specific technology. Rather, it’s a burgeoning era that requires a fluid yet considered mindset, and an investment in the right people and tools to take advantage of the opportunities it brings. It’s also important to understand that the playbook is still being written, meaning that leaders need to be able to build teams that can solve problems quickly, and move on to the next inevitable challenge.
No longer an advantage, digital is a table-stake
Those who had prepared have been able to adapt and survive the disruption of a global pandemic, while those who have under-invested or even ignored the changing business landscape, have found themselves in trouble, in many cases irreversibly so.
The Covid-19 pandemic shone a very bright light on this division, but it’s unlikely to be the only disruption that leaders will need to respond to.
The continued pace of change is going to challenge even the most forward-thinking organisations as they grapple with making the right decisions, at the right time to combat disruption, and on the flip side, attempt to seize the opportunities being created.
A more demanding customer
2020 in business was a year marked by the division between the digitally ready, and the digitally not.
Customer expectations have simply skyrocketed in the digital age. Always on, real-time communication, same-day delivery, and tightly orchestrated omni-channel experiences are now a minimum expectation.
But your competitors are hunting for an edge, and new minimum levels are being set at a rapid cadence. The organisations that succeed, will be constantly experimenting and will be thinking of their operational effectiveness and service-delivery as a fully integrated part of their product.
In the current landscape, we must get ready for increased velocity. To be more agile than ever, we must consider the impact of speed in two ways.
Firstly, in terms of the time it takes to move a concept from idea to launch and creating value, and how we can minimise the length of that cycle. Secondly, consider the increasing speed of change itself, and how this impacts your planning processes and project management practices.
Digital due diligence
While there’s a need for digital transformation, due diligence is a necessity prior to adopting new tools or software.
Moving too fast and you could hamstring yourself with a lengthy rollout or integration that may not unlock value for the business or its teams. Be sure to understand the impact of tech choices on your teams, customer needs, and future decisions to get a clear view of which tools and trends are important for your business’ context, in order to leverage the tech to your advantage.
The ability to respond, adapt and pivot has never been more important.
Building elasticity and the ability to scale up and down at speed takes time and investment and must be considered holistically across technology architecture, organisational processes, and the workforce.
Leaders must even consider areas outside of their direct control to eliminate single points of failure, such as in a single supply chain, for instance.
If digital has become critical for your business, what must you do now?
In order to overcome these challenges, leaders must build the following digital capabilities to navigate the unknown future.
- Frictionless operating model. A smooth flow from business strategy to execution.
- Platform strategy. An architecture better prepared to move when your business strategy says you need to.
- Experience design. Digital products and experiences that put customers first.
- Intel-driven decision making. New data and insights that unlock value, new products and better decision making.
- Engineering culture, delivery mindset. Architecture, practices and resourcing capable of dealing with smaller workloads and more frequent change.
Through investing in the above areas, leaders can successfully take their enterprise through transformation by:
- Finding ways for tech to accelerate their business strategy execution and support rapidly evolving business needs.
- Supporting experimentation, failure, and the rate of change needed to operate in the digital era.
- Utilising an optimised operating model, with fluidity of capital and talent.
- Cutting through the increased noise of ambiguity, and the need to respond faster.
The next gen leader
The changing demands of the digital era with the added layer of pandemic uncertainty require a new kind of leadership.
To move with the times, this ‘next gen’ of leaders must commit to the kaizen of their own skills and characteristics as they take their organisations into the future.
Aside from tech savvy, here are the traits we believe will get digital leaders through the foreseeable period.
Few could have predicted the widespread impact of COVID-19. The moment the world was asked to stay home was the beginning of a rise in digital dominance - while many businesses shut their doors permanently, there was an upward trend for eCommerce.
Leaders should be able to predict some trends, understand how they will pan out, and immediately work to establish stability through uncertainty.
They should be comfortable with ambiguity and confident with intent, without knowing all the answers. They invest in what is required to help teams identify the right response for any given situation.
The ability to focus on high impact actions has never been more critical. The visionary leader has a radar for opportunities through the lens of their customers, and what is important to them now and in the future.
They own the organisation’s vision and set direction with a strong focus on outcomes. However, they also provide the autonomy and creative freedom for their teams to deliver on these outcomes, within visible constraints, rather than micro-managing
Perhaps most importantly, the next gen leader creates a sense of security as their people experiment, learn, and improve.
The next gen leader understands the business relevance of key tech trends, and enables the adoption of the ones that are relevant to their own organisational goals to drive value for the organisation.
They view technology as a differentiator to create new opportunities, and know how to apply it for strategic advantage.
This leader is aware of the impact of tech excellence, and how to use a high-performing team as a competitive business advantage.
This includes attracting top talent from the market, by investing in the best tools and environment.
Effective leaders empower their team to make the best decisions they can by setting clear priorities. Clear thresholds should be put in place. But equally, give yourself the opportunity to cope with uncertainty.
Instead of a clear, hierarchical list of priorities, next gen leaders set out a buffet of priorities, all of which seem to be equal. When required, we need to be efficient, effective, innovative, secure, fast, agile and provide a high quality of service.
The worst situations are where leaders provide unclear and contradictory priorities to their people.
The next gen leader is able to build and steward cultures of experimentation and growth for all employees.
They exemplify this behaviour by openly experimenting themselves, and making their own wins, failures and learnings transparent. Winning and learning are celebrated equally.
They build relationships to foster an environment of learning, asking the right questions to guide teams, and setting the guardrails for safety. They focus on the well-being of their people, to bring out the best in their abilities.
Are you ready?
While it’s tempting to continue moving forwards without change, it is a dangerous mindset for the future.
To become digitally-ready, it’s time to take stock of where you are at today, and where you want to be in the future.
Ask yourself if your business can keep up with the current pace of change, and if the answer is no, it’s time to reinvent and set your business up for resilience and adaptability.
Remember that bold doesn’t always mean big. A bold vision, followed quickly with a strong but small first step, is often a better start than unwieldy programs which never get off the ground.
By preparing for change, you can position yourself and your business to manage and even benefit from the unpredictable.
- Want to build an app? 10 things to put in your brief and
- Costs and steps involved when building an app
- Decisive actions to emerge stronger in the next normal, McKinsey
- Four actions to be a strong leader during Covid-19 disruption, Gartner
- Digital readiness: Leading in the digital era, Thoughtworks