Does your boss also want to “go digital” and expect you to find what this means?


Didier Marlier

July 09, 2017

From Disruption to Engagement

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It was back in 2008 when 12 Brazilian CEO’s contacted a local business school (Fundação Dom Cabral) which invited me to design a Journey tailored to their needs. They all had an intuition that a tidal wave had launched somewhere and that we didn’t know where, when and how it would hit, but they knew their previous “winning formula” wouldn’t help them surfing it…

That is how I started to understand that the Disruption Economy was going to be huge and that, taking the words of Nick van Heck, “Disruption is what happens to the unprepared”…

Nevertheless, as we all know, “it is wrong to be right too early”. For years we had to explain, convince, demonstrate that this Revolution would provide fantastic opportunities and hit hard at the same time… It felt like preaching in the desert: “Didier, all the things you say apply to Apple or Google but not to us” once told me a friend, running a famous audit firm. A few years later, he contacted me back: A supermarket chain had discovered a flaw in the local legislation and would offer people to have their tax forms made for a few Euros, while they were shopping food at the store… The beginning of the end? The same could happen to lawyers and cardiologists now that Watson (IBM A.I. program) has proven to be more reliable than them (under given circumstances)…

And now all executive boards seem to rush to Silicon Valley (to the point that I seriously wonder if the main source of revenues of Silicon V. firms aren’t the fees perceived for visits by CEO’s and execs from other firms;). When these come back, they want their organization to go Intelligent, Big Dataed, Blockchained, Digital… So, one day, you receive a “poisoned gift” you wish would have never landed on your desk: YOU are in charge of the disruption project of the whole organization! A feeling of anxiety, maybe panic, runs through you: “But I have no clue where to start and what this means…!?!”. If that can be of reassurance, your top team doesn’t know either, all your unfortunate competitors are lost too and… nobody really has a clue.

I receive an increasing number of calls from organizations willing to embark on the Disruptive-Big Data-IoT-A.I.-Digital- and now 4.0 journey. The main challenge is not strategic clarity (although it definitely is the top of iceberg) or technology.  Rather, as Einstein already mentioned in the past millennium: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Fortunately, common sense starts to emerge amongst  this “VUCA Buzzword Bingo”: Two weeks ago, I visited the heads of Leadership Development from one of Europe’s largest organization. Disruption had been spotted by the CEO and his colleagues two years ago. He had blended a team of very senior and very young business people who would report to him and advise his Board on what the new rules of the game would be in the Disruption Economy.

After dedicating time and effort to understand the exponentially changing new technologies, they realized that it would be illusory to hope to be on top of each. Hijacking the old Chinese proverb, continuing to focus mainly on technologies would be like getting a fish daily which would be rotten by lunchtime. They figured out they’d better learn how to fish instead… Changing the culture (therefore the leadership style) of their organization would generate better results than trying to stay on top of technologies, and behaving the old way…

I recently spoke in Brazil to an audience of senior leaders, invited by a client who celebrated their 40 years of collaboration and challenge them to collectively raise the level of their game in creating “Disruptive Innovation”. Three themes emerged from that session:

  • Orthodoxies: one of the main orthodoxy we identified when preparing the sessions with my client related to the playing field (are we still in the same industry/Business we thought we were?), the ecosystem (Maybe our competitors still are our competitors but our business is under threat of a much larger predator who risks to make us irrelevant in a matter of months?), IP and secrecy (see what it has cost Apple to get this one completely wrong at the beginning of their battle against Microsoft or more recently the stand of a Federal Agency pressuring a company to give away some of its trading secrets as it would make the national industry formidably more competitive…) Certainties and convictions are needed from leaders if they intend to take their organization through the storms of VUCA. But welcoming questions, inviting challenge and provoking conversations and dialogues to enable the surfacing, identification and resolution of orthodoxies is equally critical to navigate in stormy weather.
  • Learning to fish: As explained above, embracing Artificial Intelligence, Digital and Co with the old mindset will bring your organization to exhaustion. Hoping to control and master the new technologies is as illusory as Don Quixote charging the windmills. It means frenetically and desperately looking for the “Expert-Saviour” who will sell us a fish, but its shelf life has been reduced to a few minutes under the Disruption reign…It is time that we, leaders, start to ask ourselves what “Learning how to fish” really means for our organization. Migrating from a mechanistic organization, where only the top is able to think strategically whilst “the rest” executes to become a truly “intelligent organization” where all agents have been made capable of understanding the strategy, think and act strategically, innovate, seek and grab opportunities, is one huge step in creating a proactive, agile and adaptable organization which knows how to fish as opposed to a passive, hierarchical, fear driven “victim organization” waiting to be fed…
  • Leading when we don’t know: Credible leaders nowadays can’t be those who pretend to know. We have entered an era of humility (having to admit our temporary incompetence), inquiry (Context rather than Content Leadership), trial and error and uncertainty. It is unsettling for us, leaders and even scarier for our subordinates, used to stay comfortably hidden in our shadow… The Kings (and Queens) we were are now naked! It is time to reinvent our ways of leading and:
    • Listen (at the rational but also emotional level) rather than state our opinion and certitudes
    • Ask open questions rather than jump on the closed statement bandwagon
    • Summarize what we know/don’t know, agree/agree that we disagree rather than frenetically and passionately drive for change without knowing why, what, how, where
    • Support rather than assume that “it is normal”: How many of us, leaders, have thanked our IT guys for having preserved us from the two recent and destructive virus attacks?
    • Challenge, orthodoxies, status-quo, opinions, certainties
    • Clarify and contract (decide) because, even when we do not know, we still need to lead
    • Humbly call for a time-out and admit to be lost
    • Seek feedback

One good news for all European CEO’s to close: Our friends of StratX, had to organize “Disruptive Visits” for a French multinational under severe budget constraints: “No trips to China, India nor Silicon Valley” was the strict instruction. They identified amazingly creative and radically innovative organizations in France.



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