Why we Need Leaders with a Digital “State of Mind”

Just as Billy Joel coined the term “New York State of Mind”, the Fourth Revolution might be associated with a “Digital State of Mind”. The major drivers of disruption – social media, big data, mobility (anywhere, anytime computing), cloud and now AI and robotics – have radically changed how we work, the nature of competition and customer expectations. With technology changing so fast, it is easy to think that mastering these drivers is the main path to success. However, an increasing amount of research is pointing to the fact that leaders are the true differentiators.

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review in 2014, Leading Digital: Turning Technology into Business Transformation, authors Didier Bonnet and George Westerman concluded that a leader’s capabilities had a huge impact on the organization’s capacity to fulfill technology’s potential. They offer as examples: the ability to develop a cohesive vision, the willingness to redefine work processes and aptitude to break down silos especially at the leadership level.

I was pleased to take part in a similar study being undertaken by The Global Center for Digital Transformation (GCDT), looking at the skills required to lead through disruptive change. The researchers are characterizing these skills as a set of behaviours.

The essence of this type of research indicates that technology per se is not the true challenge; there are many gifted technologists, IT professionals and vendors ready and willing to help. But rather, it is the cultural impact, the required collaboration and planning agility, amongst other factors, that are presenting the biggest stumbling blocks for many organizations. It is in part why we’ve seen the rise of the Chief Digital Officer role over the last 3-4 years. Whomever takes on this role (whether it’s the CIO, CDO or CMO) is much less important in my view, than ensuring the leaders in question have the right state of mind.

As a summary of this research, here is my take on Top Five most Impactful Attributes of a Digital Mindset:

  1. Entrepreneurial spirit and comfort with ambiguity. Employees should be able to test and learn, run experiments, pitch new projects or as Jacob Morgan, author of the 14 Principles of the Future Organization puts it “make mistakes through action vs. inaction”. A digital leader understands that taking risks (within a defined sand box) is imperative to success and fosters a culture of experimentation.
  1. Pervasive curiosity and openness to new ideas. I’ve seen many organizations stifle creativity and squash new ideas that don’t immediately fit the mold. This is in part why we’re seeing an increasing amount of innovation hubs, labs or partnerships allowing ideas to percolate outside of organizational and cultural constraints. An example of such a partnership is the “Digital Outpost” being created by the Government of Ontario at the Communitech Hub in Waterloo to foster innovation and collaboration as part of the Digital Government It is one thing to foster ideas but quite another to turn them into actual innovations. This often requires a group of people unencumbered by the daily grind.
  1. Supported by data, digital leaders have the ability to make informed decisions quickly and not get dragged down by bureaucracy. This speaks to the ability to foresee the change required before it is too late to take action. We’ve seen many examples of start-ups out-perform incumbents in time to market, experimentation and risk-taking. More mature organizations are trying to emulate the start-up behaviour through venture partnerships, as mentioned in point above. The GCDT has coined this capability “hyperawareness”or the ability to detect changes both external and internal that create opportunities and risk and adjusting models and processes accordingly.
  1. Shift from “command and control” to sense and response. Digital leaders understand that ideas can come from anywhere. Communications and collaboration must not only be top down but side to side and bottom up. Diversity of thought is a must to survive in a complex and rapidly changing environment. Data is now more readily available by anyone and all employees. Digital leaders see this as a competitive advantage. As Jacob Morgan points out “in future organizations any employee is able to act as a teacher or student and can learn from colleagues anytime and anywhere […] often facilitated by collaborative technologies.”
  1. Ability to convene. Digital leaders should be the ones continually learning, asking questions and fostering trust and collaboration across the organization. They are often the ones bringing diverse opinions together, creating cross collaborative teams and usually adept at managing people through change. If you find a true super star, they will also be gifted storytellers, able to communicate and inspire!

As evidenced by research from Jacob Morgan, HRB and GCDT, managers of the future are very different than managers of the past. Organizations can no longer approach digital as a “thing” to do but rather a way OF doing things. Perhaps Einstein said it best: We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

Thoughts, questions or simply want to share your own experience? Please comment below.