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The human side of becoming a digital business


What’s the role of failure in driving digital innovation and success?

Our whole lives we’ve been programmed to avoid failure. To the point where not even trying was seen as a better option. The biggest reason for this was that failure was often seen as the end result – it was permanent. You tried, you failed. Game over.

If this is your mindset as a leader of a company with its sights set on success in the digital world, then guess what? You will fail.

Today, in order to succeed it’s critical to be innovative, agile, willing to try new things, and be open to change. Our clients are, and so are we. It’s the only way for us to help our clients remain relevant and competitive as they move into the digital world.

In order to deliver positive business outcomes to our clients, I encourage our people to ‘push the envelope’, broaden their thinking, and accept that failing along the way may be part of the journey.

Learn to succeed by not being scared to fail

To succeed I believe businesses need to create a culture, with the right management support, that allows people to make mistakes and not necessarily always get everything right the first time.

Organisations need to create a mindset where employees feel empowered to try things that haven’t been tried before. You need to foster a culture where leaders accept that people will make mistakes and that their plans sometimes won’t work out. Perhaps the original idea had some flaws in it, the outcome wasn’t commercially viable, or customers just didn’t buy into it. Unless you try you’ll never know.

However, there is one critical caveat to this approach. When failure happens, you quickly get up, dust yourself off, and look for other options ─ change your ideas and assumptions, talk to different people, and test alternative concepts with clients, or stop and look for the next idea.

I believe that failing and learning is an essential part of the digital transformation journey and we all need to embrace it — those that do it best, will win.

Talent, talent, talent

Established companies that allow themselves to be paralysed by inertia in the face of digital disruption are at huge risk.

They will certainly lose market share to more transformed or cloud-native competitors, and ultimately may become irrelevant and will disappear.

I believe the greatest contributor to transforming to a digital world is the ability to attract and retain the right skills ─ diverse individuals who come in with new ideas, approach projects with a different kind of thought process, and have skills and capabilities for the new data driven economy, like analytics, coding, agile project management etc.

These are the people that will play an integral role in driving the transformation of any business. By perpetuating a culture where trying new things is the norm will make you attractive to this kind of scarce talent, and you will make sure you retain the ones you have.

Give your people freedom

In most organisations, traditional reward and recognition systems aren’t geared to support this kind of culture. The idea of accepting mistakes just isn’t part of the reward process.

They’re set up on the basis that people succeed the first and every time, and their performance is measured of the basis on not failing.

This results in people avoiding failure at any cost. Rather than trying something new, they simply stick to doing things the way they always have. If you have a culture where people are rewarded for taking the low risk or easy option, that is likely to be the final nail in the coffin of your business.

I believe HR and senior leadership teams need to relook performance management and adapt them so that they encourage a culture of exploration, experimentation, and out-of-the-box thinking.

The message needs to be: ‘Go on, try something new. We appreciate that you’ll be embarking on an unknown journey, which may inevitably involve mistakes and failures. But that’s ok ─ it’s all about trying new things, innovating faster, and learning along the way.’

This is a fundamental shift that every organisation needs to make.

Take a structured approach to innovation

Innovation in a business needs to be structured. These two terms might not seem to go hand in hand, but I believe that structured innovation generally delivers better results. 

There are a number of ways you can do this. For example, introduce regular hackathons, create virtual innovation teams in the company or set time aside every week for cross functional innovative ideas.

Create virtual teams for people to collaborate across regions and cultures. You can then reward participation and the outcomes that these initiatives deliver.

At Dimension Data, through our Graduate and Fast Track programmes, we openly challenge participants to identify new ways of solving real problems in our business. We give them the time they need and support them in a structured way with tools, data, and access to our executives, for their input and support.

As a result, we get tangible, innovative solutions that drive real value to our clients through these initiatives. We make sure we recognise them and celebrate them. This drives greater participation in the next initiative and creates a momentum of innovation across the company.

Your personality counts

Having diverse personality types is also key. You want both outgoing extroverts and thoughtful introverts as both types respond to the same situations in different ways.

I believe two personality types that play a key role in accelerating innovation at Dimension Data:

  • Fidgety, inquisitive people – individuals who can’t sit still and get bored easily. These types of people continually look for ways to change things, question the way we currently operate, and challenge the norm. They dream and believe that anything is possible.
  • Smart but lazy people[i] – they are always looking for an easier way of doing something, simplifying or automating processes, and cutting corners so that we can become faster, nimbler, and more agile.

Both these personalities will be the catalyst for change in any organisation. But that’s not to say you don’t also need dedicated, detail-oriented personality types too, because they’ll capture the new ideas generated by the innovators and execute on them. My point is embrace ‘game changers’ – personalities that stand out. And don’t try and build your culture around personality – that should be diverse. Build culture around your values — these must always be the same.

[i] http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20140228-jobs-for-the-smart-but-lazy

Embrace diversity to accelerate innovation

I believe that in the digital world, where innovation is the new normal, you need to embrace diversity in its broadest sense – race, age, experience, personality, and gender – to build agile and innovative teams that can accelerate change.

Diversity is important from a gender and race perspective because people will approach the same problems through a different lens, based on their life experiences.

I find that companies don’t place enough importance on age in the diversity mix. We’ve all grown up in different times and with different values and this diversity of perspective can make for better outcomes.

Diversity of experience is just as important. Teams that include people with different professional backgrounds and a variety of experience tend to come up with stronger plans. But the biggest benefit of diversity is the energy it creates, the exchange of different ideas creates an excitement and a passion that you just don’t get in uniform teams.

Embrace flexibility to ensure strategic success

Any organisation looking to transform into a digital business must first find their North Star – the value proposition their organisation can represent in the world. Then they should set their strategy, communicate it, and get everyone to embrace it.

While your North Star must remain steady and strong, your strategy should be flexible enough to allow you to ‘course correct’ if something changes. You need to continually tweak your strategy and your execution against it, as you learn along the journey. 

You need to strike a balance between being dog-headed and determined about your strategy and making sure that you’re not emotionally attached to bad decisions. You need to be brave enough to admit it when something you tried didn’t work.

The one advantage that we all have today is data and the ability to analyse it giving us an abundance of data-based evidence for our decisions. We can leverage information that’s readily available about our organisations, our products and services, our competitors’ services, and our clients’ views. We also now have social media where clients can give immediate feedback on how well we’re executing. So, organisations really have no excuse not to change their course of action if it’s necessary. They now have all the data they need to make fast, bold decisions and be less emotional in their decisionmaking.

Technologies like cloud, containerisation, and automation also make it easier to change direction if necessary. Organisations can adopt a lean/agile approach, standing up new environments and tearing them down quickly where needed.

The world is an exciting place with endless opportunity. Take advantage of it. Build diverse teams, challenge them, inspire them, and let them make mistakes.

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