Corporate innovation is often executed through bringing in ‘digital gurus’ to transform the business, often followed by a drift towards innovation silos as the organization rejects an ill-fitting progressive agenda. This HBR piece explores the alternative – taking a non-digital-native leader who has holistic understanding of the business, and allowing them to lead a team of digital experts to ensure a realistic integration of digital to all aspects of a company’s practices.
Although a digital guru may understand how to create a digital business from scratch without the constraints faced by an established business, when you put them in a real company setting, they will often fail simply because they don’t understand the business. Typically their downfall starts early, as soon as they start broadcasting their vision for the complete transformation of the company, without listening carefully to how the business operates and to the real needs of leaders and customers. This is typically followed by a period when the guru castigates the rest of the company for slowness and inertia, culminating in spinning digital off into a separate unit where the team has the freedom to create what it envisions, which in the end is too disconnected from the core organization to succeed. And that was what we saw at nearly all of the companies we’ve studied that chose a digital guru.
By contrast, insiders with little digital experience who are placed at the head of digital initiatives succeeded about 80% of the time (of the 50 cases we studied). Why? Because ultimately digital transformation is as much about organization change as it is about technology. Insiders who are willing to learn have an advantage because they understand how the business works, they have the relationships to get things done, and, most important, they understand what they don’t know.