Digital transformation works best when a sense of urgency sparks the organization into action. When a company is facing obvious competitive or financial pressures, most leaders find it easier to communicate the urgent need for change. But what if all is well in the world? When businesses are humming along nicely, building urgency through scaremongering won’t work. Instead, you need to paint a compelling picture of the opportunity that digital transformation offers to the organization and its workforce. You need an aspirational model.
Research shows that creating an atmosphere of urgency is the first practical step in any large-scale change effort.1 Digital transformation is no exception.
Some organizations may face a competitive and/or financial crisis that demands urgent action. When financial metrics are going south, or a competitive position is strongly challenged, or a new business model disrupts the industry, creating urgency is less of a problem. Why? Because the risk is obvious, immediate, and easy to communicate. It is the proverbial “burning platform.” Momentum is created through instant awareness, at the leadership and employee level, of the urgency to change to protect the future health of the business. It is a “deficit model” in which organizations see digital transformation as a necessary step for survival.
But what if all is well? Commercial performance is fine, competition is stable, and financial results are healthy. The natural impulse is to stay the course because “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But as a leader, you may be uncomfortable. Your intuition may be warning you that this situation might not last long. You may be convinced that digital transformation is critical to making your business future ready. In this context, how can you create momentum and a sense of urgency?
Enter the “aspirational model.” With this model, business leaders build a compelling vision of the opportunity that digital transformation can create for the business in the medium to long term. However, this is one of the most difficult leadership challenges in business transformation.
Urgency for business change doesn’t happen naturally in organizations, particularly when all is going well. As Bill Gates once said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” So how do you overcome the “business-as-usual” mindset and the inertia it produces?
Sometimes inspiration can be found in unexpected places. For example, the public sector is rarely mentioned as an example of leading with innovation, and yet the government of Estonia managed to create a shining example of aspirational digital leadership. Starting in the 1990s, Estonia embarked on an ambitious “E-Estonia” program that targeted the country’s digital infrastructure and citizen services. The program was highly visible, backed by a broad political consensus, and a symbol for opening Estonia’s society and economy to the West. The program had very few legislative initiatives. Instead, it was mostly about inspiration—about envisioning a digital future for the country and its citizens. The program has since become part of Estonia’s official image and branding, and it’s often ranked high on the list of government digital transformation successes.
Urgency is easier to perceive when it originates from the outside. Paint a picture of a better digital future for your organization and its workforce. Describe a way to get there. Define the rationale for the urgency and the outcome (what does good look like?). Like big crises, big opportunities can also help create organizational momentum for change. Focusing on positive opportunities, rather than negative threats, can jump-start momentum and the necessary engagement for change.
Balance the management of today’s successful business with the need to build a future digital business. It’s important to focus on both current short-term needs and longer-term aspirations. Too much focus on the short term can lead to urgency “burnout.” Too much focus on the future can dampen the pressure to “act now.”
Build your own personal narrative with positive storytelling, and reinforce and update it over time. There is no bigger urgency-killer than a stale transformation narrative. Sustaining urgency is as important as creating it in the first place.
While trying to build urgency for digital change, many executives emphasize the risk of digital disruption to their business or industry. Others use motivational statements such as “Let’s disrupt ourselves before someone else does.” Don’t bother with these approaches. They won’t cut it with your leadership teams or employees. Hypothetical burning platforms don’t work.