Who’s In Charge of Transformation?

Who’s In Charge of Transformation?

If you’re a CEO and you’re not terrified at the possibility of digital disruption, you haven’t been paying attention. And if you’re not directly and actively involved in the formulation of digital strategies for your business, you’re not doing enough to combat disruption and embrace positive, inside-out transformation.

You may also soon find yourself a member of a lonely, lagging minority. New research from McKinsey found that more and more top executives are getting personally involved in their organization’s digital transformation initiatives — and further found that the most critical success factors for successful transformation have little to do with technology itself and everything to do with executive-level commitment, strong leadership, and organization-wide alignment.

The signals seem to be clear: true digital transformation is among the top strategic challenges of the 21st century and it’s time for the people in charge to take charge. Yet, when it comes to driving toward the digital future, more than a few persist in asking who’s in charge?

Last week for example, technology forecaster Daniel Burrus called upon the current crop of Chief Technology Officers to step up into the role of Chief Transformation Officer (just as in an earlier opinion piece, he urged Chief Information Officers to become Chief Innovation Officers). His suggestion seems to stem from two related trends. First, the rapidly approaching obsolescence of the corporate IT function and by association the people who helm IT departments — in other words, let’s give the old guard something to do. Second, the tendency of organizations to create new leadership positions — and sometimes entire functional areas — in order to make digital a specific somebody’s job. This would seem to imply that digital is a function like any other — marketing (where the issue is further exacerbated by the ongoing rift between traditional and digital marketers), sales, information technology, accounting, human resources, customer service — rather than afoundation that underlies everything a business does.

I’m not going to summarily dismiss the value of having a Chief Digital Officer, Chief Transformation Officer or Chief Innovation Officer act as a catalyst for change. But over the long haul the addition of yet another leadership position (or even the assignment of digital to a single existing leader — evidenced by the technology turf battle happening today between more than a few CIOs and CMOs) isn’t likely to weave digital throughout the corporate culture or spark and sustain the wholesale transformation necessary within many organizations.

There is a well known truism that states, “When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.” It’s a truism that has outlasted its relevance and become markedly less true. When digital transformation becomes “someone’s job” it allows everyone else in the organization to push back with “not my job.” Your digital change agent becomes a single point of failure. Your digital center of excellence becomes an implementation-oriented bottle neck. Your company’s commitment to long-term digital change backtracks from strategic to in-a-silo to no more than a sidebar in this quarter’s earnings report. While the rest of your organization continues operating in essentially the same way it has operated for decades — up to the point at which it ceases to operate at all…

In my recent article for Marketing Insights magazine (you can download a copy here), I introduce the concept of the D-Suite. While I use a metaphor that evokes both stature and place, D-Suite is really a shorthand for a new leadership mindset. One that strips away the rhetoric around digital natives and digital immigrants or digital haves and have-nots, to expose the underlying reality that inside most corporations the true divide lies between digital wills and digital will-nots. It’s a concept that points to something that I believe to be a fundamental truth — you don’t transform your business by putting an individual in charge of transformation. You transform your business by transforming every individualthat makes up your business.

This is a process that necessarily begins at the top — the Chief Executive Officer is the Chief Transformation Office (substitute Innovation, Digital, Social or just about any other ostensibly new term for Transformation here); extends to every member of the C-Suite as they minimally gain a baseline digital literacy but in an ideal case learn what it means to become digital at the core; and involves everyone in the organization — all those marketers, sales reps, IT folks, accountants, human resource directors, and customer support reps — to transform not just one function but every area of the business from the inside.

So where the traditional C-Suite remains something of an ivory tour, where a select few sit and breathe its rarified air — and where pundits ask whether there might be just enough room for just one designated agent of change — the D-Suite provides open access to everybody. In fact, everyone in the business not only has an opportunity to grow into a D-Suite leader; everyone in the business has an obligation to do so.

This is why, when a client asks me who should be in charge of transforming his or her business, my answer is always: You.

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