The top three questions executives ask themselves about digital

Summary
Strategic planning in the enterprise is the road to hell: Paved with good intentions. For many executive teams and boards, the act of planning is an exercise in consensus building. But consensus will never happen, and a great executive has to accept this.
Read time: 6 minutes
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The countdown to Web Summit is on, which means we’re only days away from our CEO Nick Van Weerdenburg’s keynote presentation at the exclusive Corporate Innovation Summit (CIS), an invite-only conference ahead of the main event.

Nick is offering an applied approach to digital modernization based on his experience with Rangle’s clients, and how you can set ambitious goals and win within your organization, pushing past constraints to focus on what your customers need now, and will need in the future.

If you’re attending CIS, you’re in luck. If not, here’s an insider look at what the executive attendees will learn.

Solving the challenges of the market

Intuition in the enterprise is horribly broken. The challenges executives faced in the past are simply not the same as today’s landscape. But today’s executives were raised in that previous environment, where more conservative bets and a risk-averse approach were rewarded.

In an era when the average executive tenure seems to be shrinking, it might seem prudent to steer a course towards that tried-and-true path, but this is a bias in thinking that will lead to stagnation in your org’s value creation. The way to tackle the challenges of the digital era is to make decisions quickly and courageously, and to avoid getting bogged down in planning.

Last month, IBM and Bloomberg sponsored a roundtable discussion with executives from BMO, Wells Fargo, Mastercard and other leading financial institutions, titled Future of Finance: Leading Business Agility. In the talk, the leaders shared the top three questions that keep them up at night. They’re the same challenges that we see with our enterprise clients, and are common across all industries, not just financial services. They’re also the same challenges that Nick will address in his talk, and offer concrete solutions for.

With a portfolio-level mandate, the C-level executive has to adopt a play-to-win mindset. Knowing this, their most-asked questions are all about winning. They ask:

  1. Is my strategy ambitious enough to win?
  2. Am I executing fast enough to win?
  3. Do I have the capabilities to win?

Contrary to the inherited wisdom of today’s execs, the answers to these questions are dependent on great decision making at the C-level, not necessarily on hiring the lion’s share of talent in the market, or spending the budget on all the latest tooling. Let’s look at each question in turn, and what you can do as an executive to meet the challenges therein.

Is my strategy ambitious enough to win?

Strategic planning in the enterprise is the road to hell: Paved with good intentions. For many executive teams and boards, the act of planning is an exercise in consensus building. But consensus will never happen, and a great executive has to accept this. The best of plans, and those that are ambitious enough to win, are the ones that will have the most objections. Leaders trying to make their strategic plans palatable to others with less risk appetite will concede the edgiest (and therefore the most potent) pieces of their roadmap to keep others happy.

With that, you’ve already failed.

This is a major culture problem in most organizations, and it shows up when people say, “This is just the way things are here”. Our caution is not only that this will throw your digital transformation and modernization efforts off course, but it’s also this mindset that trickles down through your org more easily than anything else about your culture. With a board and executive unable to experiment and take risks, no one at any level in the company will feel comfortable with risks either, leading to stagnation in your products and a lackluster customer experience for your end users.

The key to combating this mindset and being able to say ‘yes’ confidently to this first question is to remove the noise from your decision making. In the book Noise by Daniel Kahneman, Cass R. Sunstein, and Olivier Sibony, the authors describe how bias creeps into our thinking in subtle, but ultimately disruptive ways. The leading skill a modern executive must hone is the ability to distinguish noise from solid inputs and facts that should impact their judgment.

Noise in the enterprise includes existing organizational constraints. When you’re planning for the future, it’s a fallacy to focus only on what you can do right now. Place your customer at the heart of your strategy — what’s best for them? Build the strategy around their needs, not around concessions you make to what you can reasonably expect to achieve right now. From there, the path is clear: You prioritize modernizations that enable the strategy. Following that roadmap, you’re able to define the principles of success and measures of success that ensure your adherence to the plan, and new capabilities will be created as the steps are executed.

Am I executing fast enough to win?

With an ambitious plan in place, it’s still important to stay ahead of the market, so that your big plans don’t land with a thud when smaller and more agile startups are ready to disrupt your vertical with new ideas in less than half the time.

To achieve speed in an enterprise, you move front to back. The same as in strategic planning, you focus on the customer experience. The decision making stemming from that experience drives the back office modernization efforts, so that everything is continually in service to the customer.

This solution might sound obvious, but let’s look at it in reverse: An enterprise executive begins their planning in the usual way, looking to create consensus and focusing on the constraints of their existing talent, processes and tooling. In order to deliver anything new to the customer, they figure, they must do some modernizing behind the scenes. They may spend 6 to 18 months on an Agile transformation, for example, or implementing a new suite of tools that will expand their capabilities. Inevitably, the time and effort allocated to the plan will extend beyond their initial estimations. A year or two rolls by, and their customer has nothing to show for it.

In today’s experience-obsessed world, that’s more than enough time for a consumer to decide to move on to another company that’s delivering a better, user-centric offering.

In short, increasing your speed to market is not about speed for its own sake. It’s about speed to the customer. If your innovation begins as close to them as possible, then they reap the most benefits from the effort your business makes to modernize.

Do I have the capabilities to win?

This last question is typically equated with the war for talent, but it’s much broader (and more solvable) than simply trying to hire the best people away from the buzziest new companies.

Many of our current clients have tried this very thing. They looked at modernization as a numbers game, and assumed if they could find as many talented “unicorn” developers as possible, their digital problems would disappear. They’ve also assumed that hiring consultancies like us was a shortcut to this problem, and that we simply supplied them with our own unicorns to solve their problems.

But it’s not about bodies (or even brains). Capability is about empowering the teams closest to your customer to make the decisions that will benefit them the most. When you put these product teams at the center of your planning and execution, then your focus is on product creation capability, which is the most impactful for your customers.

As a modern executive, you must understand that you’re the farthest away from your customer that you’ve ever been — and the insights you gained in the decades of your career might not be relevant to what customers in your vertical want today. But you can act through your teams, and be informed by them to ensure you’re making the best decisions for your company that you possibly can — and that includes giving the power to make decisions to others where it benefits their work and your customer.

With the team at the center, and leading indicators of product creation capability measured not by budget and schedule, but by unblocked flow of work from your teams to production and release to the customer, and the quality of those experiences your team delivers, you can accelerate both the scale of your digital product creation efforts and their pace.

An 18-month plan for modernization

No-fail digital modernization in 18 months is possible for every organization, and the insights our team will share at Web Summit apply to all industries and companies of all sizes. If these three questions are keeping you from starting your digital transformation today, we can co-create a realistic plan for your unique organization that helps you focus on the customer insights that matter most, ignore the noise that clouds decision making, and put the tooling and process structure in place to accelerate your product creation capability.

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