The First Law of Digital Innovation

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By now, most of us have heard of Moore’s law. The “law,” coined more than 40 years ago by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, has helped to shape the pace of innovation for decades. Originally focusing on the computing power of semiconductor chips, Moore stated in 1975 that the transistor density doubles roughly every two years. As technologies and computing architectures have changed, the doubling time and the performance measure have changed, but the nature of the law has not. Computing power grows exponentially. This has been true for digital technologies in general, from processors to networking to DNA sequencing. While people are now predicting the end of Moore’s law, exponential growth in computing power continues as new technologies and architectures emerge.

The relentless march of technology is very good for companies that sell technology, and for the analysts, journalists, and consultants who sell technology advice to managers. But it’s not always so good for the managers themselves. This is because Moore’s law is only part of the equation for digital innovation. And it’s a smaller part than many people imagine.

I’d like to propose a new law. It’s one I know to be true, and one that too many people forget. We can call it the first law of digital transformation. Or we can just call it George’s law. It goes like this:

Technology changes quickly, but organizations change much more slowly.

This law is the reason that digital transformation is more of a leadership challenge than a technical one. Large organizations are far more complex to manage and change than technologies. They have more moving parts, and those parts, being human, are much harder to control. Technology systems largely act according to their instructions, and technology components largely do what they are designed to do. But human systems are very different. While it’s relatively straightforward to edit a software component or replace one element with another, it’s nowhere near as easy to change an organization.

Organizations are a negotiated equilibrium between the needs of owners (or leaders) and the needs of individuals. This equilibrium is difficult to attain and even more difficult to change. Just think of the last time you launched a major new transformation in your business. Or when your boss did. Simply saying that you’re transforming doesn’t make it so. You need to convince people that they need to change, and then you need to help them change in the right direction. If you do it right, you get them excited enough that they start to suggest ways to make even better changes.

Help Your Organization Transform

Because digital transformation is more of a leadership challenge than a technical one, it’s essential to focus managerial attention on people’s desire to change and the organization’s ability to change. You want to convert digital transformation from a project into a capability — from a time-limited investment into an enduring digital innovation factory. To do so, focus on three major areas:

Change the vision. Most people don’t like to change. If you’re driving change, you need to help others see the benefits. That’s where a transformative vision comes in. Help people see a reason to change, and how they can play a role in making it happen. Without a clear and compelling vision, people will provide, at best, only lukewarm support. Most will choose to ignore the change, hoping it will go away. Some may even choose to fight it, either overtly or, more often, covertly.

Great visions paint a clear picture of a better company — one that is better for customers and employees. You need to help people understand why the new vision is better than the old way of working. And you need to help employees understand how they fit in the transition process and the future state. If you’ve set the stage properly, they may even start suggesting ways to make the vision a reality.

For example, when DBS Bank had the lowest customer satisfaction ratings among Singapore’s top five banks, the CEO and CIO set out to radically change the situation. They created a vision to “make banking joyful,” and promoted the vision widely. They set a goal to save customers 100 million hours of wait time by fixing processes and introducing features that would help at points where customers traditionally had to wait. And they opened channels so that employees felt empowered to suggest any innovation that would reduce wait time. A few years later, DBS had saved more than 200 million hours of customer wait time and was on its way to becoming the highest-rated bank by customer satisfaction.

Change the legacy platform. While technology doesn’t create value on its own, it can certainly inhibit value when done poorly. In many organizations, the legacy platforms — messy business processes and tangled webs of outdated and intertwined IT systems — are the chief source of inertia and cost for digital transformation. It’s tough to create a unified customer experience, for instance, if your systems don’t provide a unified view of the customer. It’s tough to launch new analytics-based business models if your data is messy or your processes are not integrated.

Thus, to make new digital innovations successful, companies must often invest in fixing their older technologies. This can be very tough. It often requires launching a new platform that can handle the requirements of digital while linking to the old systems. And it usually requires cleaning up chaotic systems spaghetti that can slow changes and increase risk. Building a data warehouse or data lake can be a decent short-term solution, but at some point you’ll need to address issues in the legacy platform itself.

Nearly every digital master we studied — from Indian manufacturer Asian Paints to Australian-British mining company Rio Tinto to DBS — invested in a legacy systems cleanup either before or during other waves of transformation. Fixing the legacy platform creates business processes that are leaner and faster than before, and generates options to power wave after wave of new digital innovation.

Change the way the organization collaborates. The difficulties GE faced in transforming to a digitally powered internet of things dynamo weren’t due to technology. GE developed deep expertise in IoT and machine learning, and launched some fascinating new ideas such as digital twins. However, GE was not able to solve the problem of working across the silos between its digital and traditional units. This, among other organizational challenges, impeded product development. It also deeply challenged the selling process. In 2017, with digital sales growing too slowly, sales in traditional units lagging, and digital investment continuing at a high rate, CEO Jeffrey Immelt resigned. The company has struggled to regain its former levels of profitability and growth. (Immelt recently reflected on the trials of transformation in MIT Sloan Management Review.)

Organizational challenges with digital transformation are not unique to GE, or even to this year. They happen in every industry and have happened for years, even back to the early days of e-commerce. In many companies, traditional and digital staffs do not work well together. Incentive issues can cause people in traditional units to focus more on themselves than on digital innovations or valuable digital/traditional hybrids. While a powerful vision can start to build momentum, organization and incentive issues can stop transformation in its tracks. Fixing these organizational issues takes repeated communication, clear incentives, and sometimes, visible action to discipline people who are working in the wrong direction.

An important internal collaboration to address is between IT and the rest of the business. Early in our digital transformation research, many leaders argued that technology was moving too quickly for their IT units to keep up, and they chose to pursue digital without including their IT leaders. That was a mistake. The best companies have found ways for business and IT leaders to work closely together in driving transformation. IT units became faster and more business savvy, digital units found ways to work with IT and not around it, and business leaders started including both in strategic decision-making. Even when companies built a separate digital division, the IT and digital leaders in the best companies collaborated smoothly to drive transformation.

Turn Digital Transformation From a Project Into a Capability

In my early days as an engineer, I used to joke that organizations would work so much better if we could just remove the people. After decades of research and practice in organizations, I’m much happier with having people in the organizations. People make organizations go. But they can also make organizations go too slowly. Or in the wrong direction.

This doesn’t have to be the case. People don’t have to be a source of inertia. In fast-moving born-digital companies that we all know, people are a source of continual innovation and energy. They know where the company is going, have a healthy dissatisfaction with the way things work, and constantly suggest ways to make things better. This can be the case in every company, whether born digital or not. But it takes more than just words — and more than just cool new technology — to create the kind of digital transformation your company needs.

Here are your jobs, leaders: Create a compelling vision of the digitally powered future. Foster conversations so that people can understand the vision and what it means for them. Clean up legacy situations — information systems, work rules, incentives, management practices, or dysfunctional functions — that slow or prevent change. Start some pilots to build momentum. Create conversations to spur different parts of the company to use, and build on, the innovative work of others. You’ll be creating a capability to transform, not just a set of transformation projects. When that happens, digital transformation never stops. Instead, it becomes an ongoing process in which employees and their leaders continually identify new ways to change the company for the better.



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
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Comments (4)
Rajesh Khubchandani
Interesting read, thoroughly enjoyed the sequence of thoughts. I appreciate the efforts of George for writing this. One change I prefer to have in this law to bring positivity will be - Transformation leader should match the pace of Organizational changes with technology improvements.
Dan Feely
Great article and poignant comments by Dana and Stefano.  As the leader of a consulting firm that often works on the front lines of transformation, to cutting edge technologies, or helping to bring organizations up to speed and select and implement leading CRM, Enterprise and other reporting and analytic systems, we witness the challenges you mention firsthand.   So often it seems that these leading technologies are a solution looking for a problem versus following the old adage of "find a need and fill it".  

We are big proponents of assessing both individual's and an organization's readiness for change.  By collecting these insights (similar to Dana's point of "reading the room"), one can develop a gameplan for the change.

If anyone is interested, here is a link for a very quick (rudimentary) and free, organizational change readiness assessment -
Stefano Olgiati
Hi George,
George's law is absolutely true and I can go as far as saying that, in my experience, the solution is not to adapt Digital Innovation to a slow changing organization, but to disrupt the organization altogether. I am the Chairman and Chief AI Officer  of a healthcare group specialized in advanced therapies for the knee. We tried for years to incorporate Digital+AI technologies into practice with no success; everyone resisted: physicians, nurses, auxiliary and admin. personnel. In November 2018 we finally decided to create an entirely  new entity called HappyKneeClinics which is founded on AI, and all other organizational precesses are built on AI, not the other way around. Selected personnel is being moved to the new entity which, after 5 months, is already outperforming the "old" entity.
Dana De Nault
Hi George, 

I really enjoyed this article. However, I think you are missing one of the foundational things that must happen for digital transformations, or any other flavor for that matter, to work. Leaders must be committed to learning how to balance transformational and transactional leadership behaviors by first being able to appreciate the immediate context they are in. Often, in any one conversation or meeting this may mean a dance between the application of adaptive verse technical leadership and problem solving. All of this is possible when leaders are skilled enough to use themselves as instruments to correctly "read the room". It takes empathy to self and others, discipline, and the enduring capacity to exist in a state of disequilibrium during the roller coaster dynamic that is transformational work.