January 2021 – on managing digital transformation, failing at failing fast, a new Marshall Plan, and words with consonants

MIT survey about managing digital transformation

MIT Sloan Management Review and Cognizant surveyed 4,296 global leaders to explore shifting attitudes about the future of leadership during a challenging time worldwide. It captures insights from over 20 industries. Seventy-five percent of the respondents were from outside the United States.

Short version: many business leaders worldwide are out of touch with what it takes to lead effectively in the digital economy.

The study reveals four key insights:

1.      Organizations are not offering workers the sense of purpose they crave.

72% of respondents strongly agree it is very important to them to work for an organization with a purpose in which they believe. Still, only 49% strongly say that they believe in their organization’s purpose. Even fewer (36%) strongly agree that they believe in their organization’s ability to advance its purpose, and a mere 25% strongly agree that their organizations are as purpose-driven as their leaders believe them to be.

2.      Organizations with a clear purpose outperform their peers when it comes to diversity and inclusion practices.

64% of respondents affirm that top management is prioritizing diversity and inclusion practices. Respondents from highly purpose-driven organizations agree at a higher rate of 84%.

3.      Leaders are also failing to invest in and develop their digital competencies.

While 93% of respondents say being digitally savvy is essential to performing well, and 88% state that digitally savvy leaders matter to their organization’s ability to succeed, only a fifth of respondents strongly agree their leaders have the right mindset to thrive in the digital economy.

4.      Most companies fail to adequately address the erosion of work/home boundaries.

Only 36% of global survey respondents say they establish a hard line between when they are working and when they are not.

Only 28% of respondents agree their organization has policies about when and how to communicate outside traditional business hours, and fewer (24%) agree that their organization adheres to these policies if they do exist.

Before you move into a new position…

Ask yourself:  “What would my successor do?

After all, if you think you may be replaced, you might as well replace yourself (with your new-and-improved self) and get your boss thinking about how you are the answer to his prayers rather than the cause of his problems.

Firing yourself isn’t easy.  Over time we have a tendency to shape our organizations in our own image.  Problems that were easy to spot when new to the job become almost invisible.  Similarly, relationships that were full of promise in the beginning evolve into static roles and routines founded on assumptions that, good or bad, are difficult to change. But you have time on your side.

And if you do move into a new position…

Consider how you can help prepare your successor to thrive in the role you are vacating. This involves passing on knowledge and connecting them to the right resources to establish a successful path in a new rolethe very things you’ll need when you step into a new position.

If experimenting is so valuable, why don’t companies do it more?

There’s no lack of lip service to “failing fast” but it doesn’t always happen. And when it does, it’s not always consistent. Stefan Thomke in a Harvard Business Review article:

After examining this question for several years, I can tell you that the central reason is culture.  As companies try to scale up their online experimentation capacity, they often find that the obstacles are not tools and technology but shared behaviors, beliefs, and values.  For every experiment that succeeds, nearly 10 don’t – and in the eyes of many organizations that emphasize efficiency, predictability, and ‘winning,’ those failures are wasteful.

The article discusses several key characteristics of a successful experimentation culture, including cultivating curiosity, insisting that data trumps opinion, democratizing experimentation across the organization, being ethically sensitive, and embracing a leadership model that will follow test results wherever they lead.

The critical difference? Management.

One takeaway from examples and research is the perhaps unsurprising idea that management counts; that is, when managers actively encourage experimentation, the culture invites experiments.  And when ‘failure’ is understood as contributing to learning (i.e., not punished), experimentation is encouraged as well.

The future of work: the dissolution of the employee-employer relationship?

From an article in the MIT Sloan Review:

Leaders need a new operating system for work — one that better supports the high degree of organizational agility required to thrive amid increasingly rapid change and disruption, and that better reflects the fluidity of modern work and working arrangements.

In our last two books, we’ve argued that this new system must enable leaders and workers to increasingly — and continually — deconstruct jobs into more granular units such as tasks, and that it must identify and deploy workers based on their skills and capabilities, not their job descriptions. Deconstructing work is essential to implementing new options for sourcing, rewarding, and engaging workers, and to understanding and anticipating how automation might replace, augment, or reinvent human work.

It is couched as “workforce ecosystem” but it’s a top-down, “leader”-driven deconstruction process that is as old and tired as transaction-cost analysis that sees the world on a continuum from markets to hierarchies. The all-knowing “leader” organizes man and machine in the most efficient fashion… from its own limited and bounded rationality. I’m not sold. Ecosystems need to be adaptable, not predictable nor optimized.

Required: a new Marshall Plan

This is a little more macro. Something to include in your environmental scan. From the Bennett Institute at the University of Cambridge.

Today’s economic challenge is very different, but it is clear that economic recovery will require a coordinated global strategy at least as ambitious as the Marshall Plan after World War II. The challenge before us entails rebuilding economies after a virulent pandemic, and at the same time also rebuilding the biosphere after decades of rapacity and neglect.

But the challenge is not just environmental. There is also a pressing need to address growing inequalities, support social cohesion, and restore faith in public institutions. Around the world people are expressing the strong desire not to return to business as usual. Lockdowns forced people to reconsider what matters to them.


If you’re considering learning a new language and are looking for a challenge, you can try Ubykh. It has two vowels and 84 consonants, including an unvoiced labialized pharyngealized back dorsal uvular ejective stop (yes, that’s a thing). And let me know how it’s going.

I’m holding virtual office hours!

They’re open to anyone who wants to chat for 20 minutes. Anyone.

What I love about my facilitation work is the conversations in the room, the side conversations, the hallway conversations, the meal conversations… and I miss them.

So, if you want to catch up or talk about management, leadership, strategy, organizations, your career, music, life and the living, sign up!

I look forward to our conversation.

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