Decoding Digital

Finding and Cultivating Digital Heroes with Gerald Kane and Rich Nanda

By Ideas @ AppDirect / November 16, 2021

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Authors of “The Transformation Myth: Leading Your Organization Through Uncertain Times,” Dr. Gerald (Jerry) C. Kane, Boston College Professor, and Rich Nanda, US Monitor Practice Leader, Deloitte Consulting, joined Daniel Saks on Decoding Digital to explain how to identify digital heroes and help them thrive.

They also discussed how to empower innovators and changemakers through leadership and culture, and why now is the time to prepare your company for future disruption.

Hit play to listen to the podcast episode or read on to find out more.

Why the landscape of digital transformation is more exciting than ever

As the saying goes, the only constant in life is change. Digital transformation is one of the biggest changes a company can make, but it’s so often thought of as a one-time occurrence. Rich says that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Transformation is not a one-and-done. It's an ongoing capability. And it can be a tool to play offense in uncertain times to grow the company in positive ways.”

Throughout the pandemic, companies leaned on digital transformation harder than ever to pivot their offerings and survive. Rich notes that it simply accelerated what was already happening: a steady stream of constant change.

These changes are driven by technological innovation, geopolitical conditions, the company-worker relationship, and human rights across the world, just to name a few factors. What’s more, these changes depend on each other, and as their frequency increases, so does how they relate.

What makes digital transformation’s changing landscape particularly interesting is how companies use it to grow in fast-paced and uncertain times. Digital transformation hits the heart of the business more than it ever has before. Now it’s instrumental in retaining customers, attracting employees, global supply chains, and much more.

Executing digital transformation

If digital transformation is happening at such a scale, all the time, what does that look like on a micro level?

Regardless of the industry or company, transformational change comes down to one thing: people. Those people who ignite and implement digital transformation are what we call digital heroes. But what characteristics make a digital hero successful?

Jerry pointed out that the first and most important factor for increasing a digital hero’s success is a supportive environment. Jerry says that in the most successful cases, there is a repeatable relationship between digital heroes and their organizational environment that allows transformation to gain momentum. He calls this the flywheel.

Understanding the digital transformation flywheel

Jerry says that there are four parts to the digital transformation flywheel. First, having and communicating a vision enables two-way transformation, both top down and bottom up.

“When digital heroes can communicate that future to the people in the organization, people are willing to get on board and help make this vision happen.”

Second, a digital hero’s curiosity leads to a healthy level of risk tolerance. Jerry notes that it’s not enough for a person to just be curious, they have to be disciplined about acting on this curiosity and find time to be curious. This digital hero characteristic enables them to tap into a growth mindset, not focused on success or failure, but what they stand to learn from trying.

Next, Jerry discovered that a digital hero with a passion for their mission also had the ability to transform the organization into a talent magnet. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that communicating a vision enables buy-in. But add passion and people won’t just go along with change, they’ll also get excited about it.

Finally, combining these factors of passion and curiosity leads to a tenacity that drives action in iteration. The path to success is rarely straight, so it takes a certain person to keep pursuing change.

Digital heroes keep at it. They spend time doing, and then reflecting on what works so they can do something else and then action orientation.”

Jerry says that these characteristics between the digital hero and the organizational environment get this flywheel going and enable successful transformation.

How culture can enable digital heroes to thrive

While digital transformation can begin at any business level, fostering a supportive environment usually starts at the top. So what characteristics do leaders need to show or enable to cultivate digital change?

Rich says that leaders need to embrace a growth mindset. Digital transformation requires experimentation, so leaders need to get comfortable allowing for higher degrees of risk. When this happens, the flywheel starts to turn, and progress begins to build.

If you want to help digital heroes emerge and flourish within your organization, Jerry recommends this approach. First, find the people who have that growth mindset who could become digital heroes. To do this, you need to create opportunities for these people to come forward. This could be an innovation incubator, hackathons, or another way to find those who want to be part of this change.

Once you’ve identified the potential digital heroes, you then need to protect them from the organization. Unfortunately, organizations naturally want to suppress innovation. Jerry says they’re just built that way. So you have to give the digital heroes a way to overcome this resistance to change.

Next, Jerry advises moving forward in small but meaningful ways. He suggests putting together innovation teams, small groups of people who want to devise and implement digital transformation strategies. Then give them a six to eight week initiative to work on. These small, short bursts should aim to move in the needle in a way that matters to your organization.

Finally, repeat the process. It’s not enough to find the digital heroes once. As Rich said, change is not a one-and-done process. Leaders need to actively keep the momentum going on the flywheel if they want to see real transformation.

The future of digital transformation

For companies who want to attract and retain digital heroes going forward, Jerry suggests taking a step back and considering what you want your organization to look like in the future. A virtual working environment, for example, allows companies to attract much more diverse talent.

Jerry says that right now, you have an unprecedented opportunity to change how your organization operates and set it up for future success. He encourages leaders to think strategically about what type of organization you want to build, that's going to be able to attract the type of talent you want to get, that's going to be appealing to the type of customers you want to attract.

He also notes that because of these changes both inside organizations and more widely, that the disruption is just beginning.

“I think the next three to five years is going to be amongst the most exciting and the most disruptive of any of our lifetimes, as companies who have learned to innovate and who have developed new capabilities and are rethinking the workplace are then unleashed with these new competitive capabilities. I think we ain't seen nothing yet.”

The digital transformation myths to look out for

Jerry and Rich’s book, “The Transformation Myth: Leading Your Organization Through Uncertain Times”, looks at how leaders can guide their companies and pivot using digital transformation in unprecedented circumstances.

The overarching myth, says Rich, is that people view digital transformation as a project or an event that has a start and finish. But, in reality, it’s an ongoing capability. Companies in this continuous state of transformation can more easily adapt in an uncertain and fast-changing environment, which is crucial to survival.

Another big myth is that technology is a silver bullet. Rich explains that it’s not enough to partner with tech companies or pour money into new technology for your companies. Change only happens when these investments are made with the right purpose and vision for the company driving them.

Rich’s favorite myth is that digital transformation is only the CIO or CTO’s job. In Jerry and Rich’s findings, it takes the entire C-suite and their teams to rally around digital transformation. There also has to be a certain level of tech fluency and an inherent understanding that competing in a digital world requires growth through tech. It’s not realistic to ask one executive or function to own that on behalf of the company.

When it comes down to it, digital transformation is not one person’s job, and it doesn’t have to start at the C-suite level. Arguably the biggest myth that Jerry and Rich’s research busted is, in Jerry’s own words, that “anybody can be a digital hero.”

To hear more about sustaining innovation and digital transformation methodologies, listen to Jerry and Rich’s full conversation with Daniel Saks on the Decoding Digital podcast.

Check out the Decoding Digital podcast series for more insights from inspirational thought leaders and digital innovators. You can listen to the podcast on all the major podcasting apps, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.