Don't chase disruption windmills

Johannesburg, 03 Nov 2021
Read time 5min 00sec
Mike Saunders, CEO, Digitlab.
Mike Saunders, CEO, Digitlab.

In literature, Don Quixote is a famously tragic figure. Convinced he was fighting dragons, the man from La Mancha stormed windmills in a mission to revive chivalry. His legend gave root to the word quixotic: A zealous and misguided quest doomed to fail.

Quixotic is a very apt description if we look at digital transformation and disruption. Such projects often fail to meet expectations, yet we still struggle to understand why. The book Humancentric, written by business strategist and CEO of Digitlab, Mike Saunders, proposes a succinct answer to the dilemma: Digital transformations fail because companies chase disruption.

"Something I often see in my career is that businesses don't understand how to contextualise disruption," he explains. "They see disruption as an imperative, and then they start chasing it with no particular strategy in mind. They chase disruption for the sake of disruption. If I can put that differently, they chase change for the sake of change, and that's never a smart move."

Understanding disruption

Disruption is a controversial concept. Its roots appear over two decades ago in the work of Clayton Christensen, signifying a left-of-field competitor getting a toehold in a competitive blindspot. During the 21st century, marketers adopted disruption to promote digitisation, stating that you will be disrupted if you don't disrupt. Change or be changed. But as Saunders points out, change for the sake of it makes no sense.

"Let's say you are in a happy, loving and committed marriage. Do you one day just decide to get a new wife or husband for the sake of it? If you did that, people would say you are crazy, that something is wrong. I think what we often misunderstand about disruption is that it's not just the need to change; it’s about adapting to change that cannot be ignored. You have to pay attention to a disruptive event and how it will impact you, your customer and your business. It's strategic suicide to build future strategy on disruptions whose impact we don’t understand – you’re just swapping partners without knowing why."

What is change that cannot be ignored? How do we know if we encounter it? This question takes us to the heart of the Humancentric philosophy: Look at people. Technology means nothing unless it adds value to people. Disruption only really becomes a disruption if people adopt it.

"We shouldn't chase every disruption, especially when people call it a disruption. The word has become overused and whittled down. We should check that it is actually a change that cannot be ignored. And if it is, we should consider how that change is impacting us."

Meaningful disruption

The issue, then, isn't chasing disruption – it's adapting to disruption. “There a difference, chasing disruption means the disruption leads the business; adapting to disruption means the business leads itself. The second option is obviously a better position and one driven by strategy.”

Many organisations confuse this principle and often end up chasing technology instead of developing great strategy. And a business without a strategy is lost.

"Businesses with strong strategy and leadership understand that technology enables the strategy in the same way that people enable the strategy. There are two key principles:

  1. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
  2. Technology is a strategic catalyst.

"So, while they understand that technology will exponentially build value in the business strategy, they also understand that people will implement that strategy through their culture and actions. These things are interlinked – both are enablers to what we're trying to achieve," says Saunders.

Businesses that take a strategy-first approach are clear on their purpose and can leverage a technology disruption appropriately. Specifically, they can interpret a disruption through a framework of context, relationship and intelligence – the concepts central to Humancentric, which Saunders explains in his TEDx Talk.

Briefly put, context is about understanding your business, people, environment and the digital ecosystem within which you and your customers exist. In relationships, you look at how relationships can be replicated and enhanced between people, other people, objects and software. And intelligence speaks to how you access intelligence around you, enhanced with the new digital ecosystem of robotics and artificial intelligence.

Using these three points of reference, an organisation can take a strategy-first approach. This stage is where digital success starts to emerge. Businesses that have a strong strategy know precisely what they want to be in the world and how they want to deliver that into the world. They're clear on purpose, and they can make technology decisions confidently that sometimes onlookers may not understand. Yet they continue to deliver on their strategy.

But chasing disruption for the sake of it will leave you lost in the digital wilderness, Saunders warns: "If you don't have a strategy or a compelling reason to be in business, then you're going to wander around the digital space, getting excited about all these technologies. None of them are actually adding any value and, instead, you're going to pivot your strategy to the technology. That's probably one of the most dangerous things you can do."

Chasing disruption for the sake of it is to chase technology windmills, turning digital transformation into a quixotic endeavour. But put people and strategy first, and disruption becomes an opportunity to harness technology.

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