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Technology is No Silver Bullet for Digital Leadership

By Joanne Jacobs

I know what it’s like. Time is precious and deadlines are short. The KPIs that you signed up to last year loom ahead like an unscalable Everest of corporate expectation, and everywhere you look there’s an issue. A problem. Someone else not doing their job. But then, nobody ever said that digital leadership would be easy.

So it makes sense to listen to someone who comes along promising to make those 10 hour days a little easier, right? All it will take is this new widget. App. Or platform. Platforms are hot right now. And you know what? Data. Data is sexy too. There will be so much data that you’ll hardly know what to do with it.

But there’s a problem. Well, not really a problem, an issue. This new platform and its abundant data is going to cost, and it won’t be cheap. The upside, however, will rock your business. After all, we’ve all seen how Facebook has changed the world. Disruption is here baby, so get onboard.

The challenge for the digital leader is not just about getting the business case up, but delivering the value of the project across the business. This balancing act means that a digital leader is going to need more magic than Hogwarts during the Quidditch World Cup – especially when we consider the statistics around IT failure:

And the more you dig around for statistics, the worse the news becomes.

It appears that most corporate IT project leaders aren’t just drinking the startup kool-aid around “failing fast” – they’re perfecting and optimising that approach with a narcissistically Darwinian variation – the “slow fail”. While startups may rise to prominence quickly and disappear just as fast, in the slow-fail, poorly informed digital leaders and their teams absorb budgets like a black hole which can take decades to recover, destroying careers, teams and reputations.

But the PMI Pulse of the Profession report suggests that, finally, we may be starting to see a reversal of this trend. Digital transformation is seeing a convergence of IT and business – whether those various departments want it or not. This means a renewed focus not only on technology but on the programs required to deliver value from those technology investments. This concept of “benefits realisation” was modelled by John Thorp from DMR Consulting back in 1998 when he visualised a results chain linking the project objectives with the expected results. By actively managing the process, including the often cut education, change and communications programs, Thorp argued that projects are more likely to not only succeed, but deliver the expected outcomes.

While much of this sounds like “common sense”, the reality of corporate project dynamics, budget and resource constraints, and the inevitable shifts and changes in corporate culture and strategic direction often sees leaders narrow their focus on the more controllable and defined elements – the technology platforms and their implementation. This narrow focus will never deliver the expected project value, and will consign most projects to the category of “slow-fail”.

Thorp’s benefits realization approach has infused much of the thinking and approach that we take with our Disruptor’s Handbooks and approach to innovation. We apply a strategic lens and a tactical capability to not just delivery but value creation. It’s not that we don’t believe that technology can’t be a silver bullet – it’s that we believe that the modern leader needs more than one silver bullet to fend off digital disruption.

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