As digital disruption sweeps across every major industry, enterprises must question long-standing assumptions, re-examine entrenched business models and pursue digital transformation with bold experimentation.
In short, they must radically flip from long-held behaviors and beliefs to digital leadership.
Even when everyone acknowledges the need for digitalization, business leaders are often frustrated by their organisations’ ability to change. Digital leaders today need to understand the forces that shape the attitudes of their workforces, and redirect them to support the needs of a digital business.
“There are a number of powerful, invisible forces that act on people, communities and organizations to shape and sustain behavior,” says Jackie Fenn, vice president and fellow at Gartner. “Most people are not aware of the impact of these forces, even those who are in a position to use them to everybody’s advantage.”
Three of the most potent leadership powers are the power of context, the power of language and the power of habit.
Create strong contexts for digital leadership
A project manager up against a deadline may make quality compromises they would not normally accept. A typically cautious person may drive rashly if they are late for an important appointment. Time pressure is an example of a strong context that makes people act counter to their own values, goals or natural inclinations.
One of the main effects of a strong context is that it narrows the frame through which a person views the world. Many corporate blunders, particularly those involving poor ethical judgment, have been caused when leaders become focused on a narrow goal (for example, maximizing sales at any cost) or making a choice between two undesirable options (inflate the numbers or put everyone's job at risk).
On the flipside, a narrow frame may be exactly what is needed to drive the right type of thinking in a digital environment. For example, considering a future scenario where the prevalence of digital technologies is a ‘given’ will force executives to consider opportunities and strategies that they may otherwise have difficulty imagining.
“ Many corporate blunders, particularly those involving poor ethical judgment, have been caused when leaders become focused on a narrow goal.”
Digital leaders must create their own strong contexts to drive the type of big-picture thinking required for digitalization, and this often involves reframing common areas of entrenched context. For example, if employees assume that only those in specific roles are entitled to give their ideas, create opportunities for cross-role idea-generation activities, such as hackathons, problem-solving workshops or idea competitions.
Select language that motivates the right attitudes and aspirations
Most organizations already know that the language they use to describe their goals and objectives shapes the attitudes and behaviors of their employees. For example, companies that use terms like “beating the competition” or “winning a target market” focus attention on external forces rather than their own vision for success. Instead, use language that emphasizes “delighting the customer” or “helping the team excel” to promote a more customer-centric view.
Language is also important when it comes to employees, whether they are “cast members” (like Disney), “inventors” (like Brasilata) or “geniuses” (like Apple). Job titles can become more than a way of classifying roles; they convey the approach employers want employees to take to their work. System engineers who are “inventors” know that creativity, problem solving and solutions are core to their success. But keep titles relevant to specific values or attitudes, rather than a gimmicky catch-all, such as “superstars.”
With technology disruptions and upended business models, digital leaders need to alter how they talk about change. They must find language that will help employees weather the periods when the immediate changes seem to loom larger than the ultimate benefits. Instead of “the version 10 upgrade,” call it “instant collaboration,” for instance, so that projects’ names highlight the benefits. Focusing on the end goal can be important in creating a sense of identity for teams and maintaining their motivation.
Change habits by designing behavior triggers and empowering culture hacks
Changing old habits is a key tool for business leaders when competing in the digital age. For example, if peer review emphasizes eliminating errors from a design, it may be time to create a habit of having each reviewer add an idea to make the design more exciting. Because habits are repetitive and subconscious, they can shape the way employees view the company and the workplace.
“ Culture hacking is another way to start new habits by empowering people to make small but intentional changes”
Leaders can help employees change their habits by identifying key habit cues, focusing on meeting behavior and encouraging the habit of "culture hacking."
Two of the most common habit cues are time and location (getting a cup of coffee when you arrive at the office). Leaders can use these cues to trigger new habits that can take their organization in a more collaborative direction.
One major opportunity for changing habits is meetings, where leaders can set expectations from the outset. For example, leaders can start meetings by listening to every member of the team to convey that all viewpoints are valued. Or, they could steal from the scrum methodology and conduct stand-up meetings to make them go faster. If leaders want greater accountability from their teams, they could rotate ownership for running the meeting and driving the actions that develop during the meeting.
Culture hacking is another way to start new habits by empowering people to make small but intentional changes in the way the organization works. A good culture hack is immediate, visible and low effort. For example, always pair the ubiquitous "to do" list with a "ta da" list of things that have been achieved. Leaders should start by identifying one thing they would like done differently and devising a way to hack that.