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October 22, 2014
Walking into digital backwards
By: Mark McDonald

The other day I found a box of home VCR tapes from when the children were little. We had these tapes transferred into DVDs in order to preserve those memories.

One of the tapes included video of the kids walking across the kitchen floor backwards. First my older son mugging for the camera walked across backwards with that kind of ‘look at what I can do’ face. He wasn’t imitating Michael Jackson; he was three and thought it was kind of neat.

In the background we noticed our younger daughter watching him intently as he moved across the floor. It was something we did not see at the time, but it's one of those jewels uncovered when you watch the taped replay. Pretty soon, at one and a half, you saw her imitating her older brother – walking backwards across the floor.

What does this have to do with digital?

Many companies walk backward into digital in the sense that they are wrapping their existing processes and operations in a digital wet blanket. But doing old things with new technology doesn’t represent innovation. Upgrading the past with plans to replace it in the near future makes no sense. It merely delays rather than demands organizational transformation.

Walking into Digital backwards creates a number of challenges:

  • It consumes scarce executive attention and organizational energy rather than creating momentum.

  • Replacing something that’s just been repaired looks like waste to the CFO.

  • It saps executive attention as there are only so many times in the day for leaders to work “on” tomorrow’s business and deliver results “in” today’s business.

  • It drains the organization’s capacity for change, leading them to withhold their commitment until they see stability.

Executives back into digital by focusing on others rather than their own customer outcomes. Doing what someone else has done rarely creates compelling differences and too often results in commoditizing the current business model.

Movement, even in a retrograde direction, is movement and gives comfort to executives fearing digital disruption. But it’s a false sense of accomplishment as incremental initiatives tend to result in point or channel solutions that create cost without new sources of value or compelling customer experiences. It increases the chances that the crucial small signs of disruption go ignored.

It is cute to see your children learn from each other. Less so when a company plays follow the leader or backs into the future.

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