• Rupert Angel

The 4 things leaders mean when they say they want more "digital"?


A common theme from talking to senior leaders is that they want their business to be more "digital".

But what does this really mean. Digital is such a wide concept. It includes skills, mindsets and ways of working.

So, when someone says I want more digital, it needs to be clear which aspect they are after.

We have been an active observer of this for the last 20 years. From our conversations with clients, we can identify 4 distinct intents.

1. The skills to make, manage and implement digital projects.

This is a range of skill sets from UI and UX to coders, to Dev ops, to content management, to social media to SEO, PPC, analytics, big data and more

These are specific professions. Most of them require a level of higher education in design, stats or computer science. You need the education to learn the fundamentals. Then you need an "apprenticeship" working with experts to build mastery in the craft.

The difference between just competent and expert is massive. 10x or more. This is both for quality and quantity of outputs. And you see this in the earning power of the best.

2. The "what is possible" brigade.

These are people who have seen and experienced what digital can do to change customer, and staff, propositions. They know what can work and what is possible they drive digital change by having vision and a sense of scale. Does it cost £1 or 10 million and take 1 month or 10 months.

They have experiences. They can come from any background, but their critical difference is that they have been there and done it before. They can cut through the hype of a consultant selling a dream to say this is what can work.

They don’t have to be the people delivering the change, but they are the people setting the vision of what is possible.

3. Leaders who know how to manage the risk of major IT roll outs.

Big IT is part of digital. These are the major capital investments of our time, often the biggest user of capital in a business and have a high profile for public companies. These leaders are expert in getting the right price, right partner, right scope, right delivery time and right implementation path. These are all huge judgement calls.

The sheer complexity is such that deep experience is key. Leaders need an intuitive instinct of what matters, if a project is on track and where to focus. This comes from time spent working on lots of similar projects to build the pattern recognition. That is why ex consultants are often the best here. They have simply been through the cycle more times.

The variability of outcomes here is big again. What makes these roles so challenging is that big roll outs are often on the critical path for wide business change.

4. Digital mindset.

Fail fast. Agile. Start up thinking. Using digital tools where possible etc.

Two things overlap in this, use of tools and different approaches to business models. This is more confused in the public debate. Start-ups use all the new digital tools but using the new digital tools does not make you act like a start-up.


The use of the tools can come from anywhere. It is not preserve of the young. It seems to be more correlated with openness to experience. In a start-up business, people are free to use the right tools for the job. In a corporate the tools are determined by policy and legacy.

Different people seem comfortable operating with different levels of risk. For a useful insight on this the work of Simon Wardley on strategy maps is a great start point. He talks about the difference between Pioneers, Settlers and Town planners

Pioneers are brilliant people. They are able to explore never before discovered concepts, the uncharted land. They show you wonder but they fail a lot. Half the time the thing doesn’t work properly. You wouldn’t trust what they build. They create ‘crazy’ ideas. Their type of innovation is what we call core research. They make future success possible.

Settlers are brilliant people. They can turn the half-baked thing into something useful for a larger audience. They build trust. They build understanding. They make the possible future actually happen. They turn the prototype into a product, make it manufacturable, listen to customers and turn it profitable.

Town Planners are brilliant people. They are able to take something and industrialise it taking advantage of economies of scale. This requires immense skill. You trust what they build. They find ways to make things faster, better, smaller, more efficient, more economic and good enough. They build the services that pioneers build upon.

Simon Wardley

Variability in performance in this space comes more from fit. Making sure you have the right people working on the right problems

How this helps

So, when a leader says we want to be "more digital" we need to be clear what we mean. Talent teams are in a great place to help with that translation between the high-level desire and what needs to be done.

Helping the exec team identify which type of digital the business wants more of

· Guides the search process

· Guides the best talent systems around performance

· Guides the remuneration expectations

© 2020 The Greenhouse Project.