Vision and leadership key to digital success

The Way ForwardDigital transformation presents many challenges. It spans the entire organisation and requires businesses to re-think their business models, products and services. It may even involve disrupting an existing and healthy revenue stream to create a new, digitally-enabled source of income that is more sustainable in the long-term.

Fortunately for CEOs a lot of research is being undertaken into which factors are necessary to ensure organisations achieve a successful digital transformation. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the need for a clear vision and strong leadership are emerging as two of the top requirements that businesses need to have in place. The Apigee Institute recently published a report, Three keys to digital transformation, based on a survey of 321 executives in the US, the UK and India. The research assessed each responding organisation on their current digital performance and then identified the practices that the Digital Leaders – those companies in the top two quartiles of digital performance – exhibited.

Of the organisations in the top quartile of digital performance, 88% had created and shared a compelling vision for the digital transformation of their organisation. In the second highest quartile this number was 86% while in the third and fourth quartiles – those that are lagging behind in terms of digital – the number that had a clear vision fell to 47% and 35%, respectively.

And it was a similar picture in terms of leadership with over 80% of organisations in the top two quartiles having appointed a senior executive to lead their digital initiatives. For the organisations that fell into the third quartile of digital performance this proportion fell to 54% whilst of those in the bottom quartile only 42% had appointed a senior leader.

So why is this not surprising? Vision and leadership are necessary for any transformation programme to be successful. Without a clear picture of what the organisation is trying to achieve there is no way of sharing the target end state with the rest of the business, there are no shared goals and no way of measuring how much progress is being made towards these goals. It is also difficult to identify what changes should be made, which initiatives should take priority or whether some projects are actually conflicting with each other or the overall objectives of the transformation programme.

It is worth noting though that what is needed is not a digital vision but a vision for the organisation in the digital age. That may sound like semantics but it is an important distinction. Digital is not an add-on to the business; it spans the entire organisation and beyond. It is about the devices, applications, tools, communication channels and data being used by the business and its employees, and by its customers, suppliers and partners. The vision for digital transformation is, therefore, the vision for the organisation, it defines the type of business it needs to become to thrive in the digital age.

And even with a clear vision, if the transformation programme (or the organisation for that matter) does not have strong leadership it will struggle to give the initiatives the support and backing they need, overcome resistance and challenges, and drive through the changes in culture, attitude and ways of working that are essential to realising the end goal. In the absence of strong leadership, transformation programmes tend to lose their way, changes get watered down and benefits are wasted. And some projects will fail; costing the organisation time and money, and potentially the goodwill, morale and motivation of its employees. In the worst cases, a failed transformation programme could permanently damage the business.

Having a senior executive leading the transformation is only part of the leadership requirement. As the Apigee research highlights, digital transformation has to be a priority for all of the organisation’s senior executives. And they have to talk about digital transformation as the overarching reason for making changes instead of just talking about initiatives in isolation of the overall vision. But contrary to the hype around the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) role, the research showed that just 7% of organisations that responded to the survey had a CDO leading their digital transformation. The most popular choice for overseeing digital initiatives was the CEO (30%) which is perhaps to be expected given the all-encompassing nature of digital. And 26% of organisations had appointed their CTO to lead their digital initiatives whilst 22% had given this task to their CIO, which again is perhaps not surprising given the dependency of digital transformation on technology. This seems to support the point I made in my article The CDO: a self-fulfilling prophecy? that, if the organisation has a strong leadership team that already works well together, and has the right skills and capability, then it is unlikely to need to create the CDO role to lead its digital initiatives.

There are many obstacles and barriers to achieving the successful digital transformation of an organisation. Funding, culture, limitation of the current technology platform, unclear roles and responsibilities, governance, etc., can all stand in the way of implementing major change initiatives. Many of these can be overcome with changes in approach, persistence and hard work, but, as with any transformation programme, without a clear vision and strong leadership, organisations are going to struggle to make the changes they need to survive in the digital age.


  1. […] year ago I wrote an article called Vision and leadership key to digital success in which I discussed the findings of one such study by the Apigee Institute. The research found […]

  2. […] survey is that CEOs appear to know what they need to do to counter these threats. In the article Vision and leadership key to digital success I discussed the importance of a clear vision and strong leadership to a successful digital […]

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