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Disruptive leadership in the era of digital transformation

(Image credit: Image Credit: Chombosan / Shutterstock)

Digital transformation requires transformational leadership. With the rapid pace of innovation today, IT leaders are tasked with letting go of legacy mindsets, so companies can embrace change and innovate proactively. MessageBird CTO Brendan Bank, formerly of, offers insight and advice for IT leaders navigating the ever-evolving age of digital disruption.  

When we think about digital transformation, many of us tend to relate it to the technology we use. Yet, many of the challenges associated with successful digital transformation are organisational. How should enterprises break through their organisational barriers to ensure digital transformation success?

Advancements in technology innovation are happening so quickly, the decision of where and when to transform can be a moving target for businesses. When done well, digital transformation improves the customer experience while optimising operational efficiency. Getting there is best achieved by breaking down the silos that often exist between technical teams and business operations departments. Both sides have to be willing to re-examine their existing business models and agile enough to realign their organisational structures as the needs of the customer change.

A recent survey by North Carolina State University’s Enterprise Risk Management Initiative shows that digital transformation is the number one concern for directors, CEOs and senior executives. And, according to a McKinsey survey, the most significant challenge to meeting priorities for digital programs isn’t lack of technology or insufficient IT systems; it’s lack of internal leadership, both technically and operationally, for digital projects. To build cross-functional teams and processes, it’s crucial for leaders to align on a clearly-defined, customer-centric vision that gets everyone moving forward in the same direction. As a leader, ask yourself what you want your customer to experience, then provide your teams with a jumping-off point, and give them the space and autonomy they need to determine what it will take to get there.

When it comes to leadership in this age of disruption and digital transformation, how do organisations and IT leaders get comfortable with challenging their status quo?

One way of getting more comfortable with challenging the status quo is to give up an “all-or-nothing” mindset. Digital transformation is not a goal in-and-of itself. It’s a means to an end. That “end” is an enhanced customer experience that creates happy and loyal customers. Digital transformation can, at times, seem daunting because leaders don’t know what they don’t know. The pace of innovation today is far quicker than the release cycles of past technologies. When a company is locked into legacy hardware and processes, status quo can seem appealing. But, the status quo can’t keep pace with the expectations customers today have when interacting with a business. And it can’t keep up with disruptors across many industries who were (and are) being born in the digital era. 

Along the path to digital transformation, it’s common to start with a small implementation to test it out before moving forward with a phased rollout. A full rip-and-replace isn’t common or even advisable. Let’s take cloud communications as an example. Many companies have legacy hardware that they’ve spent a fortune on, but that hardware isn’t keeping pace with how customers want to interact with businesses today. What we find is that businesses start by adding one or two channels to their communications mix. Over time, as they get familiar with working in the cloud, they learn how easily they can implement additional communications channels.

For the provider of such services (in this case, cloud communications), it’s crucial that the change management of implementing such channels be easy and non-disruptive. A phased rollout enables leaders to take advantage of existing solutions while leveraging emerging technology to enhance customer engagement.

How should enterprises experiment with digital transformation to learn what is effective?

Enterprises can sometimes view digital transformation as a “do-it-all” or “do nothing” proposition. But, with technology broadly available via self-service portals at our fingertips, it’s easier than ever for enterprises to explore disruptive technologies and pilot programs at little cost, with little risk, at a pace that suits your business strategy. In fact, a survey by the Centre for Creative Leadership found that 71 per cent of respondents said pilot programs are the most effective tactic to drive an organisation’s digital transformation journey. You start with the customer need, and then you can play in the sandbox, so to speak, to see what works. If you find that something works for your business, you can move it over in pieces, instead of worrying about a rigid, large-scale migration plan.

With the pace of digital transformation these days, it seems IT leaders should, to a degree, encourage experimentation. How can pilot and project failures be made acceptable?

Given our need for speed, one of the biggest myths about DevOps in the age of digital transformation is that there's no room for failure. In our rapidly-evolving, ever-changing, technology-fuelled world, a company's success hinges on the rate they're able to innovate. More and more, customers are getting used to having the latest, greatest features and updates at their fingertips. That means businesses have to ship and deliver more features and products than ever before, faster than ever before. So, the heat is on to continue to innovate or get left in the dust. However, innovation also means that you make mistakes and you have to learn from them. And your infrastructure has to be able to tolerate these mistakes and ensure there is no customer impact.

Pilot and project failures aren’t just acceptable, they’re necessary. If you’re not experimenting, you’re falling behind. Finding out what isn’t working for your customers puts you on a faster course of learning to find out what will work. Encourage failure. Fail fast, fail cheap, reiterate, and fail again until you hone in on the right solution. Trying to cater to every edge case to prevent failure is not possible within today's infrastructure, especially with so many dependencies on infrastructure you cannot control. You have to prepare for failure and ensure your infrastructure has sufficient elasticity and orchestration. So when there is a failure, your infrastructure is able to move customer traffic away from the problem. That’s why, with each “failure” (or, as I like to say, each “learning”), it’s crucial to analyse the available data at your disposal to optimise your development cycle. Keeping the customer as your focal point during the transformation will ensure you come out on the right side.

Brendan Bank, CTO, MessageBird (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Chombosan / Shutterstock

Brendan Bank is Chief Technology Officer for MessageBird. In his role, Bank is responsible for scaling the team and driving platform development on behalf of MessageBird’s global customer base. Prior to MessageBird, Bank architected the technology roadmap at global travel leader, where as Chief Technology Officer, he led growth and development of the engineering and technical teams. During his nine year tenure at Booking, Bank managed 32x growth in the technical teams that supported 50x growth in daily customer transactions. An entrepreneur in his own right, Bank was a founder and managing partner at professional email services provider Imap4all and also spent time overseeing public networks and services for MCI Worldcom. Bank resides in Amsterdam.