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You can’t always get what you want

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Ian Cohen at the Innovation Leadership Summit 2016

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you just might find
You get what you need

Time to plunder the Rollings Stones catalog and these lyrics came to mind in a quite bizarre recent client meeting.

Many of you know that one of my ‘go to’ questions for certain clients who tell me what they are planning to do is to ask them “why”. What do you think “doing this stuff” will actually achieve. Essentially, what do you want to be at the end of all that effort.

But this time it was different. This time the question was “How do we become a digital business?” As my eyebrows rose they added “You know, like one of those startups you advise”.

Pause for thought. This was a successful and profitable business and sure, tapping into the current digital narrative makes perfect sense, but that wasn’t the question. The question was “How do we become a digital business?”

Pause again and, after what seemed like an age, I replied “you can’t” – and here’s why.

Firstly, I have no idea what they actually meant by a “digital business” – this was an organisation that created physical product, had complex distribution and owned outlets. It was about as physical as you could get and they certainly weren’t gonna become a software of services company overnight

Equally, this was a business with a strong order book and good revenues. Surely they didn’t want to suddenly ditch everything, operate with little or no profit, scrambling around to find the next big client and continually iterating their product to try and find that secret sauce. Surely they didn’t want to swap a healthy balance sheet for VC/PE investment (aka debt) that comes with additional board members solely focussed on the fastest route to a target multiple.

So what were they looking for? Turns out there were a few things. Passion for one but also there was a sense that they were perhaps going through the motions. That they didn’t feel as connected to their customers as they once were. They knew what people bought from them but they had no idea why – sounds familiar?

In fact, they didn’t need to be a digital business at all – they just needed to be a better business. And often that’s fine. Just use all this new tech to digitize what you already do to make it more than it already is.

Sure, many digital businesses and startups have a certain cadence and sense of purpose and those are great things to add to any business but they are digital businesses because they are – at their core – digital. So yes, by all means observe, experience and learn from them but also recognise what you are.

There’s nothing wrong with “digitizing” an existing business if it gets you closer to your customers, makes you more responsive and adaptable and enables you to be decisive based on new levels of insight. But that’s not being digital – that’s just good business.

So sometime you can’t alway get what you want – it’s better to just get what you need.

Widgets Magazine
About Ian Cohen 3 Articles
A commercially astute and technology savvy executive who has been directing and delivering “digital enabled business transformation” for over a decade. I have held Group / Global CTO, CIO and Digital Leadership roles with some of the UK’s biggest brands including Lloyds Bank, The Financial Times, Associated Newspapers and insurance leader - Jardine Lloyd Thompson. Currently working in Board Advisory and Non Executive Director roles with start-up, scale out and large corporate companies, I am always LOOKING (to drive innovation and disruption), SEEKING (exciting challenges) and AVAILABLE (for interesting opportunities) Professionally recognised by industry analysts, peers and colleagues as one of the UK’s leading digital leaders, key strengths include • Driving digital adoption, exploitation and transformation • Delivering sustainable business value (to start-ups and corporates alike) • Bringing the agility of the start-up / scale out world to traditional organisations • Creating business and technology innovation • Directing complex turnaround, integration and strategic sourcing activities • Leading global, regional and national operations • Attracting, engaging and developing talent
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