by Robert C. Wolcott

With COVID19, We’ve Crossed The Digital Rubicon. You Have Five Years To Win— Or Lose

When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River with his army in January, 49 BCE, he violated a centuries old stricture, effectively declaring war on the Roman Senate. Everyone with Caesar that day knew they’d either emerge victors or vanquished.

With COVID19, we’ve all crossed the Digital Rubicon. The current crisis should eliminate any uncertainty about the wisdom and urgency of fundamental digital transformation.

Through this pandemic, digitally savvy organizations are shifting faster how they work, produce, serve and protect. Companies enabling these transitions have been rare performers on collapsing equities markets, such as Zoom, ZScaler and Crowdstrike.
This crisis is a truly global, human tragedy, and the extent of our shared trauma has yet to materialize. As business leaders, we must act boldly in the immediate term to serve and protect all our stakeholders while simultaneously considering longer term implications.

With the longer term in mind, this is the best opportunity since the global financial crisis of 2008 for incumbent businesses to overcome death by incrementalism and make the case for company-wide digital revolution.

Global 2000 Companies—You’ve Been Set Free

COVID19 makes resistance to digital transformation appear short-sighted, even naive. Digital savvy companies are more effectively shifting to remote work, re-organizing stressed supply chains, supporting customers and partners in crisis mode.

Emmet B. Keeffe III hosting an Insight Partners “Insight Ignite” gathering on digital transformation at Mclaren’s location in the UK, December, 2019.

This past weekend (on Zoom!), Emmet B. Keeffe III, an Operating Partner at Insight Partners, repositioned the current crisis as opportunity. “Whether they know it or not, Global 2000 companies have been set free from their legacy constraints.”

Keeffe shared with me that a top executive from one of the largest retail chains in the world told him that the crisis has caused an acceleration of any and all digital customer-facing products and services. “They are now all in.”

What Digital Technologies Demand

What changes will be required? Each industry and company differs, but what is true across all environments is that incremental digitalization of what you already do will not work.

The reason is simple. Customers—human beings—want what they want, when, where and how they want it. Digital technologies enable companies to respond exponentially faster. No matter how many incremental steps you take, you’ll never get to an exponentially better solution. Meanwhile, competitors will.
Two years ago, I was speaking with leadership of a major financial services enterprise. They proudly shared that their innovation SWAT team was taking the fulfilment time for one of their key customer offerings from the industry standard of 2 months down to 2 weeks.

While lauding their intent, I exhorted, “What if, while you’re doing that, somebody else figures out how to offer the same value in 2 minutes?” Given the offering was heavily data analytics-based, it became clear it was only a matter of time.

Proximity: The Magic Of Digital Technologies

Digital technologies push the production and provision of products and services ever closer to the moment of demand.

We call this Proximity. Digital and digitally enabled technologies— from IoT and data analytics to additive manufacturing and distributed energy generation— allow us to sense, analyze, respond, produce and service virtual and physical products with unprecedented speed, specificity and flexibility.

The changes they enable in the economy eventually force incumbents to transform. Incremental changes to traditional processes simply cannot keep pace.
I’ve written extensively on Proximity. For an overview, see my keynote to Liberty Global’s Tech Summit in Amsterdam in late 2018. Regarding automotive and industrial environments, see this earlier Forbes article, and for how companies like Netflix and Tesla phase their digital strategies, see my Harvard Business Review article from 2016.

Five Years To Lead— Or Lose

The next five years will determine the proximity winners and losers. That’s the time it will take for the pivotal, catalytic infrastructure to roll out: 5G.

At TWIN Global 2019, Toby Redshaw, SVP for Enterprise Innovation and 5G Solutions at Verizon, shared a rapid-fire exploration: 5G in 9 Minutes. “Give me whatever sensor data you’ve got and I’ll give you the capability to be Proactive, Preventive, Pattern match, Personalized, Peer-connected, Precise.”

Redshaw’s 6 Ps empower our emerging proximate world. “Companies bifurcate into ones that are those 6 Ps, and ones that aren’t. Which companies do you want to work at? The ones that have those, or the ones that don’t? Do you want to go to the hospital that is personalized and proactive and precise and preventative—or do you want to go to the other one?”
It will be prohibitively costly— even impossible— to competitively achieve these six Ps via incremental innovation. When a few companies offer such agility, customers expect the same of everyone. Imagine offering only paper maps in a world of GPS.

Catastrophes Demand True Leadership

The current conflagration— requiring agility confounded by heightened uncertainty— exposes the incremental approach to change as brittle and far higher risk than the hard work of truly building your digital future.

If your CEO’s approach is to cut and wait for the old normal, you’ve got the wrong CEO. If your inclination is to run and hide, you’re not an innovator.
Leverage crisis to compel your colleagues beyond what everyone thought possible. Doing so will help prepare for the next ordeal— which will surely come. As visionary brand designer Brian Collins argues, “There is always a next dragon.”
If you think, ‘innovating is tough, especially in a crisis,’ you’re right. My colleagues and I at Clareo, our innovation strategy consultancy, viscerally feel the challenge. Our clients are under extraordinary pressure. Our employees and their families depend on us. We depend on each other. Like all entrepreneurs, any investments come directly out of our pockets.

The Triumph of Julius Caesar, Plate 9, by Andrea Andreani, 1598.

Apocryphally, Winston Churchill advised, “If you’re going through Hell, keep going.” Smart companies will pass this valley of death freed from legacies, ready to lead the future.

We’ve passed the Rubicon. Rome awaits.

See original article, on Forbes
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