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A CEO Question: Start With Culture OR Tech?

by Mark Raskino  |  October 10, 2018  |  2 Comments

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Recently I was asked this rather smart question by the CEO of a financial services company. He knows they must embark on a digital transformation journey. Given what we have learned from the experience of others, should he lead the effort with culture change or technology change?

The reflexive answer that I expect you want to give is: “both”, in parallel. But many corporate transformations fail or struggle because leaders are overly ambitious. Organisations have a natural level of capacity for change. If you try to revolutionize a relatively sleepy, steady-state old company too quickly – it’s like putting a rocket engine on a bicycle… there will be a lot of noise and smoke for a short while … and no useful end result. Often then, it would be better to play a longer game. Build up the change, over a longer period of time – and get somewhere useful. His company – like many – is not going to be disrupted out of existence in two years. However it might be in ten years.

Disciplined CEOs know that strategic change management is often better done sequentially. Do one part properly, then when it’s rock solid – move to the next part.  Nearly all digital transformations of incumbent companies start from a position of a weak and corroded legacy IT base and a culture that just isn’t digitally-savvy.  So if we are forced to choose – which should go first, investing in the technology base or investing in the culture change?

If we invest in the technology base first, then the people in the company will start to be surrounded with the tools they need to make digital progress. As they learn to experiment with those tools, they could then ease into the needed culture change via bottom up learning.

If we invest in a big culture change program first, then people hungry to apply their new thinking and methods of doing business –  will start to demand digital capability investment and upgrading of the technology base.

My own belief is that it would be better to start with the culture. There is a risk that the new energy and excitement will be wasted if the technology investment follows on too slowly. However, if business people have a clear understanding they will start demanding the right kinds of tech. The alternative is the old “if we build it they will come” approach. Build a new technology platform and some agile development capability and surely business people will start to exploit it?  Sadly, too often – they just don’t. The new tech sits around – expensive and under exploited.  Leading with the tech also rather presumes that a visionary IT leader knows what to build upfront.  What if s/he decides the key to the future is a social media marketing analytics platform… but in the end, when the company culture changes so does its digital business strategy – and the needed critical capability becomes IoT?

What kinds of culture change should CEOs consider, that would then drive towards the technology capability and digital business progress s/he wants to create?  There are many options – here are a few examples.

Genuine customer / user centricity  –  a real focus on unmet customer needs. This will uncover the true (and often shocking) extent of customer demand for digitally enabled customer value propositions.

Data centric decision making. Where better data evidence and forecast model support, wins big decisions and everyday decisions – not just ‘expert’ judgement. This will cause talent to demand and drive for superior data from better digital capabilities.

Empowerment and ownership. Throttling micromanagement and reducing complex performance measurement systems that cause unintended, perverse, introspective, risk averse behaviors. This will unleash more natural digital innovation- bottom up.

Mission belief. So many mature organisations have become unwieldy, acquisition accreted, semi-conglomerates that have lost sight of any real sense of value purpose (other than to make money). Where there is a true mission, the organisation will tend to strive more to exploit any new means of making progress towards it – including of course, digital innovation.

So I say, if it needs to be a sequence and a choice  – then lead with culture change. Cause the creative energy and friction that will then lead to the right kind of technology upgrade and digital capability demand.

What’s your view?





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Mark Raskino
VP & Gartner Fellow
15 years at Gartner
30 years IT industry

Mark Raskino is a vice president and Gartner Fellow in the CEO Research group. Mark creates advice and analysis for CEOs on technology related and digital business strategy and change Read Full Bio

Thoughts on A CEO Question: Start With Culture OR Tech?

  1. Nancy says:

    Agree. In the company of the “old” hardening, innovation must be introduced gradually, otherwise it will turn out the way you described. What is a negative point in the existence of the company

  2. Idia says:

    I have experienced a situation where a lot of investment was done in technology was done and nothing done on the culture. People rejected and sabotaged the technology; in fact it almost threw the organisation into a state of anarchy.

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