I’ve learnt a thing or two about leadership in a digital age, certainly since the days when I encouraged leaders to show their digital credentials by blogging or listening to Twitter. I’ve recently led software and data recovery from a cyberattack during significant pre-planned organisational change. The more I see, the less I’m convinced that efforts at digital capability building are aimed at the right target. 

So what does it take to lead an organisation towards adopting the practices, cultures and technology of the internet-era to respond to people’s ever-increasing expectations? Rarely a training course in technology. 

It does require credible, collaborative and unrelenting technology leadership. You can’t be an organisation fit for the 21st century on premise. If your technology leadership is more into blockchain than user needs, you’re doomed. If your technology leaders can’t connect with staff handing down infosec judgements from on-high, no amount of McKinsey can save you. But that’s fixable. 

Technology leadership and leadership of an organisation powered by technology aren’t the same and pitching the former to the latter won’t appeal. So what are the broader attributes required of organisation and system leadership to foster a truly digital culture?

There are four aspects of public service transformation in a digital era where traditional leadership techniques come up short:

  1. That change is driven by citizen / customer expectations where we don’t get to determine the solution and the consequences of not meeting expectations are much more visible
  2. The speed of change and that it’s continuous and iterative in nature requires much more attention to governing change as a process rather than the result
  3. We’re tackling complex, inter-connected problems which aren’t well suited to traditional analysis and measurement
  4. To succeed in this changed environment, we need to default to working in the open and being genuinely inclusive – both of which can feel threatening

Technology-driven change doesn’t fail because senior leaders don’t understand the technology but because they don’t understand the change. That’s where capability building needs to start. 

Customers over helicopters

Analogue leaders take a helicopter view: have we got the big issues across the operating model? They prefer to stay out of the detail. They’re routinely shielded from messy realities. They’ll happily chair any number of status update meetings talking about the ‘thing’ but not for them witnessing the experience. 

Digital leaders take a customer view: what’s the experience we want to provide and what’s causing the gap with the current experience? They’ll start with customers and work back, translating between their direct experience and the anecdote they hear from customers and staff and the work that they’re leading. Digital leaders understand the value proposition and what capabilities need to work together to achieve it. 

Process and outcomes

Analogue leaders prize results. They want to know if we’ve done what we said we’d do in the time that we allocated. They want to know the number of things: widgets shipped on time, trends over time. 

Digital leaders don’t sacrifice the process to achieve the output*. They understand that change is continuous and want teams working at a sustainable pace. The outcome is more important than the output. They want to achieve scale and systematise where success can be replicated. They’re comfortable with numbers and curious about the outcomes: have we solved the problem for people? They understand that outcomes can be complex and uncertain and not always achieved through replication.

Managing technical and adaptive change differently

Analogue leaders manage all change as if it were the same. They convene people around a problem and instruct them to solve it. They may track progress to a fixed point; manage variation against the initial guess and get cross when the two vary. 

Digital leaders spot the difference between certain change to a fixed point and uncertain change to an ambiguous feature. They know when to make things simpler how to carry uncertainty for others and when to lean in to tensions.  

Demanding openness and inclusive

Analogue leaders default to working in private. They value structure as the mechanism to identify what matters and to know who to call to instruct a change. They trust their team through clearly defined accountabilities. 

Digital leaders are open by default. They recognise that continuous change can only be achieved through small, interoperable capabilities working well together. They know that openness is a prerequisite for innovation. They are comfortable working across and down the hierarchy. They manage teams and actively work to foster an inclusive culture. They don’t, often enough, challenge their own behaviours and assumptions to ask how they are standing in the way of genuine inclusion. 

Meeting in the middle

You can’t make analogue leaders digital through a sheep-dip in Agile, an immersion in micro-services or writing code in a day. It’s about culture and mindset. 

But the digiterati could stop making things worse. ‘I’m young and/or can write software and so know more about running your organisation than you’ is a curious kind of pitch – though it continues to be made. ‘If you don’t understand our lingo or dress like us, you can’t be in our club’ works more than it should. 

Helping people think differently needs to start in a safe place: with problems they recognise and solutions they’re yearning for. Taking the digital out of leadership might be a start. 

* I re-worded this after advice from @Pentri