What was your reaction to that term when you read it? Whatever your relationship is with the notion of digital transformation, there is one ground truth: It is imperative for all businesses everywhere in the world. Like it or not, digital transformation is happening, and there is no way to go but forward.
This book is about how to foster this transformation in multiple ways. Some of these methods are well-documented by business experts and industry analysts. Others are ignored or simply unrecognized. In that latter category, there is a “secret sauce” that we came to see as a fundamental part of any well-executed digital transformation. We will talk about that throughout this book.
In 2005, David Foster Wallace addressed the graduating class at Kenyon College with a speech that is now one of his most-read pieces. In it, he argued gorgeously against “unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”
Wallace began with a parable: There are two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually, one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
Digitization is the water in which we are swimming. Some business leaders are old fish who remember what the “waterscape” looked like before it went electronic. Others are young fish whose experience is wholly digital.
Old fish, young fish—whatever the age—digital business is now the norm. It’s table stakes for any company that wants to stay in the game. Any business that has not made the jump, that has not embraced digital transformation, will lose its seat at the table.
*** What is this book about?
Well, digital transformation, obviously—but ask 100 leaders to define digital transformation, and you’ll get 100 different answers, so perhaps we’d better level-set by offering our definition: A journey of strategic, holistic organizational change, ultimately dedicated to optimizing the customer and/or end-user experience, which requires the right leadership with the right mindset to create and cultivate a fearless culture of innovation, fail-fast attitudes, and curious, high-performing teams through a deliberate dose of chaos, creative business strategies, ongoing training, and—finally—the thoughtful application of digital tools and technologies.
(And yes, that’s a mouthful. Why do you think we had to write a whole book about the topic!)
Eagle-eyed readers will observe that, in our definition, the "digital" part of "digital transformation" doesn't step into the spotlight until the final few words. This is deliberate and as it should be. Without the right talent, culture, and mindset in place first, no amount of leading-edge technologies laden with buzzwords like "predictive analytics," "machine learning," or "artificial intelligence" will succeed in empowering your organization to disrupt—not just catch up to—your market and industry with a digital-first approach.
*** Who is this book for?
There's no hard and fast answer to that question. Company leaders, including executives and business unit leads, IT and product team managers, and anyone working in a company going through digital transformation (or on the verge of going through it) will all get value from this book.
In terms of what type of company this book is for, the information and methodology we go through is not aimed at a specific level of revenue or number of employees. We suggest that “cusp companies”—those that are ready to make the jump from one tier to the next—will get the most value from this book.
define the types of companies we are not targeting. This book is focused on established companies that are large enough to have separated operational functions—accounting, sales, marketing, and so on—to run the business. This generally leaves out start-ups, small companies with undifferentiated functions, and businesses that outsource large chunks of their operations.
Here’s one important note: There are so many free tools out there that even bootstrapped start-ups and mom and pops could implement a lightweight digital strategy that would improve efficiency, communication, convenience, customer experience, etc. For example:
- A small-town hair salon that adopts online appointment scheduling
- A local candy shop with a digital inventory management system and a nice clean website for online ordering (see: COVID!)
- An antique shop that invests a small amount for a geotargeted SEO and paid search campaigns leading to a basic landing page to drive awareness and foot traffic to their physical store
A digital strategy (especially with free or low-cost tools) will not lead to the type of transformation that in turn leads to category or industry leadership—let alone genuine disruption—at the level this book is focused on.
Overall, any established company with sufficient revenues to dedicate resources to digital transformation can apply the insights and lessons we offer. Large companies—those falling into the $5 billion-plus revenue category—are likely to have a larger and more complex transformation to implement than small or medium companies. These enterprises may need to iterate the methodology in this book, starting with one or more pilot projects and then rolling out initiatives in an organized approach.
*** Why this book?
There are a number of books about digital transformation on the market, many offering excellent advice and step-by-step instructions into every granular aspect of a transformation journey. Our book leans into a different philosophy by focusing more on an experience-sharing value proposition over a "problem/solution" one. Sure, we offer plenty of suggestions, tell plenty of stories, but ours is less of a “do this, get that” approach and more of an ongoing acknowledgment that there’s always more than one way to get there from here.
Beyond this ideological distinction, this book differentiates itself through our recurring emphasis on a little-explored yet unquestionably critical aspect of transformation—that undefinable yet tangible quality of energy, evangelism, conviction, and leadership required to ensure that a transformation is successful beyond the standard "people, process, and technology" prerequisites of any change management.
This “X factor,” the secret sauce we talked about at the start of this preface, is difficult to describe in English. It has an element of enthusiasm, though it goes beyond that. It is a hunger—perhaps an enthusiastic hunger—to make something happen, produce a certain result. This X factor is what business pundits point to in their analysis of successful entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk, and Sheryl Sandberg. They sometimes call it an “entrepreneurial spirit.” This kind of energy and passion isn’t limited to entrepreneurs; it can be tapped by any of us.
Not satisfied with the English language to convey this complex sentiment, we reached deep into our cultural roots (well, two-thirds of our cultural roots) to offer you the Hindi concept of Josh
, which can loosely be defined as “passion, zeal, enthusiasm, fervor, incandescence, life.” Josh
permeates every successful transformation journey, digital or otherwise.
At this point, you may be consciously or unconsciously trying to define Josh
using concepts you already know, like “employee engagement.” This has become a popular term among business experts over the past few years. Studies have shown that engaged employees have a direct relation to business success, and there is a load of content by various authors that offer advice and guidance about how to improve engagement. We absolutely agree that employee engagement is essential to a business in general and digital transformation specifically. And we absolutely agree that “employee engagement” is not a synonym for Josh
. Rather, it is a prerequisite. Josh
is not experienced by disengaged or unmotivated employees. Engagement is the soil in which Josh
sprouts. As a leader, it is not sufficient to implement strategies that improve employee engagement to foster Josh
. You must go beyond those strategies to create an environment in which Josh
can appear and be encouraged. We will talk about how to make that happen throughout this book.
Before we move on, there is one more ingredient we need to discuss. It is so important that it is the book’s title. Chaos is a natural and predictable state in any transformation journey. It can be expressed individually, within teams and departments, or widely across an enterprise. Leaders know this, and it can be reflexive to try to anticipate and control chaos through advanced planning and what-if scenarios. Chaos can be perceived as detrimental to the success of a transformation initiative, a timewaster, something that can interfere with the plan and negatively impact the outcomes. It is considered a by-product of the uncertainty that characterizes the changes brought about by transformation. Many leaders think the right approach is to make things as certain as possible for all stakeholders. By doing this, they believe that chaos will be minimized and the initiative will benefit from it.
The truth is the exact opposite. We have participated in numerous transformation efforts, and we know up close and personal that chaos is necessary. Expressed more accurately, chaos by design
is necessary. Rather than trying to minimize chaos, an effective transformation leader uses it productively, channeling it to fuel innovation and results. Rather than attempting to squelch uncertainty, such a leader helps employees—and the company at large—to thrive in uncertain environments. They welcome new voices to the table, knowing that a diversity of viewpoints can be chaotic in constructive ways. They emphasize adaptability, reliance on intuition, the ability to tolerate paradox, and entrepreneurial creativity to foster an agile workforce able to flourish in the presence of uncertainty and chaos.
This whole book is steeped in chaos by design, particularly as it relates to digital transformation and its impact on user experience. So, strap in, prepare yourself for new ways to think about and approach your work, and let’s get started.