How Leading with Innovation and Design Can Transform Everything

by Joseph Press, Thomas Goh, and Jerome Relly

At a global food and beverage company, the digital transformation journey began with a series of Digital Days. Sponsored in collaboration with the vice presidents of Digital Marketing and Digital Services, leaders of six functions and their teams came together in a design-informed experience to use digital to solve business challenges. The sessions began by inspiring participants with leading digital practices within and outside their functions.

Teams were first asked to agree on a set of strategic objectives. They imagined profiles of consumers and employees to project meaningful directions for them in the near future. Collaborating with designers, they created mock-ups and low-tech prototypes for how digital could improve consumers’ and employees’ daily lives. To deliver the innovative ideas, they developed action plans and aligned on next steps for navigating the institutional barriers to achieve impact. Five years later, the company has achieved sustainable impact in the three transformation objectives.

Innovation is an ongoing strategic activity. Immediately after the Digital Days, an internal crowdsourced innovation program was launched in the IT supply chain function. Across the globe, employees submitted ideas to present at a Shark Tank-like panel of leaders for funding. These successes led to the company establishing an external crowdsourcing innovation platform. Most recently, IT built a Silicon Valley outpost to scout and support startups.

Digital now informs and enables personalized experiences. Marketing built a global listening post, collecting data to monitor consumer behavior. In partnership with IT, they built a digital marketing service center that supports markets across the globe to deliver personalized experiences and respond to feedback. Digital has become the catalyst for all marketers to act like “concierges,” curating genuine consumer relationships.

Design is now the preferred capability for leaders, and a significant cultural influencer. Following the Digital Days, the company infused its executive learning center with design thinking and new technologies to enable leaders to use digital to solve business challenges. Spaces were redesigned to enable creative activities, and new programs bring leaders to innovation ecosystems across the globe. Over 5,000 leaders have completed a customized design thinking certification, contributing to transforming the company into a health and wellness organization based on shared values.

Prepare to Play

In leading digital transformation, many leaders focus only on one of the trifecta dimensions, despite the fact that a balanced approach is required for success. A digital innovation solution should come with a positive user experience, and innovation should make the products and services easier to access, not more difficult.

Whether you aim to transform your company, your team, your community, or yourself, you first need to be prepared. To successfully lead transformation, you will have to overcome many hurdles, some of an organizational nature, others more personal.

As previously discussed, many innovation programs su er from a “they own innovation” syndrome, with specific departments guarding innovation, so something that should be an organizational movement is drastically inhibited. A good litmus test is the tolerance for failure. Despite what they say, most organizational leaders have limited tolerance for failure. Don’t just talk innovation, walk it. Avoid innovation inertia with real budget allocations in your annual planning. Then you can go beyond what most corporate innovation programs are—mere digital suggestion boxes. Our survey suggests that pilot programs are one of the most effective tactics for driving digital transformation—71% of respondents said they were effective.

Our recommendation is to start with the digitalization of processes and products, followed by supporting transformation from within rather than bringing digital into the organization from outside, though according to our survey, consultants can sometimes be helpful. In our experience, searching for the unicorns—exponentially disruptive start-ups— can inhibit transformation by not developing digital transformation leaders internally. We know that innovative leadership is scarce in many companies, since innovative leaders are not by nature organizational creatures. It is rare that leaders will cannibalize themselves willingly, or even threaten their existence in the name of digital, regardless of the promise it holds.

But leadership-driven change can work. In our survey, 47% of respondents said a culture change from the top has been effective in their organizations. Many of them—43%— also agreed that their organization bene ted from a clear digital strategy and roadmap. Transformational leadership requires reflection, so we recommend you take time out to consider the 10 digital transformation leadership questions (see page 12). By raising your awareness with the questions, you can prepare your employees, customers, and community to live new digitally enabled experiences.

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