Leading Through Disruption: Finding your Bearings

by Michael Colombo
Oct 12, 2020

Part 2 of a 4-part series by Maark CEO and Founder, Michael Colombo. Read Part 1 here.

Disruption changes perspectives. The more significant the disruption, the more fundamentally our concept of reality is rearranged. The last decade in business has been defined by these fundamental rearrangements. Almost every contributing factor for success has changed foundationally. And while every generation feels a greater connection to the future than the past, this generation of leaders sits at a precipice, overlooking an unrecognizable landscape. To understand the immediate future, it seems, business leaders will draw very few conclusions from the past.

Primarily, the last ten years have taught us how to separate the mere novelty of the internet from the underlying physics of digital technologies. These new physics give definition to the forces moving consumers and enabling businesses in the twenty-first century. Seamless digital experiences motivate buyers in every category, and the businesses that have the infrastructure and the skillset to deliver them are the ones that will earn their loyalty. The events of the last seven months have drawn clear lines between the business leaders who understand these physics, and the ones faking it.

Those that have fallen behind lack imagination. They believe they can make it through disruption by checking boxes internally or outsourcing to the lowest bidder. Below deck, they are weathering the storm, as we pointed out in the first part of this series. From that vantage point, their perspective remains unchanged, their sense of reality constrained and unrealistic. They still focus intently on their competition, when their competition has very little to teach them. It’s the upstarts that have the tools and the relentless focus to turn industries upside down.

They still focus intently on their competition, when their competition has very little to teach them. 

But how can leaders focus on the upstarts when they don’t know where they are, or when they’re coming? How can they construct a useful vision for the future, when there is no anchoring precedent from the past? The only vision worth possessing is one that embraces disruption as the singular path to sustainable growth. So leaders need to fight for a vision that imagines their business as the upstart. They need to articulate a plot for disrupting their industry.

Leaders should have a vision for the product and the brand, not just the market.

The upstart business is one with a relentless focus on the customer. In a digital context, this means having a relentless focus on the customer’s end-to-end digital experience. Business leaders from bygone eras - along with their management consultants - looked at the market and tried to discover opportunities for more efficiently delivering widgets to customers while cutting a path to gadgets down the road. They cared nothing about the widgets or gadgets themselves, or how customers felt about their journey from discovering them, to buying and using them, to recommending them to friends. They used advertising to build brands that were silo’d from the business operation, and they fostered loyalty to that brand by discounting prices to their customers. There was no unifying vision connecting these silos within a continuum of experience.

Today, any silo is a threat to the business.

Today, any silo is a threat to the business. Leading through disruption requires a perspective not just on the market, but on the product itself, and how the product experience will make or break the relevancy of the brand. The seismic shifts in both personal and business technology over the last decade should have reshaped the perspective that leaders have on their responsibilities. The vision they’re now responsible for is not one that goes into the employee handbook. It’s a vision that can be built, release by release, into a seamless, personalized, branded software experience. It’s a vision that encompasses every discipline within the company.

Leaders should have a vision for the culture and approach, not just the technology.

Every discipline in the company needs to share a common definition of success, and it needs to be pursued with a common attitude. Many leaders - even ones that are well-practiced in digital delivery - look at the technology as the end game. The company, they often think, is headed towards a glorious tech stack, and their prospects couldn’t be brighter. But the gap between acquiring, and even implementing, cutting edge technology, and then delivering a cutting edge digital experience couldn’t be wider. The former takes money, while the latter takes a culture committed to quality.

Two companies with the same set of tools will deliver very different experiences. That’s because the quality of the experience needs to be stitched into the fabric of a culture in order for anything valuable to be returned. Quality comes in the form of ideas and execution, and every employee plays a part. The product packaging, the marketing, the email, the text message, the software, the website, the customer support, and on it goes. How easy is it to buy your product? How easy is it to share your product? How easy is it to return or replace your product? And of course, how easy is it to use your product? Technology is not a goal. A culture focused on quality at every step of the experience is what constitutes a disruptive vision.

Ten months into a new decade and the disruption is unrelenting. Our concept of reality is shifting again to fit a new set of circumstances. Disruption has gone supersonic. For the unimaginative, it’s probably too late. For leaders who were fighting for a vision that wasn’t disruptive enough, it’s time to rearrange reality. Every leader should take see themselves running an upstart business in a digital industry - because every industry is a digital industry. And in digital industries you win or lose based on the quality of the complete experience you create for your customers. Organizing behind this type of vision gives everyone a concrete focus for their work. It gives stakeholders a clear definition of the value being delivered. It gives a business the bearings to navigate through the storm.

Photo Credit: Cherise Evertz on Upsplash

Mike is the founder of Maark and has served as the agency’s strategic, creative and technology lead in programs ranging from complete digital transformation of Fortune 500 clients, end-to-end relaunch of category-leading brands, and strategy, design and development of new digital products.

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