Your digital strategy is a tire fire

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Digital strategy has to be top 10–20 on the business buzzword list of the moment. Many companies claim they have one, but what they mean is they outsourced an app or boosted their social media marketing budget — so now the execs can nod and lip-service the concept of digital strategy, all the while rushing back to the revenue streams and concepts they understand and were raised up in the industry learning. Here’s an article on Harvard Business Review about the intersection of ‘going digital’ and ‘core beliefs of leadership,’ and this section basically explains it all:

Every industry is built around some traditional assumptions, behaviors, and beliefs about how to create value (whether that means revenues, profits, or investor returns). In manufacturing, leaders invest in plant, property, and equipment and carefully manage production and inventory. In consulting, leaders invest in hiring and training people and then carefully track how they use their time. In retailing, leaders worry about customer retention and dollar per square foot. And for the leaders of digital networks, like Visa, the NYSE, Uber and Facebook, the focus is on the number of members in the network and their interactions.

We do this often with work: we completely strip the human psychology element from the decision-making and strategic thinking, and as a result, nothing really moves forward. How can it if you’re not adjusting beliefs? Beliefs drive ideas and ideas drive action — so if the beliefs aren’t adjusted, the actions can’t be adjusted two steps later. It’s not rocket science.

That’s the core of the problem with most companies’ digital strategy.

Digital strategy and the up-sell

This is near and dear to my heart, because most jobs I’ve ever had are digitally-based. When you interview for those jobs and get deeper into the process and start meeting your eventual boss, everyone and their mother is up-selling you on how great the digital strategy of the company is — “We’re really becoming a powerful digital brand!” — and then you get the job, take it, and you learn that the lady who owns e-mail marketing doesn’t know what an open rate is (happened to me once) or the lady who “owns” social media isn’t sure how to schedule tweets (also happened to me once). It’s all bullshit and lip service, but we shouldn’t be super surprised about that — we hire people based on asinine, outdated processes and then we shuffle them around the company based on more outdated, asinine processes and somehow we expect to get all the little target-hitters lined up in the right silos to please the execs. In reality, that almost never happens — because talent strategy, as a concept, is another thing people lip-service while worrying about their core, traditional concerns.

Most places I’ve worked have a pretty large degree of digital turnover, and a lot of times older employees and/or senior leaders attribute that to those hires being younger. Sure, that’s a reason. Here are some others:

  • There’s no digital strategy, and no one wants to wade around in the deep end of horseshit all day
  • The fact that “digital” has to be a silo is a complete joke when every company should be “digital” and “integrated” in 2016
  • Your manager basically says “post to LinkedIn twice a day” is the digital strategy, and you’re like “Is it too early to drink at 10:21am?”

Because most places half-ass their digital strategy, any good people they do get will ultimately bolt in frustration. That’s problem uno.

Digital strategy and psychology

This is what I was briefly discussing above. We do this a lot with work. A big example is “process.” We love us some process because we want to believe that work is a logical place. It’s not. Work is made up of human beings and as a result, work is an emotional place.

This has a tie to digital strategy too. When you start talking about ‘digital strategy,’ you’re basically saying — or some people are hearing — “Things may change around here.” If you protect something that’s traditional or rooted in a physical space or context, that will scare you. Even though we don’t admit it — except maybe to our therapists — a lot of work is about predicting threats and swatting them down. Digital strategy, simply put, is a threat to a lot of people — because most businesses were built in a different way, as that pull quote above shows. Those people who helped build it and came up under the builders? They’re still not retired yet. Change is hard, yo. Any digital strategy discussion could be seen as a threat to their perch and relevance.

That’s the psychology of failed digital strategy right there.

Take a place I recently worked. The up-sell I discussed in the section above was in full effect — I got wooed (to an extent, because I’m not such a big deal) and told it was a super digital company and everyone understood the digital strategy, etc. Within about four days of working there, I realized that was a massive lie and my boss/her boss/most of our department relied on completely traditional publishing strategies.

Now, again — this was logical. That was bringing in the money, and the point of most companies/jobs is to bring in the money. It’s not really to experiment with a digital strategy if the money-grabbing strategies are working. But what happens when they stop working? You’re seeing this in a bunch of industries already, and more are on the way. Simply put, that’s why change management is important.

Digital strategy and the technology myth

One of the biggest myths around digital strategy is that if you throw technology at something, it will solve all the problems. Some exec will bellow: “What do you mean our digital strategy isn’t working? Didn’t we just spend $20K on a software suite?” I’ve written about this before.

[Tweet “Throwing technology at a problem doesn’t actually make you a “digitally-driven company.””]

Here’s another HBR article called “The Dirty Little Secret Of Digitally Transforming Operations,” and note this paragraph:

There is a common misconception that technology alone can produce magical results. But the reality is the results depend on how people use it, particularly if they can use it to amplify longstanding skills and expertise. And that’s often when organizations run into problems. Thomas Froese, leader of data-analytics-and-modeling company atlan-tec Systems, has 25 years of experience in helping companies apply advanced analytics. He summarized the issue very simply: “We can automate mathematics, we can automate design decisions, but we cannot automate changes in human behavior.”

That last line is the crux of my point. Automate, throw process at, and create systems for everything under the sun. If you’re not changing human behavior and beliefs to go along with it, well, your digital strategy is still going to be absolute cow dung.

How will digital strategy get better?

Well, a couple of ways. In reality, most companies will flop around in the shallow end of the pool claiming that their two re-tweets of a white paper means they have a kick-ass digital strategy. (By the way, that’s complete bullshit.) The core ways in which digital strategy can improve, though, are:

  • Traditional-backers (Boomers, X’ers) age out of the workforce
  • Venture-funded companies disrupt existing companies and the existing ones realize they need to be more agile
  • More and more money starts flowing to digital channels via better tracking and tools
  • More companies who advertise in traditional models start asking for proven ROI from those they advertise with
  • Companies begin to integrate ‘digital strategy’ with ‘overall strategy’ instead of silo’ing them
  • People in their 20s and teens currently begin founding and developing companies

Those are a few bullets whereby I think digital strategy could improve — but again, walk into most companies these days and they’re like “Well, we have a Pinterest board! We’re killing it digitally! Let’s go hire five social media marketers and murder some Twitter targets!”

Here’s the fun part: Twitter might not even be around in five years. Has anyone responsible for your digital strategy thought that one through? Probably not. Because in reality, due to human psychology and a host of other factors, your digital strategy is really just lip-service held together with matchsticks and lies.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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