How do digital leaders deal with this new normal?

‘Looking back at past results to predict future outcomes is no longer going to work’


Robin Knowles, founder and chief executive Digital Leaders

Talking to many leaders over the recent months of lockdown, I realise that this extraordinary situation has taken many on a digital transformation crash course. However, it can’t just mean we have all mastered Zoom or Microsoft Teams, or have carved out a space in our homes we now call the office, or that in the absence of anywhere to go out in the evening our work-life “balance” has become constant work.

No, these things will change, but digital leaders understand that change, uncertainty and pivoting businesses are the new normal for everyone, and three-year plans and looking back at past results to predict future outcomes are no longer going to work.

To use the analogy of a car journey, it’s about less time looking in the rear-view mirror to understand where we have been and more time cleaning the windscreen and looking forward to the next bend, knowing the road behind is no predictor of the future and the future is uncertain.

Now this new uncertainty we all face is not a comfortable condition to be running a business in, but it is not a new, digital-era phenomenon. Three centuries ago, French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire said: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

So how do digital leaders deal with this new normal? I think there are three things to think about.

Firstly, we must reinvigorate the people side of business. In a digital age, people are your greatest asset and the largest overhead in many businesses. Internally, rethink your hiring strategy to give yourself the ability to spin up your team and turn it back down fast, and to vary its skills set. Think more about collaboration with others to deliver innovation; something we have seen happening extensively in the fight against the coronavirus.

Secondly, bring data into the heart of your decision-making. Try and use data from your business and from the internet to give you insight. There are countless tools out there that will help you visualise these numbers into dashboards and once mastered, with a little trial and error, they will help you reduce the anecdotes and increase the data which currently informs your decision-making.

Finally, find your empathy. As we have peered into each other’s homes through our laptop screens over the past three months, we have realised that the homogeneity of the office environment masks our colleagues’ very varied personal lives and circumstances outside work. Let’s use that insight to help understand our teams’ diversity and unique experiences.

For example, I would hope most leaders by now no longer hold the view that home working is tantamount to a day off. I can report many leaders who track this data, report seeing absence from work is down and productivity in their workforce is up in this new normal.

I think this all means less control and command from the centre and a bigger focus on communication. We will see the decentralisation of decision-making and the promotion of localised initiative of the “ask forgiveness, not permission” variety. As leaders we must embrace this new culture and reward it with trust.

So good luck. None of this is easy, but if you can focus all your observation forward, rely much less on the past for guidance, and create a culture of experimentation and progress through iteration, you may be better placed to embrace the uncertainty, because as Voltaire said some 300 years ago, to be certain is absurd.