The first law of digital innovation – George Westerman

MIT Sloan Research Scientist George Westerman

From MIT Sloan Management Review

By now, most of us have heard of Moore’s law. The “law,” coined more than 40 years ago by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, has helped to shape the pace of innovation for decades. Originally focusing on the computing power of semiconductor chips, Moore stated in 1975 that the transistor density doubles roughly every two years. As technologies and computing architectures have changed, the doubling time and the performance measure have changed, but the nature of the law has not. Computing power grows exponentially. This has been true for digital technologies in general, from processors to networking to DNA sequencing. While people are now predicting the end of Moore’s law, exponential growth in computing power continues as new technologies and architectures emerge.

The relentless march of technology is very good for companies that sell technology, and for the analysts, journalists, and consultants who sell technology advice to managers. But it’s not always so good for the managers themselves. This is because Moore’s law is only part of the equation for digital innovation. And it’s a smaller part than many people imagine.

I’d like to propose a new law. It’s one I know to be true, and one that too many people forget. We can call it the first law of digital transformation. Or we can just call it George’s law. It goes like this:

Technology changes quickly, but organizations change much more slowly.

This law is the reason that digital transformation is more of a leadership challenge than a technical one. Large organizations are far more complex to manage and change than technologies. They have more moving parts, and those parts, being human, are much harder to control. Technology systems largely act according to their instructions, and technology components largely do what they are designed to do. But human systems are very different. While it’s relatively straightforward to edit a software component or replace one element with another, it’s nowhere near as easy to change an organization.

Organizations are a negotiated equilibrium between the needs of owners (or leaders) and the needs of individuals. This equilibrium is difficult to attain and even more difficult to change. Just think of the last time you launched a major new transformation in your business. Or when your boss did. Simply saying that you’re transforming doesn’t make it so. You need to convince people that they need to change, and then you need to help them change in the right direction. If you do it right, you get them excited enough that they start to suggest ways to make even better changes.

Help Your Organization Transform

Because digital transformation is more of a leadership challenge than a technical one, it’s essential to focus managerial attention on people’s desire to change and the organization’s ability to change. You want to convert digital transformation from a project into a capability — from a time-limited investment into an enduring digital innovation factory. To do so, focus on three major areas:

Change the vision. Most people don’t like to change. If you’re driving change, you need to help others see the benefits. That’s where a transformative vision comes in. Help people see a reason to change, and how they can play a role in making it happen. Without a clear and compelling vision, people will provide, at best, only lukewarm support. Most will choose to ignore the change, hoping it will go away. Some may even choose to fight it, either overtly or, more often, covertly.

Read the full post at MIT Sloan Management Review.

George Westerman is a Principal Research Scientist with the MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy.

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