Digital Transformation: Does slow and steady really win the race, or does fortune favor the brave?

As every business leader knows, the digital transformation of the economy is revolutionary. Companies are in a race. There will be winners and losers. Some will make it big, some will not make it at all. So, what should be your game plan? What’s the best strategy to be a winner?

Digitalhappen möchte auch englischsprachigen Lesern Inhalte bieten. Deswegen bieten wir in unregelmäßigen Abständen auch Texte auf Englisch. Should we change our German name for this purpose? We don’t think so: Digitalhappen incorporates another, a new sense when read in English, and we embrace it. Making things happen in a digital way – that’s definitively something we identify with. Enjoy the read!

Of course there are different ways to approach a race. In the fable of the hare and the tortoise, the hare was fast, brave and agile. Ultimately he was beaten by the slow, steady and reliable tortoise.

But is this true in context of the digital revolution? Does slow and steady really win the race, as the fable suggests? Or does fortune favour the brave?

Looking at the economy, you can make the case either way. Statistically-speaking, fortune does not favor the brave. In the general economy, over 50 percent of startups fail within their first five years. In Silicon Valley – the epicentre of the digital revolution – that figure is more like 90 percent, according to some sources. The hares almost always lose.

However, the opposite argument is equally true. All of the big winners in the digital economy have got there through bold – often fast – moves that put them ahead of their competition.

We start to discover some ground rules here. A winning plan has two starting requirements:

1. You must understand the nature of the race. It's clear the digital revolution is no normal race. For one thing, there’s no finish line. The digital revolution is a process, not an event. The race is perpetual. Winning means staying in the lead, not getting to the destination first. There is no destination. The rules of the race are constantly changing. You need the flexibility to react and adapt – forever.

2. You need the right balance between agility and stability. Of course, hare or tortoise is the wrong question. The right question is rather: How you can be a hare and a tortoise? How can you achieve real innovation and agility, at the same time as maintaining reliability and stability?

The answer is called ‘bimodal capability’. A term introduced originally by Gartner in 2014, Bimodal is a combination of two distinct, but coherent approaches to achieving business change. Mode 1 is a linear approach to change, focused on predictability, accuracy, reliability and stability. Mode 2 is a nonlinear approach, focused on agility and speed, that involves learning through iteration.

The beauty of bimodal thinking is that it reformulates the stability versus agility debate and delivers practical, operational outputs. Bimodal is not about weighing competing philosophies, it’s about establishing parallel, complementary capabilities, which can be strategically applied to different parts of the business as needed.

Bimodal is not only a smart way forward, it may be indispensable. It’s increasingly the only way to operate effectively in an unpredictable environment. It’s already a cliche of the digital era, that the only certainty is change. In this context, the ability to innovate, try things and fail fast is not just a ‘nice to have’. In many industries it will be fundamental to sustainability. Alongside that, the unpredictability of digital change necessitates a strong, predictable, stable core of mission-critical functions and processes.

We will discuss the possibilities, effects and potential dangers of implementing bimodal on an organizational level in another analysis blog post in the near future.

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