We’re at peak complexity — and it sucks

Virtually all companies are doing digital transformation wrong. We’re placing it around the edge, keeping it at arm’s length, like it’s a problem and not an opportunity. If companies are to succeed, we need to rebuild around what’s possible, with the greatest toolkit we’ve ever seen.

We talk a lot about the vast changes technology has had on our lives and on business. We celebrate the huge shifts that have happened. We can now book flights from apps, pay for taxis with our phones and buy things in-store from shop-hosted tablets. We celebrate what we’ve done and what’s changed, not what was actually possible or what changes have yet to happen. I believe we should be collectively disappointed at our inaction — it’s time we thought harder, took greater risks and embraced a new world.

Technology can either be applied at the core or at the edge, and a generation of leaders, consciously or unconsciously, has placed it in new units, in innovation labs and all manner of bit-sized chunks at the periphery. The new has actually been marginalized, as if it’s a way of thinking that could threaten them. New thinking has been something to process, not a new core of opportunity to ideate around. It’s as if managing a slow decline into their retirement was their aim, not unleashing potential to propel their businesses into the future.

When we admire the likes of Airbnb, Uber, Facebook, Amazon, Snapchat, Slack, Tesla or Blue Apron, the thread that runs throughout is how they’ve put new technology and behavior at the core of their business — they’ve embraced technology from the start.

For them, new technology has provided a new canvas with which to work and new implements with which to draw excitedly. They are led by CEOs and management teams who’ve grown up in the age of technology as a force for good, and who likely have kids that made them challenge everything they knew. It’s when you’re explaining to a seven-year-old on a tablet why they’re not actually “watching TV” that you realize how wrong conventional wisdom actually is.

It’s time we thought harder, took greater risks and embraced a new world.

When McLuhan said, “we shape our tools and then they shape us,” he was right, but many of us have resisted the latter. We can book our flight from the new app from the new team that worked with the new code, and yet the desktop website looks like a disaster, making public the organizational fights in your company, representing a legacy of systems and patches that don’t quite work and not representing the needs of your customers.

Things get worse once we get to the airport. We hear the endless taps of agents working with blue DOS-like screens. It takes 15 minutes of taps and phone calls to move your flight. This represents a hybrid of new augmenting the old, relying on a platform built for another age, with the cracks draped over by a new visual design.

A key question to ask yourself is this: “If you had to build your company today, knowing how people use technology, what devices make possible, how people (not just millennials) behave and expect from life today and tomorrow, would it resemble anything like what it looks like today?”

Would hotel reception desks be large stationary units that host bulky desktop computers? Would your car rental company be located where it is? Would it have 35 makes of vehicle? Would your systems work as they currently do? Would you invest in a retail footprint or best-in-class logistics and websites? Would you have invested so heavily in call centers when millennials prefer social media? Would you keep patient records, or anything else, on paper? Would you need faxes to process orders? Would your data be kept on 10 different servers? Would all your staff have desktop computers, work in cubicles and each have a desk phone?

As a generation of CEOs who are now hanging-on are replaced by those who get it and are looking to build a legacy and a future for their companies, vast changes are coming. The one organizational principle to consider is this: “Are we embellishing our old-world thinking and processes with best-in-class technology, or are we building new processes and systems around what is now possible?”

Think of how new technology and new systems and thinking can transform your company.

It’s easy to be limited in our thinking. If we gave account managers tablets and asked them to do their job with them, we’d assume it would be impossible. They need to create in PowerPoint and make weekly status reports in Excel. We’re used to operating at a task level, but if we consider that it’s their job to manage workflow and convey ideas, then we realize that real-time online dashboards, shared workspaces and cloud-hosted presentations don’t just do the job, but make it several times easier.

We’re at “Peak Complexity” — a hybrid of old and new world systems. Slack and email. Downloading endless Java to allow us to do invoicing. Using WhatsApp at conferences and then email in the office. How many file-sharing systems? How many forms of conference-call software? How many more add-ons?

If you plan on working for more than a couple more years, if your goal is making a difference, propelling your business to the future, not just an easy retirement, I ask of you one thing: “Think of how new technology and new systems and thinking can transform your company, and work around that.”

If you do what comes easy for you, what comes reflexively to you, you’re actually doing a disservice to your company, your shareholders and your employees by leaving them vulnerable to disruption. You’re either retooling to create your future, or you’re just hanging on — I know what I’d rather do.