How to respond when executives talk about digital first

Many executive teams are throwing around phrases like ‘digital first’ or ‘digital by default’. But you need to be the one who turns those phrases into reality.

After years of talking about the importance of digital, some executive teams are listening. This should be an exciting time. After all this is what we have wanted for so long. But it could prove dangerous if we do not handle it well.

The shortcomings of a digital first executive vision

When executive teams throw their support behind digital the result can often be disappointing. Instead of getting strong, clear direction about becoming digital first there is a vague vision. A vision that makes it clear digital is crucial for organisational success, but fails to provide any detail.

To some extent this is because they don’t understand digital. They know enough to know it is important. But not enough to make specific recommendations. That is not to say executives are stupid.

We cannot expect executive teams to define the specifics of our digital direction. That falls to us.

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Executive teams are smart, experienced people. But they cannot and should not delve into the details of day-to-day operations. They set the direction and others turn that into a reality. They cannot understand the nuances of each employees job. It would be madness for them to tell others how to do those jobs.

But this lack of clarity can leave the organisations digital vision in danger.

We cannot expect Management to understand our jobs enough to make specific recommendations about how we should do them.

Digital first thinking can die before it starts

One danger is that the digital first vision fades before it can take root. Without a clear plan about its implementation it will never be anything more concrete than a mission statement. Just something people ignore before getting on with their day job.

The second danger is it gets hijacked. In many organisations people have discovered it is much easier to get things done if they can tie it to an executive directive. Before you know it their support for digital will have morphed. Morphed into acquiring a new IT system or recruiting more staff in marketing.

To prevent these kinds of disasters we need to step up and take action.

Taking ownership of the digital first vision

We cannot wait for somebody else to define the digital agenda. As soon as we have executive support we need to be putting together a plan for its implementation.

Don’t wait for somebody else to define how an executive digital vision impacts you. Take the initiative.

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Now you might be thinking that is not your job. That you don’t have the authority to propose company wide change. That is a fair comment. I am not suggesting that you put together a company wide plan. I am proposing that you establish a plan for how their commitment to digital first impacts your role.

Define what it means for your job

Instead of waiting for somebody to tell you how their vision impacts your role, take the initiative. Sit down and answer the following questions:

  • How does the executives vision change the way I work?
  • What barriers prevent me from changing?
  • What will you need to do to overcome those barriers?

For example you may conclude that as a digital professional you need to provide training to other employees. Training to help them adopt digital first thinking.

But you might feel this is not possible. You might think others will be resistant to this kind of training or that you don’t have the time.

Outline what needs to change

Instead of just giving up you should propose how these barriers could be overcome. You might need executive support to make training mandatory. You might also need to stop work on other things to free up time. That or recruit more staff.

Where you need extra resources or to drop other work, be clear about that. Also outline what return the company can expect from that change.

Get executive approval

Once you have a clear plan for implementing the vision in your role, you can go back to the executive team (or manager). You can present your plan and explain the costs involved. It is then down to them to decide whether they want to go with your suggestions.

We need to take the initiative and propose what changes need to happen in our role.

Either way you set the agenda. You help the executive understand what digital first means in practice and you set a precedent. You may even want to suggest that others across the organisation are also encouraged to complete the same exercise. You could offer to help them do this as you have the digital expertise. You can help colleagues understand how digital first might impact their role through a series of workshops.

Any kind of executive support is an opportunity

I encounter teams who are completely thrown when the executive announce their support with a vague vision. They feel resentful that management hasn’t announced something more concrete. That is the wrong attitude.

Instead of seeing this vagueness as a problem, see it as an opportunity. An opportunity for you to bring your expertise to bare. A chance to shape the direction of your own role and even have an influence on the direction of the whole company.

Originally published at on October 27, 2015.