Image courtesy of Dave Herholz

Digital Darwinism: If Your Business Isn’t Agile, It’s Dying

Rapid response to change is key to survival in today’s digital culture

Disruptive technological and societal shifts are forcing businesses to reimagine themselves. Joe and I discuss why your business motto should be “change or die” — and what to do about it.

Kate: Good morning, Joe! In our last discussion about iPad Pro and Millennials, we ended the conversation with you saying, “If you want to still be doing business in five years, you can’t ignore the onward march of technology and how it intersects with culture.” I said that we’d cover that in our next talk. But frankly, that sentence makes me exhausted. I don’t want to talk about it.

Joe: [laughs] It is overwhelming, even a bit terrifying. But we all feel it bubbling under the surface. It’s time to talk.

Kate: Culture, technology — these are massive concepts. People don’t have time to stay abreast of everything. How should we approach this?

Joe: Luckily, the answers are out there if you know what to look for. This idea of “change or die” is summed up by the newish business term: Digital Darwinism.

Kate: Sounds like a corporate buzzword.

Joe: Well, jargon aside, it is on point.

Digital Darwinism is when technology and society evolve faster than your ability to adapt.

Kate: It’s “death to the unfit,” rather than “survival of the fittest.” So what does it mean to be “digitally fit”?

Joe: I think it means that it’s not enough to just be the strongest or even the smartest. In a rapidly changing environment, you’ve got to be agile.

Kate: Agile meaning fast?

Joe: Yes and No. Agile means nimble, responsive, rolling with the punches and adapting as you go. Darwin’s theory of evolution described biological changes that had happened over millions of years, a vast span of time where slow environmental changes were the main driver of transformations.

In today’s business climate, what felt “fast” fifty years ago, say an industry changing over the course of a decade, is now a glacial pace. Modern businesses don’t have the luxury of waiting out the decade or even coasting along for half. The waves of digital disruption affecting businesses today are hitting the shore hour-by-hour, not annually.

Kate: Ok. It’s faster, and ongoing. What you’re saying is that in a world that changes rapidly, it’s to your benefit to be responsive.

Joe: Yes. Today’s businesses are under a lot of pressure not just to keep up but to also be fresh, to innovate, to integrate the next new thing. It can be exhausting. There’s a term for that too: change saturation.

Kate: That sounds like a heavy, wet towel dripping “change” all over the floor. It sounds messy. And I suppose it is if they’ve been working like “we need this thing, now!” You’re always under the gun. Stress levels are high.

Joe: Well, the pace is constant, but the stress doesn’t have to be. It’s all about how the organization is structured — the stress happens if your process doesn’t allow for flexibility. You can build business processes that not only leaves room for change but expects it. That is the key.

Kate: So this concept of building a business that is ready to handle change… Is this a new thing?

Joe: No, not at all. Many industries have spent a lot of time and treasure figuring out how to bake in flexibility for continuous improvement or adaptation into their businesses. Kanban and Toyota’s Six Rules would be one example that immediately comes to mind. That started up in the 1950s as a technique for improving efficiency by increasing communication of vital business information. A report of what’s happening out in the wide-world spurs a change of course in production. In a nutshell, being “flexible” means having a tight feedback loop between that information and action.

Kate: So how is that different from what businesses have been doing for decades?

Joe: For one, the increased speed of change means that the pace of the reaction is also exponentially faster. It would be like trying to use the techniques and talent that won you the Kentucky Derby to go out and win the Indy 500. Or to put a rocket into orbit. It’s just a totally different game.

Also, the change is pervasive. Digital disruption affects all industries. This need for a tighter feedback loop isn’t limited to manufacturing, or even to software development which fostered the rise of techniques like Scrum and Agile.

Agile Methodology was born in the 1990s, when the software development industry was working to solve a problem: by the time a big software project was finished, it was already off the mark, because their understanding of the problem and what’s needed to solve it had changed during the long period of time it took them to build the solution. They needed to tighten the feedback loop between making something and knowing if that something was the right thing.

Kate: So what is Agile, and why did it come out of software, and not some other industry?

Joe: The software development industry may have defined and named Agile, but the concepts are not all new. There are twelve principles in Agile, one of which is regular adaptation to changing circumstances. Any business that depends on unpredictable factors, like the weather or the actions of other people, has a process for adapting as needed. Software development is complex and ever-changing because it is dependent on humans who are notoriously unpredictable.

Kate: So, part of being agile is making decisions using the best knowledge you have at the time, knowing that you may get different information later.

Joe: Right. The basic ideas of Agile are now being adopted by the mainstream business culture. Agility allows businesses to get to customers first, to test and adapt based on actual customer use, to end up with a better product. But most of all, agility alters the fundamental way that change is created inside an organization: small bites, as frequently as possible.

Every type of work from the making of things to the making of ideas, all industries and all sectors are now being swept by the rising tide of the digital disruption. It’s changing the game for everyone, and it’s creating a new landscape where only those agile companies will survive — what we’ve been calling The New Frontier at Sparktivity for the last couple of years.

Kate: But businesses need to change more than just their processes if they want to stay relevant. Don’t they need to invest in new technologies and tools in order to make the turn?

Joe: Well, it’s not usually worth it for businesses to invest heavily in anything large, technology included, unless it’s adaptable to the inevitable change that will occur. I’ve seen it countless times where people get all fired up about change, the Internet, agility, “innovation”, and so on, but they make the big mistake of making major investment without really understand what they’re tackling.

Kate: That makes sense. So how does one go about beginning this process without major missteps?

Joe: By having a strategy for Digital Transformation.

Kate: Ugh. Sounds like another awful buzzword.

Joe: [laughs] It is, but it’s the ticket to finding answers about surviving Digital Darwinism. Digital Transformation is not just about using technology to improve the way you work, though that is a part of it. “Transformation” means reimagining how a company conducts business across all departments. The thing I always say is that spending money on technology or people is the easy part. Actually looking into the storm of digital disruption and contemplating how to adapt, often means considering major, challenging shake-ups. It takes white-knuckle commitment sometimes.

Kate: So, a business can’t just hire a firm or an agency to do their Digital Transformation…

Joe: It doesn’t work like that. You can work with an advisor or a coach, sure, but the Digital Transformation needs to be driven from within, from the top level of a business. Companies need total buy-in at the top to not just launch change, but to ensure the culture of the business is ready to endure continuous evolution.

Kate: So, who runs a change like that?

Joe: It can come from many parts of an organization. Usually, technologists in the company are involved. It’s not called “Digital Transformation” for nothing! But actually, I’ve never seen it work well when the Digital Transformation work is led solely by traditional IT departments.

The best efforts are championed by strong leaders on the business side, people who have a sense of the way the wind is blowing in their specific industry. If you’ve got that, you can make great progress, even if the organization doesn’t have an in-house lead technologist. We’ve absolutely seen smaller and mid-sized organizations pair up an engaged organization leader with an outsourced team of technologists (like us) to help kickstart aspects of the change effort, especially in the beginning.

Kate: What sorts of aspects?

Joe: Firms like Sparktivity have the technology industry expertise that businesses may lack in-house. We help small and mid-sized teams with their Digital Transformation by providing strategy as well as implementation. It always starts with a thorough examination of their current resources. There are no “one-size-fits-all” solutions in Digital Transformation. Sometimes we’ll suggest improvements and actually implement the changes by building customized solutions. In that sense, we’re sort of a design/build technology firm.

Kate: But it’s not something we can just set up and hand over the keys, like a house, right?

Joe: Correct. The way we work is to embed with the client’s team and seek out a “true believer” in-house champion who can have ownership over the project and be responsible for that constant evolution. What I want is that person in the organization who is agitating for the changes, who would do it themselves already if they just had someone to show them the way. We’ve found that if we do every step of the design/build work with this champion and their team, side-by-side, the outcomes can be deeply empowering for the organization, And, quite satisfying for us too, actually.

Kate: That part sounds intimidating to me. Like, even if I’m not a techie I have to learn how to code.

Joe: [laughs] Well, you should know just a little bit about making software, even if you’re never, ever going to do it. I mean, you likely have a vague idea of how genetics work, even though you’d never dream of trying to bioengineer a disease-resistant organism, right?

Kate: Yeah. That kind of stuff was required in school. Are public schools teaching coding now?

Joe: If not yet, they will.

Software powers the world now, but it shouldn’t be intimidating. It is not magic — don’t let it hold hostile power over you! Software is just science and electrons and people having opinions.

But that’s a little beside the point. What Digital Transformation is really about is that people need to feel empowered. While not every employee in an organization is going to need to know how to write code, it will be necessary for businesses to have their resources in order, be that in-house or contracted.

Every company is now a software company. I don’t know who first said that, maybe someone at Computer Associates (who has been using that catchphrase to great effect lately), but it’s become commonplace language as businesses realize that technology is going to continually change everything over and over again. If you’re not using technology to your best advantage, someone else will.

Kate: That reminds me of something I saw recently. Some internal Facebook brand book states “If we don’t build the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will.” Which I thought was brilliant, to remind your employees of that.

Joe: Yeah, I’ve seen that. Facebook also says that “things that don’t stay relevant don’t even get the luxury of leaving ruins. They just disappear.” No fossils, not even empty space. It just gets filled by something else. Pretty stark, but it’s true. Apple has been a proponent of similar thinking for several years as well.

Kate: That’s Digital Darwinism right there. Sounds like an apt place to wrap up our discussion. Next time, let’s talk a little about how to begin a strategy for Digital Transformation.

Joe: Sure. Without a strategy, people end up spending time and money on the trappings of change, thinking that they’re doing the real thing. We should talk about that — how to know if you’re in a good place to start a real Digital Transformation.

Kate: Sounds great. Thanks!

Joe: Thank you.

*Note to our readers: See what we’re reading in this month’s “Notes from the New Frontier” article roundup.

Coming soon…

A discussion on how leaders can evaluate if their businesses are truly ready to tackle Digital Transformation in a meaningful way.

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Sparktivity is a technology and business services firm that helps ambitious organizations thrive amidst the rapid technological and social changes of today’s world. We do this by using technology as a force multiplier for teams, by syncing business systems, improving work processes, and clarifying communications.

Is your business ready for a Digital Transformation? Drop us a line.

Originally published at on January 13, 2016.