I Survived 2016 — So What?

(Not all life lessons come written in a fancy font on Instagram)

By Craig Gorsline

If you’re reading this, it means you’ve made another lap around the sun and as we begin the first full work day of 2017, it’s time to reflect on the year that was. And oh, what a year it was. In the last week, I’ve read more than a few articles and blog posts that say essentially the same thing: “Thanks 2016, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

No one would ever accuse me of being a Pollyanna, but I’m looking on the bright side here. Even if 2016 left many of us whiplashed, not all life lessons come written in a fancy font on Instagram. Some kick you right in the teeth. Here are some tough lessons from 2016, and what it means for those of us with people, organizations and big changes to lead in 2017.

1) Culture Comes First. Always. Our biggest failures of 2016 weren’t the result of a lackluster strategy, poor planning, bad data or overreaching ambition. At ThoughtWorks, when we did go sideways in 2016, it was often because we ignored our culture. Because of that we likely lost some good people, we needed to have some uncomfortable conversations and as a result were faced with a few difficult decisions. But I can say, without question, that every damn good thing that happened this year was a direct result of our enduring values of inclusivity and tolerance differentiated by diversity.

Let me be blunt: If your company culture sucks, you’re at a tremendous disadvantage. And by culture, I don’t mean foosball tables and break room birthday cakes. I mean the values — written, shared, known and upheld — that drive every decision, new hire and change (especially the difficult ones). Every outcome in an organization can be traced back to culture. So as you reflect on your own company’s ups and downs of 2016 — think about how your culture created — and will continue to create — the conditions for growth and success, or frustration and failure.

2) Technology Is Not A Tool. Let’s be clear: technology is not an initiative, a department, a title or job for the geeks in the basement. If you’re not in the technology business, you’re not going to be in business. This year, our greatest success stories aren’t about building apps or digital products, they’re about rebuilding brands to put technology at the core of their business.

Look at Domino’s Pizza Enterprises, headquartered in Brisbane, Australia. Over the past few years, their CEO Don Meij has sponsored a broad technology-led transformation. Today, the Domino’s Pizza brand is recognized around the world as one of the most innovative companies delivering better pizza through zero-click ordering, emojis, Pizza Mogul, and soon, driverless cars and drones.

But the Domino’s of the world are still rare. Far more organizations are still constipated around bi-modal IT departments tasked with keeping the engine running while developing digital products and services. The future is multiplex IT, or what we call Tech@CoreTM, where technological capability is threaded through everything from sourcing and supply chain, to manufacturing and marketing, to customer service and cash wrap. This requires a technological capability of hardware, software, people and process — and it’s remarkable how few organizations are set up to do this.

Becoming a technology company requires a major shift in mindset and yes, culture.

3) What you can’t see can hurt you. Shoppers have shifted toward brands (Amazon, Uber, Starbucks) that make transacting nearly invisible and switching nearly impossible. These brands removed consideration and choice from the buying equation and created habits that are tough to break. And with that, market disruptors become market dominators. In this new world order, retailers are becoming platforms, and platforms are becoming integrated commerce ecosystems where product, service, experience and transactions merge.

The future of commerce is marked by the total disruption of everything we know: product, buyer, suppliers, distribution and purchase process. Consider 2016 and 2017 the R&D phase for blockchain, voice command, chatbots, touchless transactions, associate-less stores like Amazon Go, and drone delivery; we’re just scratching the surface of commerce to come. But a wait and see approach won’t work. Brands need to engage and actively participate in the design, development, and testing of new commerce platforms.

Bottom line: Consumers are adopting seamless, integrated commerce models more quickly than most companies can keep up. Think about where this leaves you.

4) Question everything. Assume nothing. Question the data. Question the polls. Question the loudest voices and the boldest headlines.

2016 handed us more than a few plot twists and I’m not talking about Westworld. Fake news. Brexit. Trump. The rise of xenophobia and violent nationalism. What does this mean for businesses that rely on free and open trade and talent from all over the world to remain competitive? What does this mean for business leaders?

Make your values clearer than ever. Put them on the front page of your website. Commit publicly to diversity at every level, make equal pay your policy, reject discrimination and stand in solidarity with marginalized people. Vehemently defend free speech, an Open Internet and net neutrality. Don’t apologize. Be hyper-transparent about your successes and failures, your corporate policies and practices — and if something gives you pause — change it. Now.

2016 wasn’t easy. But these tough lessons have underscored my values, the shared values of our leadership team, and the 4000 people we call ThoughtWorkers all over the world.

Here’s to 2017. May we all be better. Together.

PS…if you want to see what ThoughtWorks has been up to in 2016 — have a look at this year-end video for a look back.

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