Businesses getting back to basics in this digital age

Hipster businessman working on digital virtual screen and business strategy as concept, isolated on black background

Industries have developed around change, with their own language and orthodoxies. We seem to talk about digital transformation, target operating models, and agile organisations with great excitement.

I am regularly urged to invest in ‘AI-led transformation’ or opportunities to unleash the ‘power of Blockchain’. Even when we talk about leadership skills, we express this through agile management or emotional intelligence.

I am not saying that contemporary management thinking and new technologies are not useful, they evidently are. However, in the excitement of the digital revolution are we forgetting people act and think the same as they did thousands of years ago?

We’ve got the same ambitions, needs and fears, meaning the skills required to deliver change have not changed. Yet, professionals sometimes act as though business transformation suddenly appeared at the same time the internet was invented.

Businesses and societies have been changing since the dawn of time. When Julius Caesar became dictator of the Roman Empire he managed it, to my knowledge, without a Kanban board or a Blockchain solution.

So, to understand the qualities needed to truly transform an organisation, maybe we should take a step back and look at the characteristics of some of the greatest change leaders in history.

To start, little can be achieved without a clear purpose. Be it a laudable purpose driving Abraham Lincoln in the US civil war or President Lyndon B Johnson pushing for civil rights in the 1960s; great leaders need a ‘why’ to drive them forward. Although clarity of purpose is useless unless it is associated with power. Power is how you get things done.

Any proponent of change needs to have access to power. Either because they possess it in their own right or their purpose is supported by someone who can provide the power to progress.

History provides us with many successful drivers of change who acted as the ‘power behind the throne’ such as William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke. Marshal served five English kings, projecting his influence on to these leaders, instead of having direct power himself. Vision and power are all very well, but in the reality of organisational politics, it is highly unlikely anything will be achieved without compromise.

A quick look at current events in the UK reveals the complexity of achieving a vision without being willing to compromise. But if we jump back over 75 years ago, we can see the importance of compromise in the leadership of Dwight Eisenhower.

As the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, Eisenhower wasn’t a great soldier, but he was a brilliant diplomat. He knew his allies versus enemies and understood those he had power over and those whom he needed to compromise with. This meant he could unite generals who hated each other, to work towards a common goal.

Finally, a deep appreciation of risk is vital. In business, we aren’t confronted with the same personal peril a Roman general faced trying to overthrow an emperor.

But we should still think deeply about the potential consequences of our actions, most importantly on the wellbeing of those around us. This is not a paper-based ‘risk register’ exercise, but a more fundamental assessment of the impact of change.

Vision, power, compromise and risk – these concepts would probably have rung as true to Alexander the Great as it did Winston Churchill. In our own smaller endeavours, maybe we should remember these ideals rather than listening to the latest management craze.