Why Digital Transformations Fail I – The Incumbent & Disruptor Dilemma

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In the first of the “why digital transformations fail” series, I want to highlight the rarely discussed incumbent and disruptor conundrum that are faced by many senior leadership executives and board members. In the same conversation, a few potential solutions are proposed to address this complex problem.

In the past decade, as many traditional companies facing disruption from young and dynamic upstart companies, they are forced to undergo transformations or to be specific, digital transformations. How did that happen? Most companies in traditional industries have been business as usual and put very little investment into their technological or digital infrastructure. When new digital companies started to infringe into traditional industries as logistics, banking, insurance and real estate, chief executives and board members have started to wake up, and realized that they need to do something.

As a practitioner, I have made a couple of observations to how I know when transformations fail. No digital transformation and even the ones which I have executed are without problems. Surprisingly, most of these problems are related to people and organizational structures. As I often put it in a succinct manner, “People love to talk about transformation but they hate to change.”

A picture of lions resting that I have taken in the Singapore zoo.

There are some problems relating to the execution of digital transformations which are well documented in Harvard Business Review along with other business periodicals and journals. But there are some deep issues that are prominent but are always swept under the carpet. When I sit in different private roundtables, these hidden problems are discussed by chief digital officers, chief information officers & chief innovation officers but if I probe deeper, they rarely surfaced to boards or business owners out there.

One specific problem that is rarely discussed is what I termed as the incumbent & disruptor dilemma in digital transformations. The best way to characterize is the following:

There is an incumbent with a declining business that is generating significant revenues (typically more than 30%) or profits (about 10% EBITA) and have either refuse to invest in digital technologies or suffer significant technical and management debt at the same time. The CEO brings in a disruptor in the form of the chief digital or transformation officer in the view to fix the declining business by turning it omni-channel with the use of digital technologies. The incumbent, out of fear to the disruptor eating his lunch, will set to find ways to stop the disruptor from succeeding by blocking resources or stonewalling the changes that need to be made for the business. As a result, the overall business suffer a loss of revenue with the disruptor leaving the company and the incumbent staying with the revenues declining further till the point of no return. The CEO and board have no choice but to explain the failure of the digital transformation and let the company die or get acquired.

The best way to think about this as I often do, is to think from different perspectives. I often adopt this approach because I have been sitting in the disruptor roles. Once you analyzed the different perspectives, you will realize why the incumbent and disruptor will act in different ways that accelerate the failing of the business unit and the mis-alignment of incentives is so glaring on hindsight.

A picture of the aquaduct that I have taken in Tokyo and that demonstrates how turbulent complex situations can be.

Let’s start from the disruptor first, because it’s the easiest and most instinctive from my point of view. The disruptor is mandated to bring digital technologies to shift the business into an omni-channel world where customers can access the same products and services. As everyone, building digital revenues takes time as we have witnessed money burning startups that can push the traditional business to their needs. Most companies are afraid to fight fire with fire because if they are public, the stakeholders will push them not to do that.

While it’s easy to buy or build technologies and platforms to augment into the traditional channels, the number one challenge remains for the disruptor is distribution. Distribution is important to how businesses succeed. What I mean by distribution here, is the sales and marketing channels that has enabled the traditional business to succeed in the past. The problem is that the disruptor does not own the distribution. Sometimes in order to achieve synergy to build more revenues for the businesses, the disruptor need to integrate his digital channels into the current operations or workflow of the traditional business. Hence in order for the disruptor to succeed, he needs the distribution and the operations workflow that integrate the digital channels as part of the ingredients to succeed. The other problem which the disruptor faces is what I call the “your revenue is insignificant” problem. If there is no investment, there is no growth, and if you don’t start to shift your business focus, the external forces such as well-funded cash burning startups by venture capitalists will threaten the business and send it to a downright spiral. Most boards and CEO love the 80:20 rule but in disruption, the 80:20 rule is inadequate for the overview of where the business is heading. They forgot how the company has succeeded when it was still a startup or upstart, and where they are now is different from the past.

How about the incumbent? The incumbent business owner is typically an older person who runs the business for a significant amount of time, and have optimized the operations and workflow of the business to ensure that it keeps generating the profits for the businesses. The incumbent is extremely fearful of the disruptor for a few reasons which anyone can totally understand from his or her perspectives.

First, the incumbent has to pay for the disruptor to exist. In most businesses, the CEO will coerce the incumbent to fund the disruptor’s businesses. If the disruptor succeeds, it means that the incumbent can be replaced. So, if you are the incumbent, what will you do? Of course, the natural instinct is a zero sum mentality. The disruptor has to lose in order for the incumbent to survive. Out of every ten situations, I am going to guess, nine out of ten CEOs will back the incumbent if the disruptor start to complain about the incumbent being not helpful. Two, the incumbent is not given the incentives to ensure the disruptor succeed. He or she is likely to be subjected to a 5-30% year on year growth for the business unit. There is no chance for him or her to succeed unless he or she cuts costs. Where do you think that he or she will cut? Of course, it’s the disruptor. By adopting a passive-aggressive stance on the disruptor, the incumbent can make the argument if the disruptor increases his or her costs, the incumbent is unlikely to hit his key performance indicators. Third, the incumbent is in a risk of losing his job if the disruptor succeeds. Most companies have no succession planning or provide incentives for the incumbent to go to their next roles or stage of careers. That’s probably why their only survival instinct is to make sure that the other guy do not succeed.

Very few incumbents in different businesses will want their disruptors to succeed. I have seen one or two incumbent business unit owners, but these people are the ones I truly respect because they see the success of the organization more important than themselves. I often go in that spirit but I have yet to see many incumbents really want to do the right thing. For myself to survive, I have decided that my role as the disruptor is just a tour of duty, given where I want to head (which is really not to work in the same organization for a very long time). My perspective is that I will hand the reins back to the incumbent when I am done with the digital transformation (despite the hostility).

That begs the question. Are there any potential solutions that can resolve this incumbent and disruptor dilemma? Here are a few solutions which I propose (based on my private discussions with various executives).

  • Give the disruptor the full P&L and the incumbent business unit: To me, this is a no-compromise situation and very few such situations happened in reality. It’s vertical integration in a way and of course, I favor this approach given that I have that situation once. This usually happens when the incumbent is totally working in a zero-sum mentality and will adopt passive-aggressive stances to slow things down. Here’s my argument why this works better than the other way round. Think of a business major, there’s very little chance that this person can run a technological and digital product team, but if you put a science or engineering major who has the right set of skills and expertise, and with the logic, you can learn easily what the business major can learn. The information asymmetry or specialization provides the disruptor the advantage to run a traditional business unit in adding the right digital products and integrate to change the supply chain that can build new revenues to a dying business. There is the extra motivation for the disruptor who will not attempt a complete overhaul but given the set of constraints to put incremental innovation that improves the business both in the short and long term.
  • The CEO and board have to create a set of stretched but realistic goals, targets and milestones that aligns the interests of the incumbent and disruptor: This is a middle of the road solution. Most executive leadership teams and boards adopted this approach but avoided the execution. The reason is that there are a set of difficult conversations which everyone from CEO, disruptor and incumbent have to agree to. A senior executive who I respected, suggest the concept of a shadow P&L that aligns the goals for both incumbent and disruptor. Let me take this idea a bit further and how this approach can work but require three ingredients coming together: (a) the CEO and board have to manage their expectations and adjust the growth targets for the incumbent and provide a budget for the disruptor to get things working, (b) the incumbent needs to provide a set of cost saving measures while retaining the profits without killing the golden goose of the company and (c) the disruptor has to first put the digital infrastructure in place to integrate into the existing distribution advantage of the incumbent and then generate the revenues. In fact, most of the time, these conversations never took place. How does the CEO convince the board about the hockey stick growth for why digital transformation will rejuvenate the business? This graph below from Bradley, Hirt and Smit’s “Strategy beyond the Hockey Stick” offers the realistic picture on how transformations create the long term value with those companies which made it work.
  • Put the disruptor reporting to the incumbent: This approach is very popular and fails 99% of the time (which I am pretty sure if the data exists). The reason is extremely simple. The incumbent will move forward business as usual, and has zero incentive to allow the disruptor to flourish. The digital integration is a form of window dressing and the incumbent has no incentive to change the current set of operations and processes because it is highly optimized till now.
  • Hide the disruptor somewhere and let it run like an independent company against the incumbent: It’s an interesting approach but very few companies has managed to do that because the first instinct from the board and executive leadership is to reintegrate the company into the current one. The approach is simple: hide the company from the incumbent and let it run like an independent startup till the point that it can challenge the incumbent. This obviously set up alarm bells for the incumbent and they will refuse to work with the independent disruptor sitting elsewhere. So, is there an example out there? Well, in the early days of Alibaba Group, Jack Ma took a team of engineers and create Taobao, which is a eBay like marketplace. They did not let the rest of their team know that it’s part of Alibaba till everyone in the company highlighted it as a threat against their other competitor, eBay China. Tencent’s Wechat is the other prominent example that shift the paradigm of the company from desktop to mobile messaging and killed their golden goose, QQ desktop messenger. It’s surprising that you have not seen similar examples from US companies. Why do you think that the General Motors and Fords out there have not created a Tesla competitor?
Picture credits: The realistic hockey stick growth achieved by successful companies based on data from Bradley, Hirt and Smit “Strategy beyond the Hockey Stick”

The incumbent & disruptor dilemma is a difficult subject which I suspect many companies have but are afraid to talk about it in a meaningful and thoughtful manner. I have yet to see upfront conversations on this topic across boards and executive leadership teams. However, most traditional companies are in the midst of their digital transformations and the threat of external competition might not be imperative to them.

To end, I like to leave this quote from Daenerys Targaryen, a fictional character from the “Game of Thrones” television series for those who are in board positions and executive leadership to think about the dilemma when it comes to disruption.

“They can live in my new world or they can die in their old one.”

– Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones.

Acknowledgments: I thank Charles Anderson and my wife Yuying Deng, together with many unnamed senior chief digital executives who I have discuss this topic on different occasions.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist

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4 thoughts on “Why Digital Transformations Fail I – The Incumbent & Disruptor Dilemma”

  1. The problem you’ve described is multifaceted.

    Let’s start from first principles. A business that needs to be “digitally transformed” (a phrase I find is quite meaningless) is one whose original premise of existence is less and less valid. If the business keeps to “this is the way we’ve always done this” and are not willing to make a change, should just be left in the pile of unevolved businesses.

    I’ve always felt that the ideas from biological evolution are great thought frameworks for organizations. In order to survive, one has to cut losses. Sometimes, it is a zero-sum game. It does not always have to be. The challenge of the incumbent throwing broken glass on the path of the disruptor is something that has to be called out from the get-go as unacceptable from the leadership/board. Failing to do so on the part of the leadership/board, imho, is being negligent from a process, governance, fiduciary view (is there any other angle?).

    I have used business school pronouncements not as a baseline for action and but for a source of ideas. They do not highlight some of the considerations that only show up in practise and not in the ivory tower research. Ultimately, it is the marketplace (or ecosystem) that decides the success or failure of a business.

  2. The article and Harish’s helpful additional comment allude to dimensions of this challenge that might be called ‘political’ with a small p. However, even if such issues are addressed through bold leadership and professional integrity by all involved, I suggest that at least one other dimension of challenge exists which might be called ‘conceptual’

    At the most practical level we currently lack widely-accepted, easy-to-apply methods to achieve what some call ‘innovation accounting’, i.e. methods to show whether an innovation is working and if so how well. There are of course metrics indicating, for example, online engagement in a new digital venture but, when a business model is still nascent and evolving, there is no simple way to translate them into comfortable proposals that suggest investing $X will return $Y over period Z months. So, steeped in ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’ thinking, operational business units focused on efficiency look at the experimentation and learning involved in disruptive innovation as sloppy, risky and undisciplined.

    On a more profound level ‘digital transformation’ is rarely about the digits, i.e. the technology. At the risk of offending every engineer reading this, the technology is the means-to-an-end which is the creation and capture of value. The ‘conceptual’ challenge of implementing digital transformation is thus also about everyone in a senior role getting comfortable with a paradigm shift in the business model. Perhaps the Kodak story illustrates this most clearly: the fall of this giant has often been represented unfairly and oversimplistically as a failure of senior management to see that a disruptive innovation originating partly in its own labs (digital photography) would render much of its established chemical business redundant. The truth is that Kodak did promote digital capture of images … but its managers couldn’t see beyond the idea that users would still want little rectangles of paper on which to view them. They still imagined that customers would go to their shops to get the digital images printed out in hard copy. The notion that the viewing of images digitally would become the norm escaped them. The concept that sharing images in an online social platform such as Instagram would wipe them out was so alien that they simply didn’t see it coming. So the conceptual challenge was a double failure of vision: first to understand the new consumption pattern of imagery (digital) and second to understand that vast additional value creation and capture around the digital sharing of imagery fueled by platform economics would catapult a little startup (Instagram) to billion dollar valuation in a year.

    No doubt other readers will identify additional dimensions of challenge to digital transformation beyond the ‘political’ and ‘conceptual’.

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