Digital leadership: changing your whole approach, not just doing better digital projects

by Janet Hughes

The government has today to change the way it works. There is lots in the strategy to welcome, think about and debate, but at Doteveryone one aspect we’re particularly interested in and working on is digital leadership.

We want to make the internet work for everyone. For that to happen, our public, civic and business leaders need to become digital leaders — not just so that they can manage specifically digital programmes and projects, but so that they can make sure their entire organisations are relevant and effective in a digital age.

“The imperative is to change and to do so at pace and scale,” said Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer.

“This is the meaning of transformation. It is in essence a change of working, of culture and of disposition — changes that are made possible by digital technology. That technology is not change itself; it enables the change that is so transformative.”

To make this kind of transformation happen you need people at the top who understand that it’s not just about doing better digital projects, adopting the latest new technology, having a Twitter account or even automating your existing business processes or bringing in some technical experts. It’s about completely changing the way you think and work as a leader, and the way your whole organisation works (including, in some cases, considering whether the organisation needs to exist at all in its current form).

Digital leadership means embedding digital thinking and ways of working throughout the entire organisation. It means relentlessly focusing on making things better for users, at every level in the organisation. It means fostering an open, collaborative and responsive culture. It means wholeheartedly embracing and celebrating experiments, change and failure. It means showing boldness, empathy and humility while working at a much faster pace than most large organisations like the civil service have been used to or are capable of.

Leaders in the digital age must also actively take responsibility. They need to understand that they are connected to and can affect people’s lives in ways that were previously unimaginable. They must take privacy and security seriously, and understand the new and ever-changing landscape of threats and risks. They have to take care to understand the social and ethical impact and implications of what they’re doing, and of the changes that are happening in the world around them. They should know that they don’t have all the answers but keep asking searching, difficult questions.

All this calls for a completely new style of leadership in the civil service and across our economy: we need skilled, bold and open leaders who can adapt, learn and deliver at pace. This is as at least as much about what behaviours are encouraged and rewarded as it is about what specific knowledge and skills people are expected to have.

We know that leadership is lacking in business. In 2016, Harvard Business Review and MIT interviewed more than 1,000 CEOs from 131 countries and 27 industries. They found that ‘90% of executives surveyed believed their businesses were being disrupted or reinvented by digital business models, and 70% thought they did not have the right skills, leadership, or operating structure to adapt’. We reckon this pattern would be found in most sectors, not just businesses, and especially in the Civil Service — we’re going to do some research to find out.

In practice that might mean senior leaders simply don’t know where to start bringing their organisation into a digital age. They don’t know the right questions to ask, or what the most important issues are for their effort and attention. They don’t know how to spot over-ambitious, under-ambitious, irrelevant or failing digital efforts, or what good digital delivery looks like. Or they might be over-cautious about trying out digital ways of thinking and working because they don’t understand and therefore don’t trust them.

It also means services will continue to exclude people in huge numbers because of poor design and implementation.

And it can also mean leaders aren’t supporting or encouraging their employees to gain the skills and understanding they need to thrive in the digital economy, because they don’t know which skills are important and valuable or how to cultivate them in their organisation.

All these issues apply — and more so — in government, where leading civil servants have risen to the top through rigid career structures with no exposure to digital thinking or delivery, and departmental boundaries and traditions can make it even harder to adapt to change.

Today’s government strategy acknowledges that and promises to “work towards a future where everyone operates in a digital way.”

“It means having a generation of public servants of all professions who are confident working across organisational boundaries, understand the broader public policy context and who are equipped to identify and lead opportunities for radical digital change and reinvention.”

It’s an ambition Doteveryone shares, and we’d like to see this applied not just to those in Whitehall but to local authority leaders, headteachers, police commissioners and MPs amongst others.

Without radical and rapid change in public sector leadership, digital projects and programmes will remain piecemeal and will not have that transformative power the government aspires to.

An important first step is to have an open, constructive conversation about what effective leadership really looks like in a digital age, and what specific changes need to happen. This is needed not just in the civil service but across the public sector and in the private and civic sectors, too. Doteveryone is planning to help with this.

We’re going to be doing some research and having conversations with leaders to find out what they need and how we can help. We’ll be publishing some new work later this year to try and help define what effective digital leadership looks like, what leaders who aren’t from a technology or digital background need to understand and what they can do to change their own leadership and start to build truly digital organisations.

If you’re interested in this, please get in touch — we’re really keen to work with anyone who is thinking about these issues or has experiences and insights to share.

The more widely digital is understood at the top, the greater the chances of success in transforming government to make it work better for people. We’re looking forward to helping make this happen.