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3 words to stop saying in your organization

I spend a lot of time interacting with boards and senior teams in leading corporations. In boardrooms and workshops, in strategy retreats and seminars, there are three words that of late you are guaranteed to hear. I usually play a mental ‘bingo’ game to count how many minutes it takes for the first of the three words to be mentioned.

What are the three words? Just these: digital, youth, and innovation.

If you are part of a leading business, I plead with you this Sunday to stop uttering these three words so often. They are confusing you and misleading you and they are making you say things rather than do them.

Now just wait a minute, I hear some of you splutter in outrage. You are the columnist, you shout, who repeatedly beats the drum, right here on this page, about the the huge challenges that face all businesses. You are the one pointing out that we all need to go digital to avoid being disrupted by rapid technological advances; you are the one warning us of demographic change and the burning need for a youth agenda; and you are the one pushing the need for innovation in products and business models to stay afloat and relevant.

Guilty as charged. And yes, the need to make your businesses wholeheartedly digital, youth-centred and innovative has not gone away. The three things are as important as ever. But I still want you to stop saying them. Or rather, I want you to stop saying them in the way that you are saying them.

Let me explain.

The world is indeed going digital at breakneck pace. Things that used to be utterly analogue are now reduced to bits and bytes: banking, money, payments, entertainment, media, shopping, professional advice and so much more. No doubt about it. You, too, must go digital.

But wait: this thing is so obvious that you have to stop saying it as though it’s a special thing, somewhere on the periphery, a future consideration. It is not – it is now the mainstream, and it is in the here and now. You don’t need to appoint someone called digital something-or-other; you don’t need a digital strategy. You need to make digital a way of life and absorb it in your core business and make it the key investment in your strategy. As I wrote here recently, digital vs analogue is a false distinction. Both are core to the future. Stop thinking of them in separate boxes. Your strategy by now needs to be unabashedly ‘digital’ as a matter of course. The word is no longer a new thing, and nor are the things that you need to be doing, like automating your internal workflows and going to market via real-time channels.

It’s the same with your ‘youth’ initiatives. Do you understand how young Africa is? If you are in the typical CEO age-group, do you realize that 90-95 per cent of Kenyans are younger than you? So no, you don’t need a youth strategy, or youth products, or youth initiatives. You need to understand that ‘youth’ is it. You will either be focused on the young, or you will be nothing. So think and act and invest for the youth. It’s not a thing; it’s the thing.

Finally, do you really think you need to have a special team, place or plan where you innovate? Innovation is not a special event, nor is it something done by a few clever people in a corner. It is something you have to embrace as a key everyday activity. Every employee, every day, in every way, in every place, needs to understand: we must change the way we do things to make them better. We don’t have a choice. So we don’t need an innovation strategy; we need to innovate as a habit. Your job as a leader is to create and encourage the habit.

The problem with repeatedly saying digital, youth and innovation as though they are special things is this: if you’re still saying them like that, you’ve probably missed the boat. The people who were saying them like that were doing that five years ago. Those who are indeed digital-first, youth-focused and innovation-driven are those things all the time now. They got it. They’re doing it. They’ve stopped talking about it.

(Sunday Nation, 11 June 2017)

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