Real Digital Transformation Carries Real Dangers Of Over-Delegation
I’ve always enjoyed stories of incompetent bad guys. There’s perverse pleasure to be had in seeing inevitable justice handed out for the sin of immorality compounded by the sin of ineptitude. And so, I hope you don’t judge me too harshly for being guilty of excessive merriment on the recent story of the five Chinese hitmen.
In case you consume a higher quality of journalism than I do and therefore missed the story, here it is. In the fall of 2013 a Chinese real estate businessman named Qin Youhui was really mad at a rival businessman called Wei who was suing him, and wished that he’d just go away. As in disappear permanently, be rubbed out, sleep with the fishes. Being a proactive go-getter by nature he didn’t stop at the wishful thinking stage. He hired a hitman, Xi Guangan for 2m yuan ($280,000) to make Wei disappear. It’s a pretty straightforward but sordid tale so far, but wait, it gets better. The hitman, fully up to speed in today’s world of the gig economy, used half that money to hire another hitman, Mo Tianxiang. But Mo had learnt the same art of delegation and decided that he preferred the strategic levels to execution (sorry - couldn’t resist). He further outsourced the job to Yang Kangsheng, paying him $38,000 upfront and promising $71,000 later. Yang K. dallied on the job for a bit and the next year, subcontracted the killing to a fourth man, Yang Guangsheng. And yes, I kid you not, a few months later, Yang G. handed the hit to a fifth man, Ling Xiansi, for $14,000. At this point I know you’re just as amazed as I am. You’re thinking,
“With the price of everything skyrocketing, where do I find a hitman for only $14k?” Just kidding!
But in a way it's a lesson on not squeezing your suppliers too much, because Ling eventually left his intended victim Wei a note asking to meet at a coffee shop where Ling told Wei: “For just 100,000 yuan, I don’t want to kill you, but you have to cooperate with me.” The two of them faked Wei’s death, but I suspect Wei found the arrangement somewhat inconvenient, because he went to the police. In October, Nanning Intermediate People’s Court in Guangxi found the five hitmen and the original sponsor Youhui guilty, and handed out sentences from 2.7 to 5 years.
Why you can't over-delegate Digital Transformation either
Going from Chinese hitmen to digital transformation may be the world's biggest leap, but it's true. You cannot over-delegate that either. Here's why.
- Digital Transformation is the same as business strategy: As a board or a c-suite member if you're clear that real digital transformation is much more than simple automation I.e. It's a dramatic change in the company's business model itself, then you're on the right track for what I call stage 5 digital transformation in my book. You already know that your digital transformation strategy is the same as your business strategy, and as a board member or CEO you delegate or outsource that at your own peril.
- Digital Transformation execution requires hands-on guidance: My favorite story of a successful Digital Transformation is how Jeff Bezos turned around the Washington Post. His business strategy for the turn around was to invest in the editorial staff while turning the operation of the newspaper into a fine-tuned digital engine. He personally spent time with the Post's IT technology team to turn what was an average media IT organization into something that's as good as or better than anything in the top tier Silicon Valley players. He would personally speak multiple times a day with their technologists during the turn-around. Full Digital Transformation sponsorship isn't the same as an IT project sponsorship. It's personal team participation.
- Over-delegating Digital Transformation is essentially the same as enabling siloed execution: Large organizations are siloed and process-driven for a good reason. These structures are best for delivering stable and reliable performances, but during periods of limited change. In the pre-Bezos Washington Post, that was the equivalent of every function in the Post trying hard to improve itself. So perhaps the content area of the post was driving projects on tagging news, and the distribution function was working hard on improving the efficiency of newspaper delivery. But there wasn't a powerful vision and, more importantly, a powerful "owner" driving a dramatically different business model across all these functions. Which is why the Post went nowhere fast, until Bezos came along.
I'm convinced that one of the biggest issues with Digital Transformation is that it carries the word "digital" in it. In a world where technology changes so rapidly that even technologists feel inadequate daily, and where every adult is left cross-eyed by the speed and technical dexterity of the average teenager, it's inevitable that the board or CEO will reach out for technical help. That's perfectly legit. But what's not acceptable is outsourcing something that you don't understand. And while leaders may not understand how AI works or even how to use the latest snaptwitter social media app, they know better than anyone else their business model and their customer and their organization. And therefore, only they can lead the organizational charge to reinvent the machine that holds it all together. Delegating that is no different than hiring Chinese hitman #1. And we all know how well that turned out!
Go forth and transform.