August 26, 2023

In the digital world,

Success is about being willing to explore what you don’t know

Can your organizational culture move from the “doubt of the benefit” to the “benefit of the doubt”?

Disruptive change not only increases stress, uncertainty, and risk but it also enables individuals to retreat to what they know rather than explore what they don’t know. This is not only a death knell to successful new innovations, but it also undermines building a culture of creativity and collaboration.

Ed Catmull, long time head of Pixar Studios, put it this way, “Our natural tendency is to avoid or minimize risks. This instinct leads executives to choose to copy previous successes rather than try to create something brand new.”

The scope and speed of disruption from digital technologies is forcing companies to discover new ways to engage with their customers, employees, supply chain partners, and even their competitors. The five waves of digital disruption (social, mobile, cloud, data analytics, and connected devices) are completely altering how people connect, communicate, and discover information. These new tools affect how customers make decisions, which affect their entire customer journey, which ultimately affects their customer lifetime value.

To successfully compete in this new environment, you have to build an organizational culture that excels at moving from the “doubt of the benefit” to the “benefit of the doubt”.

To effectively compete as a digital enterprise requires new ways of discovering a path to yes.

Creating a culture that inspires seeking the benefit of the doubt requires a commitment to finding paths to yes instead of no.

Shantanu Narayen, CEO of Adobe, says that “if you can connect the dots between where you are today and where you think things are going, you’re probably not being aspirational enough. You have to plant this flag of ‘why can’t we do this?’ and give your employees freedom to amaze you with their ingenuity.”

In implementing this approach at Adobe, new product development teams are given “a license to be curious.” They can basically go off and explore any good idea that creates powerful features that large numbers of customers will happily pay for. Adobe has built an enterprise-wide culture that “takes a lot of pride in being a company that has to reinvent itself constantly.”

Many CEOs are not digitally native so there is a lot they have to learn by exploring the unknown. Fernando Gonzalez, CEO of Cemex, a global building materials company, did this by spending time with experts in technology-enabled business transformations, attending digital technology focused executive education programs, and reading widely.

He used that knowledge to align his board and senior leadership team around a new business development effort called Cemex Go, the first one-stop customer platform in the industry which was launched in 2017. By 2019, Cemex Go had achieved 96% adoption among the company’s repeat customers and was delivering 45% of its annual sales.

Are you creating the last best version of the old model or the first best version of the new model?

A good starting point to successfully make this shift is a clear and concise statement of the intent to do so. For example, when Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft in 2014, he clearly stated that the company was going to pivot from its current business model (on premise on desktop) to its new business model (Cloud first Mobile first). This gave unfettered permission to all Microsoft employees to develop and deliver a series of new products and services along with a new operating model, businesses processes, and go-to-market gameplan that delivered one of the greatest business turnarounds ever.

Another way to make this transformative shift is to move from imitating best practices to creating next practices.

The Executive Next Practices Institute, a think-tank of hundreds of top executives and thought leaders, have described the differences this way:

  • Best practices are past driven – repetitive formulas for tactical business problems.
  • Next practices are future-driven strategic solutions that enable you to better anticipate and respond to disruptive issues that have embedded uncertainties, risks, and variables.

In my work with C-Suite Executives, we have developed our own descriptions of the difference between best and next practices as shown on the chart below:

Some next practices to help you successfully explore what you don’t know

In working with different companies over the past several years to help them explore what they don’t know, I have seen a series of next practices that increase the odds of success.

  • You need to gain cross-enterprise alignment and support for a digital-first business growth strategy and implementation plan.
    • The competitive landscape is changing so fast that anything less than an all-in approach will likely fail.
  • You need to create a culture of continuous learning and experimentation and be willing to fail fast and learn fast.
  • You need to be able to leverage data and analytics to identify and create entirely new customer services and experiences.
  • You need to be able to construct and orchestrate business partner networks and ecosystems that leverage the competitive benefits of assets you don’t own and directly control.
  • You need to have the resolve to sacrifice short term revenue and earnings in order to create sustainable long term competitive advantage.

The stakes have never been higher for the need that companies have to explore thoughtfully and purposefully what they don’t know. The continuous waves of organizational and operating disruptions brought by new digital technologies are redefining the ground rules for success.  If you are a leader who has the vision, resolve, and commitment to experiment and learn from these next practices, I’d welcome the opportunity to help you achieve that goal.

As always, I am interested in your comments, feedback and perspectives on the ideas put forth in this blog. Please e-mail them to on LinkedIn. And, if this content could be useful to someone you know please share it here: