Tag Archives: optimizing digital

How to Drive Digital Transformation when You’re Not a Digital Expert : Addressing the Reverse Hierarchy of Understanding

In my last post I described some of the biggest challenges to a traditional enterprise trying to drive digital transformation. This isn’t just the usual “this stuff is hard” blather – there are real hurdles for the traditional large enterprise trying to do digital well. The pace of change and frictionless competition drive organizations used to winning through “weight of metal” not agility, crazy. The need for customer-centricity penalizes organizations setup in careful siloes. And these very real hurdles are exacerbated by the way digital often creates poor decision-making in otherwise skilled organizations because of what I termed the reverse hierarchy of understanding.

The reverse hierarchy of understanding is a pretty simple concept. Organizations work best when the most senior folks know the most about the business. When, in other words, knowledge and seniority track. For the most part (and despite a penchant for folks lower down in the organization to always think otherwise), I think they do track rather well in most companies. That, at least, has been my fairly consistent experience.

There are, of course, many pockets of specialized knowledge in a large company where knowledge and seniority don’t track. The CFO may not be able to drive TM1. The CTO probably doesn’t know Swift. That’s not a problem. However, when something is both strategic and core to the business, it’s critical that knowledge and seniority track appropriately. If they don’t, then it’s hard for the enterprise to make good decisions. The people who are usually empowered to make decisions aren’t as qualified as they typically are, and the folks who have the specific knowledge probably don’t have either the strategic skills or business understanding to fill-in. And, of course, they probably don’t have the power either.

Digital can create exactly this inversion in the appropriate hierarchy of decision-making in the traditional enterprise, and it does so at many levels in the organization. Digital has become strategic and core far more rapidly than most large organizations can adapt, creating reverse hierarchies of understanding that can cripple efforts to do digital better.

So if you want to transform a traditional business and you know your organization has a reverse hierarchy of understanding (or maybe just a complete lack of understanding at every level), what do you do?

There’s not one answer of course. No magic key to unlocking the secret to digital transformation. And I’ve written plenty of stuff previously on ways to do digital better – all of which still applies. But here are some strategies that I think might help – strategies geared toward tackling the specific problem created by reverse hierarchies of understanding.



I’m sensitive to the many draw-backs to incubating digital inside a larger organization. If incubation succeeds, then it creates long-term integration challenges. It potentially retards the growth of digital expertise in the main business and it may even cannibalize what digital knowledge there is in the organization. These are all real negatives. Despite that, I’ve seen incubation work fairly effectively as a strategy. Incubation creates a protected pocket in the organization that can be staffed and setup in a way that creates the desired knowledge hierarchy through most levels.  Would I always recommend incubation? Absolutely not. In many organizations, years of at least partial learning and transfusions of outside talent have created enough digital savvy so that incubation is unnecessary and probably undesirable. If digital knowledge in your organization is still nascent and particularly if you have layers of management still skeptical or negative to digital, then incubation is a strategy to consider.



And speaking of talent transfusions, the role of appropriate hiring in effectively transforming the organization can hardly be overstated. The best, simplest and most impactful way to address the reverse hierarchy of understanding is to…fix the problem. And the easiest way to fix the problem is by hiring folks with deep digital understanding at multiple levels of the organization. In some cases, of course, this means hiring someone to run digital. If you’re a traditional enterprise looking to hire a chief digital officer, the natural place to look is to organization’s that are great in digital – especially the companies that dominate the Web and that we all, rightly, admire. I tell my clients that’s a mistake. It’s not that those folks aren’t really good at digital; they are. What they aren’t good at is digital transformation. If you’ve grown up managing digital platforms and marketing for a digital pure-play, chances are you’re going to be massively frustrated trying to change a traditional enterprise. To drive transformation, you have to be a great coach. That isn’t at all the same as being a great player. In fact, not only isn’t it the same, it’s negatively correlated. The best coaches are almost NEVER the best players.

Getting the right person to lead digital isn’t the place where most organizations go wrong though. If you’re committed to digital transformation, you need to look for digital savvy in every hiring decision that is at all related to your digital enterprise. You need digital savvy in HR, in accounting, analytics, in customer, in supply chain, in branding and corporate communication. Etc. Etc. This is the long game, but it’s ultimately the most important game you’ll play in digital transformation – especially when you’re trying to drive transformation outside of massive disruption. In my last post, I mentioned FDR’s many efforts to prepare the U.S. for WWII before there was any political consensus for war. Every leader is constrained by the realities on the ground. Great leaders find ways to at least lay the essential groundwork for transformation BEFORE – not after – disaster strikes. You need to make sure that digital savvy becomes a basic qualifier for a wide range of positions in your organization.



Dare I say that analytics has the potential to play a decisive role in solving the reverse hierarchy of understanding? Well, at the very least, it can be a powerful tool. In a normal hierarchy of understanding, seniority comes pre-loaded with better intuitions. Intuitions born of both experience and selection. And those intuitions, naturally, drive to better decisions. It’s darn hard to replace those intuitions, but analytics is a great leveler. A good analyst may not be quite the decision-maker that an experienced expert is – but at the very least a good analyst equipped with relevant data will come much closer to that level of competent decisioning than would otherwise be possible.

Thankfully, this works both ways. Where senior decision-makers can’t rely on their experience and knowledge, they, too, benefit from analytics to close the gap. An executive willing to look at analytics and learn may not be quite in the league of an experienced digital expert, but they can come surprisingly close.

This works all up and down the organization.

So how do you get your team using analytics? I addressed this in depth in a series of posts on building analytic culture. Read this and this. It’s good stuff. But here’s a simple management technique that can help drive your whole team to start using analytics. Every time there’s an argument over something, instead of voicing an opinion, ask for the numbers. If your team is debating whether to deliver Feature X or Feature Y in digital, ask questions like “What do our customers say is more important?” or “Which do high-value customers say they’ll use more?”

Ask questions about what gets used more. About whether people like an experience. About whether people who do something are actually more likely to convert. If you keep asking questions, eventually people are going to start getting used to thinking this way and will start asking (and answering) the questions themselves.

Way back in the early days of Semphonic, I often had junior programmers ask me how to do some coding task. At the time, I was still a pretty solid programmer with years of experience writing commercial software in C++. But since I wasn’t actively programming and my memory tends to be a bit short-term, I almost never just knew the answer. Instead, I’d ask Google. Almost always, I could find some code that solved the problem with only a few minutes’ search. Usually, we’d do this together staring at my screen. Eventually, they got the message and bypassed me by looking for code directly on Google.

That’s a win.

Nowadays, programmers do this automatically. But back in the aughts, I had to teach programmers that the easiest way to solve most coding problems is to find examples on Google. In ten years, looking at digital analytics and voice of customer will be second-nature throughout your organization.  But for right now, if you can make your team do the analytics work to answer the types of questions I’ve outlined above, you’ll have dramatically raised the level of digital sophistication in your organization. This isn’t as foreign to most good enterprise leaders as I used to think. Sure, folks at the top of most companies are used to offering their opinions. But they’re also pretty experienced at having to make decisions in areas where they aren’t that expert and they know that asking questions is a powerful tool for pushing people to demonstrate (or arrive at) understanding. The key is knowing the right questions to ask. In digital, that usually means asking customer-focused questions like the one’s I enumerated above.



I’m probably too deeply involved in the sausage-making to give good advice on how organizations should use consulting to drive transformation. But here’s a few pointers that I think are worth bearing in mind. Consulting is a tempting way to solve a reverse hierarchy of understanding. You can bring in hired guns to build a digital strategy or drive specific digital initiatives. And if you’re lucky or choose wisely, there’s no reason why consultants can’t provide real benefits – helping speed up digital initiatives and supplement your organizational expertise. I genuinely believe we do this on a pretty consistent basis. Nevertheless, consultants don’t fix the problems created by a reverse hierarchy of understanding; they are, at best, a band aid. Not only is it too expensive to pay consultants to make your decisions on a continuing basis, it just doesn’t work very well. There are so many reasons why it doesn’t work well that I can attempt only a very partial enumeration: outside of a specific project, your consultant’s KPIs are almost never well aligned with your KPIs (we’re measured by how much stuff we sell), it’s difficult to integrate consultants into a chain of command and often damaging if you try too hard to do so, consultants can become a crutch for weaker managers, and consultants rarely understand your business well enough to make detailed tactical decisions.

Don’t get me wrong. Building talent internally takes time and there aren’t many traditional enterprises where I wouldn’t honestly recommend the thoughtful use of consulting services to help drive digital transformation. Just don’t lose sight of the fact that most of the work is always going to be yours.


That last sentence probably rings true across every kind of problem! And while digital transformation is legitimately hard and some of the challenges digital presents ARE different, it’s good to keep in mind that in many respects it is just another problem.

I’ve never believed in one “right” organization, and when it comes to digital transformation there are strong arguments both for and against incubation. I think a decision around incubation ultimately comes down to whether digital needs protection or just expertise. If the former, incubation is probably necessary. If the latter, it may not be. Similarly, we’re all used to the idea that if we need new expertise in an organization we probably have to hire it. But digital introduces two twists. First, the best candidate to lead a digital transformation isn’t necessarily the best digital candidate. Second, real digital transformation doesn’t just come from having a leader or a digital organization. You should bake digital qualifications into hiring at almost every level of your organization. It’s the long game, but it will make a huge difference. And when it comes to leveling the playing field when faced with a reverse hierarchy of knowledge, remember that analytics is your friend. Teaching the organization to use analytics doesn’t require you to be an analytics wizard. It mostly demands that you ask the right questions. Over and over. Finally, and this really is no different in digital transformation than anywhere else, consulting is kind of like a cold medicine – it fixes symptoms but it doesn’t cure the disease. That doesn’t mean I don’t want my bottle of Nyquil handy when I have a cold! It just means I know I won’t wake up all better. The mere fact of a reverse hierarchy of understanding can make over-reliance on consulting a temptation. When you’re used to knowing better than everyone, it’s kind of scary when you don’t. Make sure your digital strategy includes thought about the way to use and not abuse your consulting partners (and no, don’t expect that to come from even the best consultants).

Keep these four lessons in mind, and you’re at least half-way to a real strategy for transformation.