Slow and steady doesn’t always win the race – in some cases, revolutionary thinking and dramatic change are required. Currently, we are seeing huge upheavals in the digital world, both in industry-wide technology “uprisings” such as edge computing and artificial intelligence and across countless internal digital transformation projects where revolutionary innovation is igniting in a corner of a vertical or business. Whether American, French, Industrial or Digital, it’s impossible to precisely compare any one revolution to another like-for-like. However, it’s also true that they share many of the same core attributes that enabled them to create dramatic and wide-reaching change. We can study history to identify the building blocks that are vital for any organisation that feels the pressure to revolutionise their products, services, customer experience, or business model today.
All revolutions are started by people and driven by those who are committed enough to create change. In the world of business, the brand usually receives the plaudits. In some cases, the brand is the business, but with a few exceptions, it’s a single individual such as Steve Jobs and Richard Branson. Regardless, people are at the heart of every transformation. For every digital transformation project, there’s an employee who asked a question that no one had asked before, a department that had the desire to tackle a problem that no one thought possible or a customer whose experience or demands changed a service or a company forever.
All organisations today should be trying to identify these revolutionaries within their business and customer bases. The most successful digital transformation projects usually take place within businesses that listen to their employees, that encourage them to speak up, and where creative thinking and risk-taking is rewarded. After all, it only takes one person, or one team, to start a chain reaction that lifts a company to a place no one ever thought possible.
Revolutions don’t arise out of the blue. There has to be something to rebel against: taxation or control by a colonial power, an overbearing aristocracy, or simply an unbearable status quo. In business, this often means targeting incumbents who can be unseated by digital disruption – which is partly why half of the Fortune 500 from the year 2000 have now disappeared.
Today, consumers want a better life, new opportunities and, often, to break the chains of the establishment. These are perfect grounds for revolution. For instance, for years consumers were constrained by TV companies’ restricted programming, and then Netflix arrived on the scene delivering its huge library of content to subscribers on their terms. Further afield, Airbnb did the same for the hotel industry. Skyscanner transformed flight bookings and Transferwise changed international money transfers.
User expectations have changed fundamentally in the digital era, and businesses that don’t provide a truly exceptional end-user experience are ripe for disruption. One of the most common paths to success in recent years has been to target those industries and businesses that continually dissatisfy, and attempt to improve them.
It may have the people, and even an opposition, but often without a single spark to act as a catalyst, a revolution will simply rumble beneath the surface without ever truly erupting. Think of the Boston Tea Party or storming the Bastille – events that, at least now, are seen as the starting point of massive upheaval.
This spark can come from inside or outside the organisation – what is important is to recognise the opportunity it presents, and take advantage. For instance, in the 21st century, connectivity has become a great equaliser across organisations. Mobile technology, the internet and the world wide web have created the potential of massively interactive enterprises, where the business can engage with customers, workers, partners and even between machines – creating new experiences and opportunities with truly transformative potential.
Organisations that are watching for these sparks can act swiftly, and use them as a stepping stone before their revolution fizzles out.
A revolution cannot be meaningless, or it simply becomes chaos. Instead, it needs a worthy cause that creates goodwill and generates popular support. Think of the difference ideals such as “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” or “No taxation without representation” made to their respective revolutions. Similarly, any digital revolution needs to be based on a foundational goal. Take Amazon: it can lay claim to having one of the most profoundly disruptive digital revolutions of all time. Its business model of a customer-centric online shopping experience helped propel e-commerce to where it is today, and businesses in every industry have taken cues from its example.
None of this would have been possible had Amazon not put its customers front and centre and had a vision for how it could improve their lives. Knowing how your revolution will affect the experience of customers or end users is a must.
Passion may start a revolution and is essential to maintain it. But without effective leadership and direction, that initial uncompromising force can eventually fizzle out into nothing. The most successful revolutions have clearly defined objectives and strong, strategic leadership to ensure that they are met. Microsoft has twice been an example of this. It dominated the personal computer industry for years under Bill Gates. And more recently under Satya Nadella’s leadership, the company has reinvigorated its focus and is once again a major disruptive force in the tech industry. Every successful business needs strong leadership and direction, but during periods of intense change, this demand becomes even more acute.
There are always exceptions: revolutions that arise out of nowhere, and new business models that succeed against all the odds. However, for businesses considering a revolution, these building blocks can be the foundation of success. Businesses that aren’t considering change should think twice. The chances are that disruptors are gathering now, putting together a revolution of their own.
Matt Cain, CEO