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Digital transformation has now also taken a firm grip on our personal lives. More and more fundamental questions are arising. To deal with them confidently, we need background knowledge and a desire to shape things.

By Holger Volland, chairman brand eins.

If Germany were a company, then perhaps Nokia or Quelle. Both were once extremely successful, led the market for a long time and are now only half the size or have been broken up and sold. And both were victims of a common management mistake – the innovation dilemma.

In a nutshell: Most of a company’s resources are put into the existing business, what could disrupt the core business is eliminated, current returns are optimised. There is neither time nor energy for innovations that could provide future revenues when the core business is slowly dying. But, as the uncomfortable question in almost all companies goes, should we really wantonly endanger the current business by taking away resources from it to put into uncertain, error-prone and margin-less new developments? In innovation projects with a completely open outcome?

Digital transformation. Aim to disrupt!
Illustration: Alexander Glandien

Should we really put resources into uncertain, error-prone and margin-less new developments?

Digitale Transformation
Photo: Tima Miroshnichenko

In theory, there can only be one answer: Yes! In practice, we decide to grow those teams, instead, that create the best turnover, or to continuously improve existing products through minimal further development. Even when the core business is already slipping, we reflexively look for ways to shore it up with even more money and time. Why do we do this?

Because we are doing without that one so important person who vehemently holds a different opinion than the majority of the management. When it comes to transformation, such professional disruptors often come into the company as digital ministers or chief digital officers, innovation managers or change directors. brand eins describes these change agents time and again.

But it is not enough to have them. Such disruptive fault managers can only be successful if they are given enough power and resources (or if they found a start-up and there is no core business yet). Germany’s first and only Digital Minister of State, Dorothee Bär, had neither, and so her office unfortunately remained largely ineffective. Volker Wissing has more power and has renamed the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure the “Federal Ministry for Digital Affairs and Transport BMDV” – which means that digital has already made it ahead of transport, at least in name. But the minister is likely to come into conflict with the different roles so often that the necessary speed of change can hardly be achieved. Are dilapidated motorway bridges more important or radio holes? Is 12.5 billion euros for trunk roads in the right proportion to 1.2 billion euros for digital infrastructure?

Fault managers can only be successful if they are given enough power and resources.

Digital transformation within an existing system is painful and requires sacrifices. To master it successfully, committed players are needed who demand uncompromisingness and are ready for permanent battles with the established. It needs conflict and not consensus. Because transformation also means working against the structures that have functioned well so far, the successes achieved so far (and yes, also the turnover or voters’ votes). Those who want to strengthen the new must first part with the tried and tested. In December 2021, we did an entire brand eins issue on how to get rid of ballast. You won’t be surprised to learn that the winners are often those who courageously invest money and time in the uncertainty of the future instead of the security of the present.

Digital transformation within an existing system needs committed players who demand uncompromisingness and are ready for permanent battles with the established. It needs conflict and not consensus.

Unfortunately, new German government is not following this example when it comes to digital policy. The ‘traffic light coalition’ has missed the chance to create a real digital ministry. Yet Germany still regularly falls short in digital rankings, especially when it comes to network speeds and coverage. The lack of digital administration is also remarkable in a global comparison: in Nuremberg, people currently wait up to six months for the necessary physical office appointment, for example, for an ID card renewal. Every Corona wave overtaxes the infrastructures of educational institutions or health offices anew. I could list endless examples of grievances that a genuine digital ministry could finally address differently than the previous confusion of federal and ministerial division of tasks has managed to do. However, it would also need a person at the top who is willing to disrupt.

Because we won’t get this sorted out so quickly at the political level, what is the situation in your company? Are there already troublemakers there, or do you take on the role yourself? I am curious about your experiences.

More from brand eins

This article was originally published the brand eins newsletter on digitalisation, which you can subscribe to here (in German)


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