A Tech-First Culture Boosts Resilience. So How Can More Leaders Build One?  

Technology and InnovationLeadership StrategiesCulture RiskTechnology, Data, and DigitalCulture Analytics
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September 01, 2022
5 min read
Technology and InnovationLeadership StrategiesCulture RiskTechnology, Data, and DigitalCulture Analytics
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We need to talk about technology. Why? Because too many organizations are still a long way from building truly tech-enabled and data-enabled businesses, despite pouring trillions of dollars into transformation efforts over the past decade. And that’s now a career-critical problem for any CEO, CxO, or board leader today.

There’s an urgent need to change the rhetoric around technology—and leaders have a crucial role to play in this discussion. It’s well known that tech-driven innovation maximizes profits and fends off competition. But here’s what’s less obvious (and absolutely true): an organizational culture that breeds an enterprise-wide curiosity and capability around technology—what we call a ‘tech-first culture’—is more resilient, able to duck and dive any threat that comes its way.

As the world spins faster than ever before, and new challenges emerge almost daily, the risks of being on the wrong side of the digital divide are higher than ever. Being tech-forward is no longer a choice. For nearly every company on the planet, it has truly become a do-or-die decision.

So, what needs to shift?  

At RRA, our position as advisors to the world’s top leaders has allowed us to understand just what it takes to enable real technology transformation. We have witnessed some spectacular success stories—and seen a huge number of efforts fail. Each success is a unique story. But each failure tends to have a common theme: leaders struggle to cross the digital divide because they didn’t build the tech-forward cultures they needed to fuel innovation and change.  

Here, we lay out a few simple principles for what it takes to cultivate a culture in which technological innovations and evolutions are more likely to happen—and the payoffs that await those who do.   

 

What does it take to create a tech-first culture?

An organization’s culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is the result of many internal and external influences. But we know that the top leadership team casts a long shadow. The board, the CEO, and the wider executive team all play significant roles in evolving a culture and setting the tone of the entire organization.  

In a tech-first culture, technology is not the exclusive domain of the CDO, CTO, or CIO. Instead, every leader is a technology champion. The entire C-suite—from the CHRO and CMO to the CFO and COO—aligns around the same vision for change and works in tandem to deliver it across their teams. It becomes the air the organization breathes, allowing leaders to fast-track change and make sustained progress for the long haul.  

In tech-first cultures, failures are not viewed as failures, but data points that help define the journey to success. Executives who were once paid to not make mistakes now need permission to color outside the lines. What needs to change in your culture to empower everyone to innovate more and find new paths to growth?

Five ways to build a tech-first culture  

01. Destigmatize failures: Encourage teams to test new solutions and cultivate a fail-fast mentality. This leads to teachable moments that build trust and provide the psychological safety for innovation to thrive.  

02. Solve complex challenges: Provide the time, resources, and platforms for your people to tackle thorny, real-world problems, either through core projects or partnerships.

03. Embrace “open source”: Give your people the freedom to foster collaborative relationships with customers, partners, suppliers, and even competitors to develop new ideas and solutions.  

04. Learn, constantly: Find innovative ways to support employees’ personal and professional development, beyond their direct area of expertise.  

05. Integrate teams: Structure teams across “horizontals,” break down silos, and create opportunities for cross-fertilization of ideas and initiatives.  

 

The pay-off: Why it’s time to adopt a tech-first culture

The fundamental lesson of the past three years is that fundamental change is possible. Organizations can adapt quickly when a fire is under their feet. Covid-19 was the catalyst for technological (and cultural) changes that seemed, in 2019, beyond the realm of imagining.  

While the pace of change has accelerated, organizations are still a long way from embedding truly tech-first cultures. Yes, we now have the infrastructure to support remote working or customer support—something that would have seemed impossible just two years ago. But we are seeing many organizations still reeling, waiting for the next crisis, and not appreciating the full magnitude of lessons learned.  

As the global economy now threatens to lurch towards further volatility, the risks of being on the wrong side of the digital divide are clear.

In a recent survey of more than 500 C-suite leaders around the world, we found organizations that have engaged constructively with the opportunities of digital are better prepared for economic ups and downs.  

It showed that the organizations most likely to be prepared for economic headwinds are:  

375 %

more likely to work in cultures that engage constructively with digital failure—and can pivot quickly to test new solutions

154 %

more likely to say their organization is on pace with peers in adopting digital technologies 

56 %

more likely to take risks to stay ahead of their competitors 

Source: Russell Reynolds Associates, Global Leadership Monitor 2022

 

Clearly, CEOs who can quickly shift their operating models, products, or services in response to unexpected events will be better equipped for long-term survival. So, what’s holding leaders back from building the cultures they need to accelerate transformation efforts—and make change stick?  

The vast majority of leaders we speak to worry that pivoting their company culture is too big a problem to solve. While it does take concerted action, change is possible. And we now have clear evidence of leaders from around the world who have taken the leap of faith and committed to the journey by building tech-first cultures that prize innovation—and unlocked myriad personal and business advantages along the way.

With that in mind, the question needs to shift from what happens if we fail, to what do we miss out on if we do not try?  

 

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