Companies behind on digital transformation get ahead with open leaders

Profound changes are afoot. Leading your organization through them requires an open approach.
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scrabble letters: "time for change"

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(Editor's note: The newest volume in the Open Organization book series, The Open Organization Leaders Manual, Second Edition, debuts today at This is the book's introduction.)

Disruption is "existential," notes an article from professional service provider Wolters Kluwer. It's not just an organizational design issue. It cuts straight to the core of who we are, how we see ourselves, and what we contribute to our environments. Today, the furious pace of disruption is forcing executives to make existential decisions and commit to them much faster than they've anticipated.

One source of that disruption is digitization. Digitization is reshaping the way we lead, manage, and work. Even in the scope of the last decade, we've seen rapid adjustments to how we live, connect, and receive services. While we've been discussing ad nauseum how (or whether) we should be redefining organizational cultures and business models, the clock has been ticking, and the pace of digitization has not been slowing. In his book The Digital Matrix: New Rules for Business Transformation Through Technology, author Venkat Venkatraman argues that, by 2025, differences between digital and non-digital functions, processes, and business models will no longer exist.

So what's the top priority for leaders in business today? Understanding the existential impacts digital transformation is having on every aspect of human life, and addressing the immediate need to reshape the way we work, organize, and do business. In other words: changing our organizational cultures and developing people capable of thriving in these conditions.

It'll take nothing less than immediate action. We need to change the way we work and lead our organizations into this new era.

But culture change is hard, and organizational redesign takes time—at least, that's what nearly every leader says when we agree change is either necessary or inevitable. The major problem is not that we can't agree change is needed; it's that we're standing on past methodologies, processes, and mindsets to make decisions about how to address and engage the change of today and beyond.

Why is this observation so critical?

Old playbooks and models (for leadership, for business, for people development) that have previously garnered success are no longer effective. Relying on these, I often say, is like expecting your emerging technology to work on the bandwidth and speed of dial-up service from 1997. They're not quite up to the task of meeting speed, demand, and performance outcomes. Contemporary "best practices" are unable to meet the demands of the present, let alone the future. We require new ways of doing things in order to lead in the digital age of rapid change. In fact, I would argue that your success beyond 2020 depends on them.

We need to change the way we work and lead our organizations into this new era.

So if we agree we need to change and develop competencies for engaging rapid change, then how do we proceed?

Open principles and processes—and ultimately open organizations—are vital to the success of digital transformation efforts. By creating space for the key tenets of open (transparency, adaptability, collaboration, inclusivity, and community) to be infused in our workplaces, we can then begin to engage change continuously throughout the entire organization (not just on your DevOps teams).

Change needn't be difficult. It is only as difficult as we choose it to be. As leaders, we are ultimately responsible for empowering those around us to engage change, new information, and uncertainty with a measure of ease. We need to guide them as we discover the new details, to provide support as routines are disrupted, to help new voices be heard, and to create places where people feel they belong to something greater.

The "simplest" entry point for large-scale change in your organization the way your teams work and the processes they use to solve problems. As Jim Whitehurst writes in The Open Organization, while conventional organizations utilize a top-down approach to driving change, open organizations take a bottom-up approach to addressing what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. This means (among other things) beginning the work of culture change by fueling passion and uniting everyone under a common purpose while sourcing collective wisdom and collaborating to turn the great ideas into actions. Only then can our organizations function as fully engaged and empowered ecosystems catalyzed by inclusive decision-making.

Change needn't be difficult. It is only as difficult as we choose it to be.

Open (and all that open entails) is also the key to our global future.

Implementing open values, principles, and processes into all facets of our lives—such as culture (both organizational and societal) education, access to information, co-creation models, engineering, and computing—is the best way to build a balanced and free society that paves the way not only for future technological advances but also new ways of working together to build our world.

If you're still uncertain about the value of openness, I would immediately point you back to the very book you're currently reading. It's a prime example of how an open, collaborative, inclusive project works. A distributed group spread across multiple industries, with varied experiences and working styles, can combine their individual talents to co-create a valuable resource based solely on a shared set of well-defined values in a community (see Appendix).

As you continue learning about open leadership—and, ultimately, open culturethis book will provide tools and insights you can use to begin changing how you work.

Jen Kelchner
Jen Kelchner is a thought leader on culture, leadership, and digital transformation. She has been featured in Forbes,, Google Cloud, Red Hat, Enterprisers Project and other publications.

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