Digital transformation projects need leadership. So what is the difference between top-down and bottom-up leadership? As a concept, bottom-up leadership emerged from the egalitarian ideals that swept the Western world in the 20th century. These emphasise participation as a means of drawing on all the skills and knowledge an organisation’s employees have to offer. But while bottom-up leadership is often framed as the path toward innovation, top-down approaches have always remained important in practice and may even be seeing an ideological resurgence.
Top-down leaders set a clear direction – one that does not always value everyone’s input equally – but crucially, they do listen when it helps with innovation. Steve Jobs, for instance, famously directed the consumer tech market through singular products and design choices that were Apple’s own, rarely ever listening to focus groups or chasing existing trends. This led to Apple becoming one of the world’s most successful companies and the most widely recognised brand in the world. When he launched the iPhone back in 2007, the manner in which he presented his thinking about how the iPhone came about was a very top-down approach. He recited, with laser sharp precision, details of why and how he wanted to create his first smartphones to be far more than just a phone married to some email capability. His crystal clear vision was to give the customer a communications device that integrated all three of Apple’s successes (computers, software, iTouch/iPod) into a single product – in addition to the phone element. So, he/they set about pulling together all of Apple’s innovations (the widescreen iPod with touch controls, software and a computer) into a revolutionary product that we know today as the iPhone.
If he had taken the bottom-up approach, they’d have viewed it differently: a bit like Blackberry did, in a way. It seems that the company took its very successful phone and push-email services and chased fickle consumer market trends that ate away into its established success when it decided to tactically add elements to the product.
The same applies to digital transformation – you can not just add elements as you go along to feed the needs of your employees or the business whilst trying to answer market trends. The board-level roles are extremely important in establishing a visionary view of how you want your business to be in this Fast IT environment of immediate communications, transactions, deliveries, and payments etc. As I mentioned in my last post, it is fine to have one person leading the digital transformation, and many great digital deployments have a single figurehead, but I believe it is better to have a group of people, all of whom are invested in the project, driving the whole outcome. This group is ideally composed of people from different functional groups across the business, not just technologists. And that’s because each member of the group needs to keep their eye on how their function can contribute to the overall objective. If you don’t take a holistic approach, then all you will do is undertake discrete digital projects that will probably not end up reaping the full benefits of digital transformation. In fact, you are probably more likely to fail with a lot of these digital transformations because the style of an individual department within the organisation changes year-on-year, which has an effect on other parts of the organisation.
The circle is vicious if you take this ‘treatment’ approach to business processes that juxtapose other processes in your company. Therefore, you cannot look at it from a bottom-up perspective that stems from individual functions or inputs. It really should be based on an enterprise-wide view of your company’s strategic outcomes, and this is where Fujitsu’s co-creation approach comes in, as well as the digital consultant – which I will be talking about more in my next blog post. Having someone on your board that can answer your ‘Steve Jobs-like’ questions and provide a roadmap to success will empower you to become a visionary leader who understands market trends, and addresses employee needs whilst building digital momentum. So, in essence, the bottom-up approach will not work for your digital transformation projects, because business processes cannot be dealt with tactically in today’s multi-faceted business technology environment. Not if you truly want to succeed.
Have you missed some of my blog series on avoiding the 10 pitfalls of digital transformation? If so please read the full series here: https://blog.global.fujitsu.com/?s=Pitfalls