What should digital leaders be thinking about in 2021?

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez January 5, 2021 Audio version
It’s a new year and 2021 looks set to be filled with even more uncertainty, thanks to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital leaders need to focus.

Image of a list of 2021 goals
(Image by USA-Reiseblogger from Pixabay )

Whilst many of us spent most of last year willing on the onset of 2021, with the hope that the world may look a little more ‘normal', it's clear that even with the rollout of effective vaccines that COVID-19 is going to continue to cause disruption for months and years to come. And whilst in reality little has changed since December, a New Year does provide us (mentally, at least) with an opportunity to pause and think about our priorities for the year ahead. 

For the enterprise, and digital leaders, there is much to reflect on. Uncertainty is set to continue for the foreseeable future and if 2020 was about remaining agile enough to ride the wave(s), 2021 is going to be about setting a clear agenda for success for the years to come. 

In other words, it is likely hitting home now for companies that things won't return to ‘normal' anytime soon. Nor would that be a good thing, in many cases. With crisis comes opportunity and I think many have realised that COVID-19 has provided a chance to do things differently - better, even. 

I've already laid out some of the key technology considerations that the enterprise is likely to be facing this year, in a post that can be found here. However, it has struck me during the hours and hours of conversations with companies in the thick of it that whilst technology enablement for the ‘new normal' is a top priority, broader strategy considerations are at the fore. 

Things have changed, get over it

In the early months of the pandemic, there was a general sense amongst the digital leaders that we spoke to that they should ‘wait and see'. Yes, they often had shifted to remote working and were making do with what they had, but there wasn't an urgency for radical change. That has significantly shifted. 

The conversations we are having now are very much along the lines of ‘okay, things aren't going back to normal, what do we do about it?'. If you're in a position of leadership and your company is still hoping that things will revert back in 2021/22, then I suggest you need to sit and have a long hard think about what this will mean for your competitiveness in the coming years. An attitude adjustment is required. 

Long enough will have passed for new habits to be formed - both on the side of the consumer and on the side of the employee. The expectations of both have accelerated towards digital capability and flexibility, and companies need to place both customer and employee demands at the centre of their ongoing strategies. 

Defining a new strategy 

Okay, so you've had the necessary realisation. Now what? If you haven't already, the C-suite needs to be sitting down with their existing strategy teams and coming up with something new that fits with the realities of today. That doesn't necessarily mean entering new markets or changing your product - there's a difference between being opportunistic/desperate and being strategic. 

For instance, are you going to do about your office space? Once vaccinated, will your employees want to be in the office full time? Probably not. So, what does that look like for your company in the years to come? Does a mixed model of WFH and face-to-face work?

What do your hiring practices look like? If you're no longer restricted to a location-based strategy with remote working becoming the norm, how are you going to compete for talent globally? 

Are your customers getting the service that they need from you, with physical interactions limited? What does that mean for how you operate in the future? Do you have a plan to migrate to the cloud, if you aren't there already? Do your teams have the budgets and resources in place to make the necessary changes that are needed? 

How are you going to effectively communicate this new strategy with the organisation and get everyone on side? Simply put, it would do the world of good for enterprises to accept that new leadership is needed and to proactively address what is required. 

Defining culture is now essential 

Tied to the strategy above, it has never been more critical for companies to try and define what they want their company culture to look like (as hard as that may be). Culture is the fabric that ties a company together and often steers the decision making process. With remote working in play and the lack of face-to-face interaction, creating that fabric becomes more difficult. 

That being said, some of the things you should be thinking about include: what remote support do you have for employees that may be struggling in their work from home environments? What mental health services do you provide? How are you enabling employee resource groups? How are you ensuring employees ‘turn off' when 9-5 jobs are no longer physical? What training schemes are you going to offer? Gone are the days of fancy offices and free coffee as company ‘perks', so what can you do to make the work from home experience more enjoyable?

On the flip side, what additional support/flexibility are you providing to your customers? Does your corporate ethos ring true to your customers' current experience? How are you enabling proactive service? 

Don't assume that ‘culture' will just happen. It needs to be thought through. 

Investing in people 

It was notable during 2020 that the companies that were able to weather the storm were not only the ones that had been investing in their digital capability for years already, but were namely the ones that had placed their people front and centre. Invest in teams, not products. 

Whilst the talent pool will expand with remote working becoming the status quo, so will the competition for that talent. What is your strategy for bringing the people you want into the fold and for helping them excel in their roles? Where are your gaps in capability when thinking about the ‘new normal' and how are you going to effectively build those teams in this new remote work environment? How are you going to allow those teams to collaborate effectively and do you have the tools in place to do that? 

In addition to this, what does leadership and career progression in 2021 look like? Removing real-life interaction changes the nature of on the job learning and skills development. Not only this, but getting leadership in front of teams remotely creates new opportunities. 

If people aren't at the centre of your 2021 strategy, your strategy is already doomed. 

Looking in the rearview mirror won't help you

This point was raised by ThoughtSpot CEO Sudheesh Nair in a recent interview, where he was talking about how static historical data is becoming less and less relevant in 2021 - because so much has changed. What was true in 2019 won't necessarily be true this year. As such, companies need to break away from looking behind them and adopt a strategy that is thoughtful about the future. Nair's point related to data use, but it can more broadly be applied to all of the points above. 

Digital leaders need to drop all assumptions about what has worked before and think through a strategy that applies the art of what's possible now, along with allowing enough flexibility to adapt to changes that could be needed in the future.