Risk aversion, weak customer focus, and siloed mind-sets have long bedeviled organizations. In a digital world, solving these cultural problems is no longer optional.
Shortcomings in organizational culture are one of the main barriers to company success in the digital age. That is a central finding from McKinsey’s recent survey of global executives (Exhibit 1), which highlighted three digital-culture deficiencies: functional and departmental silos, a fear of taking risks, and difficulty forming and acting on a single view of the customer.
Each obstacle is a long-standing difficulty that has become more costly in the digital age. When risk aversion holds sway, under investment in strategic opportunities and sluggish responses to quick-changing customer needs and market dynamics can be the result. When a unified understanding of customers is lacking, companies struggle to mobilize employees around integrated touchpoints, journeys, and consistent experiences, while often failing to discern where to best place their bets as digital broadens customer choice and the actions companies can take in response. And when silos characterize the organization, responses to rapidly evolving customer needs are often too narrow, with key signals missed or acted upon too slowly, simply because they were seen by the wrong part of the company.
Can fixes to culture be made directly? Or does cultural change emerge as a matter of course as executives work to update strategy or improve processes?1In our experience, executives who wait for organizational cultures to change organically will move too slowly as digital penetration grows, blurs the boundaries between sectors, and boosts competitive intensity. Our research, which shows that cultural obstacles correlate clearly with negative economic performance (Exhibit 2), supports this view. So do the experiences of leading players such as BBVA, GE, and Nordstrom, which have shown what it looks like when companies support their digital strategies and investments with deliberate efforts to make their cultures more responsive to customers, more willing to take risks, and better connected across functions.
Executives must be proactive in shaping and measuring culture, approaching it with the same rigor and discipline with which they tackle operational transformations. This includes changing structural and tactical elements in an organization that run counter to the culture change they are trying to achieve. The critical cultural intervention points identified by respondents to our 2016 digital survey—risk aversion, customer focus, and silos—are a valuable road map for leaders seeking to persevere in reshaping their organization’s culture. The remainder of this article discusses each of these challenges in turn, spelling out a focused set of reinforcing practices to jump-start change.
Too often, management writers talk about risk in broad-brush terms, suggesting that if executives simply encourage experimentation and don’t punish failure, everything will take care of itself. But risk and failure profoundly challenge us as human beings. As Ed Catmull of Pixar said in a 2016 McKinsey Quarterly interview, “One of the things about failure is that it’s asymmetrical with respect to time. When you look back and see failure, you say, ‘It made me what I am!’ But looking forward, you think, ‘I don’t know what is going to happen and I don’t want to fail.’ The difficulty is that when you’re running an experiment, it’s forward looking. We have to try extra hard to make it safe to fail.”
The balancing act Catmull described applies to companies, perhaps even more than to individuals. Capital markets have typically been averse to investments that are hard to understand, that underperform, or that take a long time to reach fruition. And the digital era has complicated matters: On the one hand, willingness to experiment, adapt, and to invest in new, potentially risky areas has become critically important. On the other, taking risks has become more frightening because transparency is greater, competitive advantage is less durable, and the cost of failure is high, given the prevalence of winner-take-all dynamics.
Leaders hoping to strike the right balance have two critical priorities that are mutually reinforcing at a time when fast-follower strategies have become less safe. One is to embed a mind-set of risk taking and innovation through all ranks of the enterprise. The second is for executives themselves to act boldly once they have decided on a specific digital play—which may well require changing mind-sets about risk, and inspiring key executives and boards to think more like venture capitalists.