September 2021 | Point of View

What athletic training can teach us about becoming a digital business

A change in everyday habits leads to digital business transformation

What athletic training can teach us about becoming a digital business

High-performing athletes push their bodies and minds to overcome odds, perform at the highest possible levels, and accomplish physical feats that most people wouldn’t dream possible. As a society, we look up to athletes like Serena and Venus Williams just as the business world admires digital brands like Amazon and Target.

How do high-performing athletes and businesses achieve these heights? They train, condition, invest, and overhaul their lives around a singular vision. 

If your goal is to be a high-performing athlete, simply practicing the sport more or joining a league isn’t enough—you will need to overhaul your sleep and diet routines, work-life balance, and every part of your life. The same goes for businesses undergoing their own digital transformation: Becoming a digital business isn’t doing one or two things—it’s changing the way you operate inside and out.  

It's well understood by now that every business needs to operate as a digital business. But companies have struggled to incorporate digital practices into their way of life. Many teams and projects are still operating in silos, disconnected from business goals, unable to iterate quickly, and fall short of customer expectations. As with athletic performance, there is no magic pill—or app in this case—that will transform your organization without a much bigger commitment.  

Here, we detail what it’s like to change your organization’s “lifestyle” to a digital way of operating.  

And while most people can’t be one of the Williams sisters, just about anyone could train to be a high-performing athlete. It would be hard. It would require a lot of change. But it is possible. So, too, is becoming a digital organization.

Digital is an identity, a set of habits you practice over time  

We believe digital isn’t something you do, but something you become. It’s not a box to be checked by launching a new app or redesigning a customer dashboard. It’s not solely the responsibility of tech teams or a chief digital officer. Your organization needs to be digital—everywhere.  

If they are not already there, organizations must completely reshape themselves as digital organizations, an effort that requires the same type of mindset and behavioral commitment to change as it would take to turn a casual jogger into a competitive marathon runner.  

Going from Point A to Point B means undertaking a transformational journey. And as with any high-performing athlete intent on achieving hard goals, organizations on their own path to becoming digital should expect a long journey with tough battles, some disappointing losses, and hard lessons. And they need to muster the large quantities of personal willpower and discipline needed to transform.  

To be ready for a marathon, the average jogger would need to invest in coaching, nutrition, stress management, and training. To be seriously competitive, they would need to collect and measure performance data, and invest in new and better equipment. They would need to work on specific goals to turn weaknesses into opportunities for even greater results. All of this would require a tremendous time investment—and put simply, an entire reorientation and restructuring to work toward that bigger vision.

We tell clients it’s not enough to push hard on one big project to check the box but have little to nothing else change. The average runner who wants to complete a marathon with a top finish time must adopt a full lifestyle change of sleep, diet, rest, training, performance review, hydration, stress management, and large investments of time and money. Organizations working to truly be digital face a similarly tall order.

They need to train and flex new muscles that will reinforce new behaviors—changing from older legacy ways of working to new integrated, digital ones. They need to change the minds of people internally and externally. And they need to rethink their operations—i.e., how to use and access data and how to deliver products and services seamlessly between digital and analog channels. To innovate and win, and not just compete, organizations must understand what’s before them and train to implement a truly digital operating model that enables and supports products and experiences that are fluid between the physical and digital worlds.

What does training to become digital look like?   

Just like an athlete’s training regime involves many different components that are all layered together to achieve a transformative outcome, becoming a digital organization encompasses new ways of operating both within and outside of the business.  

Adopting a digital lifestyle begins with a mindset. It takes digital thinking to drive real change and become a truly digital business. A global attitude of digital thinking within an organization means that regardless of the product or business problem being worked on, the approach is still the same: agile, iterative, and data-driven.

A digital mindset also includes keeping the end user—whether customer, employee, partner, or vendor—at the center of every decision you make. Not every digital decision, but every decision at the company. 

This new digital operating model is critical for real, lasting digital business results. It’s a hard lifestyle change, as so many things worth doing are. But if you’re ready to start seeing results instead of talking about it every year, then read on. 

Vision: What you want to achieve?

It all starts with a vision. For athletes and for companies.  

Where do you want to be? Who are your competitors? How will you beat them? What role do you want to play in consumers’ lives? How do you want to be remembered? 

Digital leaders have a clear vision that’s shared and understood across the entire organization. When done right, digital is baked into every part of the business, not a discrete line item in a plan. Every department and stakeholder of the vision should see the potential ROI of digital and understand how they can come together to contribute to the process. 

Digital organizations can set a long-term vision while at the same time being clear that their strategy to achieve that vision may evolve each quarter based on market and customer trends.  

A casual runner looking to become more competitive might develop a plan that involves running multiple races per year in order to get to where they want to go—improving their personal best times or qualifying for a topflight marathon. When circumstances change, like when new athletes come onto the scene and challenge what good looks like, they set new, higher standards.

For an organization, it’s no different. Envision the new state of being and then develop a plan for how to get there. It should be iterative, constant, and ever-changing to respond to new competitors. This should be clearly articulated, so everyone on the team knows the end goal and path to get there. 

Products and experiences: What you want to deliver?

What’s required to get there? How will you show up for teammates and fans? As an organization, for your employees and customers? What kind of experience do you want to deliver?  

For a runner, it might be training to run a 6-minute mile. For a healthcare provider, it might be improving patient experience, and in turn, satisfaction and retention. 

The secret is to fail fast and iterate so you can improve constantly, all with the goal of delivering experiences that people love. It’s not enough to meet people’s needs—to stand out, your experiences must go beyond expectations and surprise, delight, or over-deliver in a way that people weren’t expecting.   

For businesses, the products and experiences that are prioritized in accordance with the broader organizational vision must have end users at the center of the design, should be fluid between the physical and digital worlds, and rely on insights from data to constantly iterate and improve. In order to achieve this, employees need to work differently in cross-functional teams that transcend departments. And importantly, these teams need to stay together for the long term to continually iterate and improve to drive toward the organization's vision.

Data and tech: What tools you need to succeed?

For a runner to deliver on their “product” of a 6-minute mile, they will need to record a lot of information. What’s their current pace? Are they getting better? How often do they need to train and how often to rest to see optimal gains?  

They also need to regularly measure and review their performance, which means ensuring they have hardware devices like smartwatches and software that are synced to tracking apps. They need to have accurate data that answers the most important questions. And they need to be able to access the data and easily share with the coaches and teammates who need it to make decisions that will influence future goals.  

Businesses must also perfect their means of receiving data, answer the crucial questions needed to objectively measure performance, and ensure that everyone throughout the organization has access to support fast, decentralized decision-making that drives business outcomes. Data should be a part of every conversation, at every level of the organization.  

Just as teams in the digital operating model work cross-functionally, the same data must be centralized and available to everyone so that different divisions are not making decisions on different information. The organization needs to move as one toward the singular vision, using the same information. 

Business operations: What structure do you need to achieve?

With accurate performance tracking, a runner might learn about an opportunity that needs attention and can formulate a conditioning strategy to address it. This is where digitally-enabled operations can turn into engines for better business strategies and operations.  

Digitally operating organizations employ business strategies that are agile, flexible, and algorithmic where possible, so leaders and employees can focus time and energy on what differentiates them.  

Fine-tuning your business operations to focus on harvesting feedback—from data, employees, customers, and the market—and being able to use that information to make smart, strategic decisions is the difference between companies and athletes that are constantly improving from ones that stay static and see limited growth. 

Organization and people: Who will help get you there?  

Marathon runners often require a large team of supporting coaches and networks to reach the top of their fields. There are the gyms and facilities where they train. The friends who support and motivate them. And the coaches that help instill discipline and provide guidance.  

High-performing digital organizations have the talent and organizational conditions to thrive—together. Leadership does everything they can to support and empower multidisciplinary teams making data-driven decisions and iterate constantly on how they evolve and improve products, experiences, or overall business operations.

Leadership must also remain focused on building communities of employees, advisors, and a board that supports and promotes the “new way of life.” In this case, these signed-on supporters empower multidisciplinary teams to make data-driven decisions and iterate constantly on how they evolve and improve products, experiences, or overall business operations.

Making the digital lifestyle change involves everyone 

There is, of course, a key difference between a marathon runner in training and a company undergoing digital transformation. A runner, while supported by a whole ecosystem, is after individual results. Today’s businesses need to conceive a clear vision and defined goals so that everyone is moving toward a common goal and feels empowered to do so—all in the service of the end user.  

That means everything, including a relentless journey of digital conditioning, must be undertaken in the service of improving the customer experience. Some thought-starters:

  • Can you improve the supply chain to get products in the hands of consumers faster?  
  • Can you design new services to meet unmet or undiscovered needs?  
  • Can you take steps to ensure cohesion between the customer’s experience across online and offline channels?
  • Can you access real-time data to constantly fine-tune performance to better meet the needs of your customer?  

These are the questions that a digital operating model can help you answer with speed, specificity, and success. But it also represents a total operational overhaul for many organizations. It’s not enough to “do” digital by way of siloed departments or initiatives. Being a digital organization is an identity, a set of habits built over time.  

Understand that this is a major operational shift, and adopt the disciplined mentality shared by high-performing athletes and businesses in order to achieve even greater heights.

Don't do digital. Be digital.

It takes digital thinking to drive real change. Learn how you can stop failing at digital transformation projects and become a digital business.

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