Stay curious – Survive digital Darwinism

More and more industries are being challenged by outside forces that use digital solutions and knowledge to overthrow the existing way of doings things. We often refer to this as Digital Darwinism.

One of the key reasons why this can happen to companies and whole industries is that many leaders are surprised by the turn of events. They haven’t seen it coming, and they’re seriously underestimating the impact of a digital evolution. I’ve written in the past about how banks are in dire straits today, with a large number of millennials preferring to bank with companies like Apple and Google.

Staying in the comfort zone

This is a common thread in many industries and one of the main reasons for this is that a lot of people in senior positions lack curiosity. They stay within their sphere of comfort and rarely let any new ideas afflict them. They pay little interest to changes in society, especially the changes brought on by new technology. And if you dismiss the digital and social developments of the last decade as unimportant of course you’re in for a big surprise when they become cornerstones of the transformation.

I was happy to read in a recent HBR post that some top managers, both today and in the past, have actually embraced curiosity as an important trait of being a leader. Warren Berger quotes Walt Disney saying that his company managed to keep innovating ”because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”. Some more recent leaders that share the same attitude towards curiosity are Reed Hastings of Netflix, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Square, as well as Michael Dell.

Curiosity has of course always been an important reason why companies are created, but Berger argues that it’s also plays an important role at established companies. He quotes Panera Bread’s CEO Ron Shaich saying ”These days, a leader’s primary occupation must be to discover the future”.

Understanding change

That’s all well and good, but in order to discover what the future really holds you have to step outside your comfort zone. One very clear lesson from industries that have been transformed through digital change is that the driving forces was not something the leaders were aware of or, if they knew about it, took very seriously. One very good example of this is how the music industry was transformed by the arrival of mp3 technology and file sharing. Both technologies had been decades in the making, yet hardly anyone in the music industry saw them as risks. If you want to find out more about this dramatic change, a very interesting book came out this summer: How music got free by Stephen Witt.

My point is this: If you’re a senior manager you need to stay curious, and not only in the affairs of your own industry or culture. Digital darwinism means that the companies that are best prepared to change and adapt will survive. If you want to be ready for change, you need to understand what is happening around you and be prepared to act on that. To do this you must keep the proverbial ear to the ground and listen for changes throughout society and on a global level. Changes to any industry can come from any part of the globe, and digital knows few boundaries.

Survival and a readiness to face the future requires being curious, and have a broad intake of information on an everyday basis. Not hanging out with people that share the same attitudes and backgrounds.

Over to you

What’s your take on this? Is being curious an important part of leadership? Or is it something that top management can do without?

And if you’ve read this far, thanks! You might like some of my other posts on this site. If you have any questions or want to get in touch, send me an e-mail. Or find me on Twitter as @PStaunstrup.


Image source: Angelia Sims, Flickr

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