You can't lead a digital transformation alone

Stijn Viaene

By Stijn Viaene

Professor of Digital Transformation

18 June 2018

The success of your digital transformation depends on the agility of your organisation. You need to constantly evaluate opportunities and take action, preferably faster than your competitors. This is where the leadership challenges lie. Together with his team, Professor Stijn Viaene has developed a leadership model and a game, the Digital Transformation Leaders Game. This is a light-hearted way of gaining insights into the different types of leadership which contribute to the success of your digital transformation.


Four types of leadership

“If the digital transformation is to succeed,” begins Stijn, “it must have the support of everyone in the organisation. Digital transformation is rather like turning a tanker; it's not something that can be achieved by a mere handful of people, let alone one individual. Our model therefore regards leadership as the connection and mobilisation of people and ideas in order to detect opportunities and make the most of them.”

The Digital Leadership Model, or 4V model, distinguishes between four types of leadership:

  • Vigilant: leaders who take on this role are trying to navigate their way through turbulent times of digital disruption. They are constantly scanning the environment, including far beyond the boundaries of their organisation or sector, looking for ideas and opportunities.
  • Voyager: this type of leadership succeeds in tapping into the creativity of individuals and teams, turning abstract opportunities into concrete solutions through experimentation. 
  • Visionary: leaders who take on this role paint a convincing and ambitious picture of a successful digital company. They make sure that everyone in the organisation feels as if they are striving towards a common goal.
  • Vested: this type of leadership actually puts the entire organisation, like a well-oiled machine, on the path to successful digital transformation.
Digital Leadership Model

Leadership is a team effort

Stijn emphasises that this isn't about leadership styles. “Our model defines a specific type of leadership as a set of behaviours. It’s what you do that determines the type of leadership you demonstrate and the leadership role you adopt. As a result, it has nothing to do with personality styles or with introvert or extrovert leaders.”

He follows: “Each type can't be traced back to a single individual either, but stems from close collaboration between a group of people who are spread across the organisation. Of course you can be good at more than one role, but I've never met anyone who could combine all four.”

Nothing beats experience

The model is accompanied by a game. Why? “We are constantly looking for new and more effective ways to teach theoretical concepts and models,” answers Stijn. “We now know that gamification leads to the faster and better absorption of knowledge. So while you can explain these kinds of models, which we do, during the game the participants actually get to experience what we mean in practice.”

Three rounds

The game revolves around the digital transformation of a fictitious bank and consists of three rounds. The participants are divided into small groups, each with their own assignment or project – developing a specific app, setting up the bank branch of the future, outlining the IT strategy etc. At the end of the journey, all these projects must naturally fit together.

“In the first round, we throw the participants in at the deep end,” says Stijn. “Under time pressure, they have to make all kinds of decisions while being faced with unexpected events on a regular basis. They soon realise that coordinating these initiatives is no easy task. The second round is a moment of reflection. We touch on a sore point: if you aren't tackling the transformation in an integrated way, end-to-end, then you're not actually transforming at all. We show how the various roles in the model can solve the problems which they encountered during the first round. Finally, during the third round they experience how it feels to assimilate these four roles and collaborate, instead of rushing forward blindly and tackling problems on their own, predictable though it may seem.”

For anyone who feels the calling

The half-day course really gets to the essence of a successful digital transformation. A huge achievement, and Stijn is rightly proud of this new formula.

So who is this course intended for exactly? “The model reveals the answer,” he says. “For anyone who wants to play a pioneering role, in any department and at any level in the organisation – it's for managers and non-managers alike. After all, leadership is behaviour and in this model it is separated from your position or hierarchical responsibilities. It's about what you do, not what's on your card.”

Ready to put things into practice

Will the participants actually be able to put things into practice after this half-day course? “Definitely,” confirms Stijn. “Not only will they understand the model, they will also be able translate it into the context of their own organisation. In addition, they will be able to profile themselves and their colleagues as one or more of the four types. And, not unimportantly, they will be able to enter into ‘coalitions’. As we already mentioned, these four leadership roles will ideally comprise different people (spread across the company) who collaborate, learning while doing and sharing best practices. So yes, even after half a day they will be ready to put the model into practice.”

Not a blank slate

“The good thing about our model is that you can apply it without turning your whole organisation upside down – precisely because we have freed leadership from its traditional place in the organisation,” concludes Stijn. “We apply an extra ‘layer’ on top of the existing structures, as it were. And as long as you put enough weight on it, this extra layer can break through the silos.”

How did our participants experience the Digital Transformation Leaders Game?

Oliver Regidor, Digital Transformation Programme Manager at Argenta:
“What I loved? The fact that we were confronted with new information and challenges over and over, making the game quite unpredictable yet so realistic. It also kept us focused. What I found particularly innovative and inspiring was the focus on leadership types – when people talk about digital transformation, they usually talk about technology or agile approaches. After the game, we immediately decided to put the theory into practice! We recently swapped the program-project structure of our digital transformation initiative for a start-up organisation, with small, independent teams that do not necessarily follow the sometimes cumbersome, traditional Argenta procedures. The teams are directed by a leadership team that establishes the vision, strategy and approach to be followed. In the first phase, each of the four team members will take on a different leadership role. In the future, one person may even be able to combine several roles, but for now, we want to gain some experience.”

Elisabeth Østreng, consulting engineer at Statnett, the Norwegian TSO:
“One of the good things about the game was that this fictional company operated in an industry completely different from the one I work in. This made it easier to think outside the box as you don’t feel constrained by what you know. Mind you, at times it was quite challenging and, dare I say, chaotic, because the context changed faster than it would in real life. Then again, in reality you often don’t get much time to asses a situation and take decisions either. So, the game was like reality on speed. Besides, the different leadership roles were also quite recognisable, we all knew colleagues that fit into one of the four types. But the real eye-opener was that, for digital transformation to succeed, we should connect and collaborate more. We should reach out to our customers and other stakeholders in our ecosystem. But not only that: we all tend to work in the silos of our own departments, especially in large companies. We also need to find ways to better connect with our colleagues!”

Bram Mommers, Global Director Digital Asset Lifecycle at Arcadis:
“It was a painful reality check. Various groups were formed and each group was assigned a task. We quickly realised that working together was a must, yet we all remained on our own little island. When we did eventually join forces, we all continued to focus on our personal perspectives and interests. As you can imagine, it was not long before we were all ignoring what everyone else said. Not to mention the wasted effort – people were fretting about things that were entirely beside the point. In a nutshell, you could tell it was really difficult. You could see us struggling to find a common language. That really struck a chord with me. Day in, day out, we try to get everyone on the same wavelength and filter away the irrelevancies and misunderstandings, because they are incredibly counterproductive. To me, that is the greatest added value of the game - it highlights the struggle. I don’t know whether people realise that is the way it is for many organisations.”
So, if the game failed to give him new insights, what made it so valuable? “Identifying with the topic helps you pinpoint and label what you feel. When you’re struggling with something and you meet people facing the same issues, you suddenly realise you’re not alone. That allows you to find meaning in your problems and address them with more confidence. That is exactly how the game works.”

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Stijn Viaene

Stijn Viaene

Professor of Digital Transformation