How to Think Like a Digital Leader

While not every executive needs to have the digital chops of their CTO or CIO, a shift in mind-set is required to move at the speed that digital transformation requires.

by Sean Conner

While the leadership of digital-transformation initiatives often rests with the rising crop of digital officers, the mind-set they bring to their work is a valuable mental model for any business leader. As we put together the Productive Disruptor’s Playbook for Digital Transformation with the American Medical Association’s Todd Unger, he shared five principles that he uses to approach his work—digital or otherwise.

Think Growth

Whether explicitly or implicitly stated, Unger says many companies optimize around control, maintaining the status quo, or some other motive that inadvertently hinders growth. But the output of digital transformation is inherently about growth. “Growth is very addictive,” Unger says. “It’s really fun to see membership grow. It’s really fun to bring people onto your platform. It’s really fun to see your revenue grow, but not all organizations think like that.”

Think Big, Start Small, Learn Fast.

Unger’s second tenet comes straight from Chunka Mui, a futurist, innovation advisor, and managing director of the Devil’s Advocate Group. Digital work requires the team to work on two levels: balancing the audacity to think big with the discipline to start small and take quick steps toward that vision. By speeding up the work itself and decreasing batch size—the scope of the immediate work—teams are able to create a constant feedback loop that lets them pivot as new data and circumstances arise.



Test and Learn

The pace of digital work is facilitated in part by the instantaneous feedback that one receives through digital tools and systems. In short, almost everything can be measured. Unger stresses the need to view everything you’re producing as a test. The digital team at the AMA runs controlled experiments every day that clearly outline what they want to know and success criteria. “We’re constantly learning and putting that learning to use,” Unger says.

Guiltlessly Pivot

Unger says that a test-and-learn environment requires a certain selflessness; the best ideas are proven through rigorous experiments. Unger urges people to lean into the guiltless pivot, a term he picked up from James Madara, MD, the AMA’s CEO, which requires individuals to emotionally detach themselves from their ideas and know that the data will dictate what wins and what loses. In the case a digital initiative doesn’t live up to expectations, the guiltless pivot gives team members the clearance to not dwell on the past, but to start fixing the problem.

Kill Things that Don’t Work

“In a growth environment, there are likely a thousand things going on at the same time,” says Unger. “But any one of them, no matter how small it seems, is like a vampire, taking energy away from everything else.” Unger urges individuals at all levels of an organization to garner the courage to evaluate if something is working or not, and if the latter, to kill it. This permission must come from the top, but once people see it happening, it’s contagious. “There’s no shortage of work out there,” Unger says. “Be honest with yourselves about what’s not working, and a lot of times they just go away.”

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