“We have to be careful not to discuss digitization to death.”

Digitization projects are like sailing boats in new waters. Leading them to a safe harbour is a challenging task. At the same time, sometimes a hard gust of wind is enough to drown the project. Philipp Rosenthal, founder of Digital Sherpa, must know this. Since he is involved on a daily basis in digitization initiatives as a coach, consultant, project enabler and restless thinker. We talked to him about what determines project success and how storytelling should change in digitization.

WYZE: Mr Rosenthal, how are digitization projects commissioned in companies today? How do you experience the transfer between vision and planning and implementation?

Philipp Rosenthal: On the one hand, it depends on what exactly is meant by the term “digitization “. On the other hand, the size of the company and the basic degree of maturity for change and organisational development play an important role. Since, at the end of the day, these are critical success factors for real digitization, as I define them.

If there is a gap, it is usually in the transfer of the management vision to the “why” for middle management and operational organisation. Too few initiatives make the leap from “maximum internal networking” or “cross-channel customer dialogue” to a much more specific level of motivation. This is often accompanied by a lack of implementation in management and organisational models.

This, of course, continues in the planning phase. If too many stakeholders and actively involved project participants with different interpretations are on the same road, this automatically leads to losses due to friction. Classical project management can intercept only to a small degree, just as with change management, the lack of a common language.

WYZE: What distinguishes digitization projects from others, such as supply chain transformation or the introduction of a new product?

Philipp Rosenthal: The impact of large digitization projects on the organisation is often much greater than with a functional project – whether in SCM, purchasing or sales. Since it is not a specific business process that is affected but often the entire process landscape – its structure and mechanics.

However, the comparison with the launch of a product is significantly more interesting. Since initiatives in the field of digitization are indeed too rarely treated as product launches. This would mean that those responsible would have to deal in detail with the market, competition, target groups, success factors and the necessary organisation. When product managers are responsible for the networking of the necessary corporate functions, success measurement finds its way into the target agreement of all the parties involved, right up to the product management board.

Too many companies hire a digital manager and then make it their job to get the boat onto a new course. I maintain that this is a fundamental error. Digitization must be part of one’s own DNA, such as the introduction of new products or services. For that, one does not indeed every time pick up a new colleague for the management team.

WYZE: Where are the biggest pathologies? When and for what reason do projects sicken?

Philipp Rosenthal: I see the greatest weaknesses at four levels: The lack of a shared language when it comes to digitization; No consistent handing down of the “why” from the management talk to the individual level of the employee; No shared vision and road map, that is, specific long-term perspectives and prioritisation of steps; The lack of a real “WE” when it comes to extensive initiatives.

Many projects are already suffering from these problems in the start-up phase. If this happens, the subsequent correction is an enormously costly undertaking, often without any guarantee of success. The reason for this is that usually no healthy environment for sustainable change is created. A marathon cannot be run at a personal best without preparation and from a standing start. However, that is what companies are trying to do. Approaches such as “fail, learn, improve” are proclaimed but rarely lived. Very often the heroic deed has to be the whole big pitch. Digitization projects suffer from over-ambition rather than complexity.

WYZE: The call for “Digital Leaders” now belongs to the standard repertoire of consultants and scientists. However, the term itself usually remains vague and insipid. What is to be understood by it? And do we really need these digital leaders?

Philipp Rosenthal: Clearly digital leaders are needed. We must come to a shared understanding as to what is to be understood by the term. I believe that we need people who are able build bridges between digital fantasies and people’s ability to change. Digitization is not just the roll-out of new tools and platforms. Above all, it is the ability to provide better provisions with these than before. Digital leaders must be part of the organisation. Otherwise there is the danger that they remain external bodies and with their departure the great new house of cards collapses on itself.

WYZE: Can a leader become a Digital Leader or for this does one ultimately have to be a Digital Native?

Philipp Rosenthal: Of course they can. Moreover, I am convinced that there are already more digital leaders on the road at all levels of the company than is generally assumed. I do not believe in leaving digitization in an undifferentiated form to the digital natives. They often lack understanding and sensitivity for people who also did a pretty good job before WhatsApp. You need a balance in a team, you need to bring together different perspectives and experiences. Not from misunderstood human idealism or obligation to be inclusive. However, as otherwise you never reflect the whole company. Moreover, then sustainable change is also not possible.

WYZE: Digitization, despite its outstanding presence on all relevant agendas, is difficult to grasp. Do we need a new storytelling in the age of the Internet of Things? What role does “narration” play in the projects which you experience?

Philipp Rosenthal: Perhaps we need a new filter system. Every level in storytelling has its role and justification. We need the science fiction novel as well as the travel description, the operating manual and the experience blog. However, we have to think about to whom we tell which story and when. At the moment there are still too many “stories” about digitization in circulation – too many visions, projections, motivations and scenarios. This is not without danger, because at some point it all sounds hollow and stale – a kind of noisy speechlessness develops. We should definitely go deeper at a factual level. We need more reporting from the grassroots and specific texts on successes, setbacks and lessons learned. Digitization is no hype – we have to be careful not to discuss it to death. And we must try to find a shared language so as to be able to talk about digitization. Since without shared patterns of interpretation there is no consensus.

WYZE: Thank you very much for the interview.