Why Leaders are Failing to Embrace Disruptive Technology (and How to Fix the Problem)

Over the past couple of years, the focus of my work has been helping organizations wrestle with the promise and challenge of disruptive technologies. I’ve participated in, led, and observed countless presentations about viable emerging technologies and disruptive companies. As part of the discussions, we have examined potential threats and risks, and constructed scenarios and preparations. I’ve worked with clients to determine the investment and portfolio compositions necessary for robust, sustainable growth. I’ve helped to build and prepare teams to brief boards of directors, interviewed more than 300 leaders across industries, and done hundreds of hours of research. Through this work, I’ve come to a single, clear realization: we’re doing it wrong.


In no way do I mean to say that considering the benefits, competitive implications, and risks of disruptive technologies is a wasted effort. Rather, too many organizations are focused on the wrong attributes and are working to solve the wrong problems. The issue is a forest/trees situation. Teams go into scenario planning with a goal to think through strategy or build plans to reap the benefits and mitigate the risks of a disruptive technology. That’s the forest. More often than not, what they put a myopic focus on is the technology itself. The trees.


What happens when teams lose sight of the more important strategy? They ask the wrong questions and strive to solve problems that don’t exist, creating disruption (the bad kind) for employees and severe challenges for leaders at all levels.


The Typical Technology Disruption Scenario


An organization goes into discussions about the opportunity landscape and market drivers. They identify that they need to change if they are going to be seen as a cutting-edge industry leader that leverages innovative technology. The may already have poured millions of dollars into an ‘Innovation Hub’ established to explore new technologies and applications. Potential M&A considerations are under consideration. Marketing and sales teams have started crafting the new value proposition stories. All of these actions are appropriate in their own right, but only if they’re performed at the right time. What can (and so often does) derail the endeavors is the sequencing. Somewhere in the earliest phase, it is decided – probably tacitly – that the focus is on actions rather than outcomes. If you are in the midst of a technology-led transformation and see high volumes of activity but struggle to understand where you are going and why; this could very well be you.


The scenario is a common example of what happens when leaders neglect to do the headwork before the footwork. With so much talk and pride around things like “technology-led transformation,” and “digitalization efforts,” it’s not surprising that entities in our current hyper-competitive, fast-moving economic climate are so entrenched in ‘go’ mode that they forget to answer a few foundational questions.


When I work with government and commercial leaders on innovation and technology transformation initiatives, I always begin the engagement by asking four questions designed to align the work we’ll do together.


  1. What do you look like in five years? Give me attributes of your future organization. To lend some clarity to this question, I employ our FUTURE PROOF® framework. It categorizes the potential answers into Strategy, Structure, People, Process, Technology, and Relationships; and it also considers current and future customers.
  2. How does that organization differ from today? Why does it differ?
  3. What are the main drivers of success for your transformation? What are the indications that it is working?
  4. How do your employees (including and beyond the leadership team) describe the change?

These questions may seem deceptively simple. They may not seem relevant to a technology-led transformation. In fact, answering the questions can be quite complex, and the effort is critical to the hyper-speed environment in which leaders are working. There are four central reasons why leaders struggle:


  • Speed– Keeping up with the pace of change and rate at which technology is emerging is a challenge for most leaders. They are forced to balance their traditional role of being the ‘big picture’ person for the company with moving fast, so they don’t get left behind. The result can be a sense that they must act – with or without an articulated strategy and vision.
  • Purpose- Many organizations (often unintentionally) incentivize activity over outcome. While momentum can feel like progress in a transformation effort, it ultimately can produce a false sense of security that has negative ramifications down the line.
  • Complexity– Technology is simple to ‘put in a box’ and discuss. Teams can produce mountains of data about efficiency gains, process changes, and ROI. The reason for the technology – the human, behavioral change is hard, slow, and often ‘squishy’ – and can get ignored. It’s much more difficult to lead and measure, yet much more important.
  • Control– Desynchronized rates of change happening across business lines and at different levels of an organization can present a ‘shock’ to leaders. Getting the organization working in tandem toward a shared objective, especially at varying paces, is difficult and nearly impossible to do without first gaining alignment on the ‘why’ and empowering your teams to participate in and ‘own’ the transformation.


For those leaders and organizations working hard and fast to explore and implement new or disruptive technologies, time to think and plan may feel like a dangerous luxury. Competition requires speed and agility. Innovation is constant. It may sound counterintuitive to say that winning in this marketplace requires that we slow down – even just a little. I’m often reminded of a phrase that I heard while at West Point and then in the Army, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” In those instances, my instructors were referring to ‘clearing a room’ on an urban assault, but the lesson holds true now. We often sacrifice clarity and vision for speed, and while the consequences of that sacrifice with technology won’t have the same ramifications as the urban assault, there will be consequences nonetheless.


When leaders take the time to recognize that technology is a tool, not a panacea, they are more able to ask the right questions – the ones that get to the core of the need. With that clarity, they can articulate how the technology is positioning the organization for growth and shaping behaviors. That is a purpose message teams at every level can embrace. Trust me; you’ll be amazed at how well an informed, aligned, empowered team can transform to meet the future head-on.


It’s time to take a pause, take a risk, and let go.



About the Authors

Toffler Associates

As a consulting and advisory firm, Toffler Associates delivers strategic advantage to clients around the globe with an unwavering commitment to be the catalyst for change. Both the public and private sectors rely on Toffler Associates’ Future Proof® business consulting service and unique perspective to architect better futures.

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