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Kate Sweetman interview: digital disruption and reinvention

One of my all-time favorite business jokes involves two guys walking through the woods. Suddenly, the two see a bear charging towards them. The first kicks off his boots and starts pulling running shoes from his backpack.

The second guy says, “What are you doing? You’ll never outrun that bear.”

And the first guy replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear; I just have to outrun you!”

The best way to outrun the other guy—to outrun your competition—in an age of digital disruption represents the crux of the conversation I had recently with Kate Sweetman of SweetmanCragun Group. Kate’s a brilliant person, and the author of two books, including The Leadership Code, co-authored with Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood and Reinvention: Accelerating Results in the Age of Disruption, written with Shane Cragun.

Both Kate’s books and our video chat focus heavily on what disruption is, what it means to your business, and (most importantly) how you can adapt to these changing circumstance in time to not just outrun the other guy, but maybe even to outrun that bear.

Key themes

Now we all know what disruption feels like, but Kate has a really great definition of digital disruption. “Anytime that new digital technology and business models affect the existing value proposition around goods and services” is when we’re truly facing digital disruption. As Kate says in our conversation, “It’s a continuous market evolution…with new segments emerging…[such as] the cloud, IoT,” and other new technologies.

More importantly, it’s critical that you respond well to these changes. Once upon a time, your success depended more on what you did. Now somebody else’s technology or business model shift can swallow up the strongest of us. Kate points to Blackberry, which essentially invented the smartphone category, as an object lesson in what not to do. They were a category killer and had done so many things so right, only to go so far wrong. That should lead us to ask, “When is it going to happen to me?” and even better, “How can I be sure it won’t?”

The melting iceberg

Kate uses the metaphor of a “sinking iceberg” to illustrate both the problem we face with digital disruption and the questions we must ask ourselves to ensure we don’t end up underwater. These include:

  • Is our organizational iceberg melting? And how do we even know? Maybe we’re even growing. But if we’re growing less quickly than the market as a whole, that’s a problem. Sweetman calls this the “melt rate” and it represents an important first step in diagnosing whether you face a challenge.
  • Is our organization increasing or decreasing in relevance to our marketplace? Obviously, the wrong answer to this question represents an accelerating factor for that melt rate.
  • Are we adding greater value to our customers and our other stakeholders? This represents yet another accelerating factor. For instance, Blackberry didn’t appeal to app developers, which helped contribute to its demise.
  • Is our internal change process keeping pace with external change? Are we changing fast enough relative to the outside world? Though it might seem obvious, remember, we don’t set the pace. The bear does.

The law of the 21st century business jungle

If you can apply a single, simple rule to companies facing disruption, it might be “adapt or die.” But what makes digital disruption different than what’s come before is that you must adapt quickly—or you’ll die even quicker. To complement that, you must know where you’re trying to go. As Sweetman said, “It’s gotten quite black and white…above all else, [leadership when facing digital disruption] is about clarity and speed.”

Kate also pointed out a number of “deadly blindfolds” that prevent us from seeing where to go:

  1. Arrogance: It represents the dark shadow of confidence. How do we know what we know? What makes us so sure? You must ask these questions not as a sign of insecurity, but as a sanity check to ensure you’re staying open to good ideas that will help you win.
  2. Negative feedback, not acknowledged here: Similarly, are you allowing the information that’s critical to effective decision-making to make its way to the right people. Beware “willful ignorance” that prevents you from seeing the big problems—or seeing them too late.
  3. Dismissing competitors’ success: Another classic point of failure is not giving your competition their due. Microsoft famously regarded Apple’s success with the iPod and iPhone as just getting “lucky.” Shows it wasn’t just bad luck that led to Apple’s surge and Microsoft’s retrenchment.

As Sweetman notes, “If you can have honest discussions around these things…with the right people in the room, it’s incredible how you can crack open” the keys to success in a digitally-disruptive world.

Key takeaways

Finally, Kate outlined a formula for companies to achieve a successful digital transformation, to adapt quickly and readily to the challenges they’re facing, and find success given a new set of circumstances. You must engage your employees with a clear understanding of the challenges you face and a vision for where you’re trying to go; ensure alignment by providing the right resources, tools, skills, and training; and help your team to understand their own worldview as well as the “blindfolds” that sometimes prevent them from seeing customer and colleague needs clearly.

And, as Kate notes, “All of that has to be greater than the cost of change…if the sense of loss [of their current environment] is too great, than it won’t happen.” You need to provide a realistic view that shows what needs to happen. You need to make sure you’ve got the right people to help you get there. Are you inviting the right people along on this journey or do you need to ask some to get off?

As I said at the time, “You can’t drive the boat and drag an anchor at the same time.” She adds, “A lot of the job of the leader is to get their people to engage with the change.”

Digital disruption happens. That’s a fact, one that’s not going away anytime soon. But using the right approach, you can get in front of it and help guide your team to even greater success. I’d encourage you to watch the whole interview here. Who knows? You might just figure out how to outrun that bear.

Tim Peter

Tim Peter built his first website in 1995 and loves that he still gets to do that every day. Tim has spent almost two decades figuring out where customers are, how they interact with brands online, and delivering those customers to his clients’ front door. These efforts have generated billions of dollars in revenue and reduced costs.

Tim works with client organizations to build effective teams focused on converting browsers to buyers and building their brand and business. He helps those companies discover how marketing, technology, and analytics tie together to drive business results. He doesn't get excited because of the toys or tech. He gets excited because of what it all means for the bottom line.

An expert in e-commerce and digital marketing strategy, web development, search marketing, and analytics, Tim focuses on the growth of the social, local, mobile web and its impact on both consumer behavior and business results. He is a member of the Search Engine Marketers Professional Organization (SEMPO), HSMAI, and the Digital Analytics Association.

Tim currently serves as Senior Advisor at SoloSegment, a marketing technology company that uses machine learning and natural language processing to improve engagement and conversion for large enterprise, B2B companies.

Tim Peter’s recent client work covers a wide range of digital marketing activities including developing digital and mobile marketing strategies, creating digital product roadmaps, assessing organizational capabilities, and conducting vendor evaluations for diverse clients including major hospitality companies, real estate brands, SaaS providers, and marketing agencies.

Prior to launching Tim Peter & Associates, LLC, a full-service e-commerce and internet marketing consulting firm in early 2011, he worked with the world’s largest hotel franchisor, the world’s premier independent luxury hotel representation firm, and a major financial services firm, developing various award-winning products and services for his customers. Tim can be reached at or by phone at 201-305-0055.

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