...It’s exhilarating to try to predict the future. It’s also draining. And the predictions are almost always wrong. This sort of thing, I came to realize, cannot be worth very much. That’s what led me and one of my colleagues at Harvard Business School, Felix Oberholzer-Gee, to create a program on digital strategies nearly a decade ago. Rather than making predictions, we tried to make sense of the ground we stood on.
We taught this program for many years. As we did so, I noticed something else happening in the world of experts. New ideas were being tossed around every day, new theories and prescriptions crafted seemingly every week. Many were fascinating. But for anyone trying to keep up, it was no less exhausting than trying to keep up with the predictors. Hypertargeting. Personalization. Core competence. Focus. Accelerators. Incubators. Networks. Platforms. Bundling. Disruption. Every time you blinked, it seemed a new concept emerged, and a new term was being coined.
And this was the next thing I came to realize. The real challenge is not trying to understand these theories—that’s the easy part. The real challenge is to understand where these ideas are relevant, to see how they connect, and to know when they are limited—when not to use them.
Those who attended our program—entrepreneurs and managers, editors and artists, lawyers, analysts, and investors—were each experiencing a world of rapid change. They were trying to keep up, figure out when to act, and what to do. They were trying to make sense of what was going on. Above all, they yearned for clarity.
That’s how I came to write this book.
This book is about digital change, and how to navigate it. It’s about change that has been happening for twenty years now, and an attempt to make sense of it. It’s about what’s happening today, while recognizing that tomorrow will be mercilessly different. But to get things right, we cannot solely focus on the “here and now,” or start by obsessing about tomorrow. Quite the opposite. To make sense of what’s happening today, we almost need to forget what’s happening today. We need to take a step back, and make sense of what’s already happened. We need to get off the bullet train, even if only for a moment, to learn where it’s going. We need to understand the game being played before we can know how to win it.
Many of the theories addressed in this book have been written about before, somewhere. But in trying to understand the limits of each and connecting the dots between them, in trying to identify the common mistakes we make in each case, and the right solutions, I came to realize that navigating digital change is all about having a certain mindset.
It’s a mindset that I came to see in people who have managed or led digital change successfully. They are humble in recognizing what they can’t control, yet primed to take advantage of what they can. They don’t claim to know every answer, but are confident about asking the right questions. They are unafraid to go against the grain, to try something different. Throughout, they are able to see the forest and the trees.
And that is, ultimately, the central message of this book. Getting things right requires understanding how small things are tied to big ones. More concretely, it requires three things: seeing how what we do is increasingly linked to what others do; looking beyond where we play to bring related but invisible opportunities into focus; and recognizing how what we do is impacted by where we are.
It requires recognizing these connections—then respecting, creating, and leveraging them as well. Do so, and you’ll avoid a danger that plagues many who fail, and is deceptively hard to avoid: what I call the Content Trap.
My argument is evidence and case-based. I will draw on research studies conducted in multiple domains—economics, marketing, and strategy—and on the experiences of various organizations. In researching this book, I traveled around the world to talk to key players navigating the digital challenges businesses everywhere face. The stories here include the accounts of researchers, managers, entrepreneurs, analysts; what they’ve gotten right, what they’ve gotten wrong. What have they figured out that has eluded so many others?
Along the way, this book became a personal journey. Three years ago at Harvard Business School, we began creating our own vision of a digital future—in education. We began reimagining our own classroom, and what it should look like. I was drawn into this effort with a few inspired colleagues, and then asked to lead it. As I did so, I found that my thinking on these matters both drew on and fed the ideas in this book. Certain features of our digital classroom are a product of this book—and the book, in turn, is in part a product of our experiences creating our digital classroom. As this journey continued, I was no longer just an observer of digital efforts; I became a participant as well.
This book centers on digital transformations we’ve seen in the worlds of music, newspapers, books, TV, film, advertising, and education. These are often described as information goods—things that rely, ultimately, on moving information, bits and bytes. But I hope the lessons gleaned apply far beyond those domains. There is reason to believe that will be so. After all, everyone today—a businessperson, an educator, a politician, a student, an artist, an entrepreneur—can reach and interact with others directly. In other words, everyone is a media company today.