I constantly face a challenge in that I spend so much time researching and writing that I barely have time to promote my research and writing. I often think, “what’s the point of doing all of this work if no one will see it!?” In a rare moment however, I was able to spend time with Onalytica to take about my areas of study, how I got here and who/what influences me. I hope it helps you…
HOW DID YOU GET TO BECOME AN EXPERT IN DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION?
I’ve always been involved in technology; I live in Silicon Valley so it’s inevitable. But I grew up as a programmer and my first real job was as a database architect. I was also involved in the start-up community, I worked a lot with start-ups in Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and really started to become part of the innovation ecosystem. I think in my time I’ve helped launch over a 1,000 start-ups and you start to notice patterns in the disruption that start-ups represent; what it takes to be innovative; what it takes to convert an idea into something that is world-changing.
Then at the same time I was being asked by larger companies to help them be more like start-ups, because during those years I started to write about everything that I was learning. I was sharing my ideas on what it takes to be successful. My early audience was mainly start-ups and entrepreneurs and investors, but over time executives were also reading my work, because they were trying to figure out how to be more innovative and entrepreneurial and how to get their big companies act more like start-ups. I would come into these organisations and realize that they were never going to be like start-ups. It’s often the culture of the company that prevents people from taking risks, taking chances and learning new things because the function of a company is to manage the processes and policies that exist now, so over time my work started to change. I started teaching big businesses how to innovate, and how to change. Then several years ago I realized that digital transformation was going to be the platform where I could get an audience at the C-level to listen, not just to the fact that they needed to change because of digital, but to use digital to reinvent the purpose of business in a digital economy.
I turned for a time all of my research and all of my work onto the digital transformation subject, but with a twist. My first report, I think it was 2012/2013 was the first report to talk about digital transformation without talking about technology at all. It shared how companies were changing in digital transformation, outside of IT and outside of innovation. I talked about how and why companies were looking at customers and employees and how they were changing as a result of technology’s impact on society, so it was about digital transformation as a human story. Then in about 2002/2003 I officially became a digital anthropologist in addition to all of my other work, because I had started to notice that technology was changing people’s behavior and changing society. Cultures were becoming more globalized as a result of the internet, so I brought in that approach as an anthropologist talking about digital transformation.
WHAT AREAS OF DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION ARE YOU MOST PASSIONATE ABOUT?
In an official capacity when people say what are you passionate about? What are you working on? I’ll say digital transformation, corporate innovation, experience design, innovation, creativity (I’m a big fan of Disney), and also what I call culture 2.0. When you think about digital transformation and innovation in a Venn Diagram, overlapping both of them is culture. It is the number 1 catalyst or the number 1 hurdle for change. The other areas I’m passionate about are digital anthropology and social science in general because what we’re really talking about is how to humanize all of this disruption and change, that takes understanding and psychology. It’s not just that change is hard, most people don’t think that change starts with them, most people don’t think they have to change. There’s a quote by Leo Tolstoy that says “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” There’s also other things like fear or self doubt or egos, and navigating this change isn’t just about “here’s what we need to do with our digital transformation road map”, or “let’s just be more innovative or creative”‘. It’s understanding who we are as human beings, who we are as employees, who we are as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons or daughters. We all grew up following a certain path to life, a certain path to learning, a certain path to working, and the way that work is designed is meant to measure how you’re progressing along the rules of the path. So now we’re asking people to completely disrupt their belief system, and that takes finesse, that takes a human approach, and that’s the core of my work in all of these subjects.
WHICH DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION INFLUENCERS INFLUENCE YOU?
There are so many – I find influence from all over the place. Of course you could list all of the top influencers like Dion Hinchcliffe, Paul Greenberg, Stowe Boyd, Chris Shipley, Elon Musk, so many people actually. The biggest influencers in my life are the people that are part of my research within the organisation who are sharing their stories about change, how they’re fighting in the company, how they’re struggling, what keeps them getting up every morning and those are my real influencers and they are the reason why I continue my work. Without them I wouldn’t be able to uncover how people are winning against all of the human challenges that they face, and those are the stories that inspire me to help others. On the subjects that we’re talking about there’s two people that have been a part of every research report I have ever written, and that is Adam Brotman at Starbucks and Bridget Dolan at Sephora. They’ve done wonderful things for their companies.
OUTSIDE OF DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION WHO ELSE INFLUENCES YOU ?
I’m a big fan of creativity and design and I take a lot that work into the way I design my books, so in that world I would say Walt Disney. A gentleman by the name of Jesse James Garrett inspired me in user experience and design. Ralph Stedman who was the illustrator for Hunter S. Thompson, and also Hunter S. Thompson himself who inspired me when I thought I needed to challenge convention. And lastly I would say David Kelley the founder of IDEO in terms of putting frameworks around innovation and creative design thinking. I’ll stop there but I could keep going!
WHICH BRANDS OR PRODUCTS STAND OUT FOR YOU IN DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION?
It’s easy to say Starbucks and Sephora because I’ve got to watch them grow over the years as they’ve been part of my research, but it’s also fascinating to watch companies that are naturally disruptive by design like Tesla, Amazon and Uber. I look at companies that are not just changing but have changed the world by design. I tend to look for inspiration outside of traditional models because anybody can write case studies, but I want to be the one to connect the dots between how somebody is innovating and reverse engineer it to legacy or incumbent businesses.
IF A BRAND WANTED TO WORK WITH YOU, WHAT OFFLINE / ONLINE ACTIVITIES WOULD YOU BE MOST INTERESTED IN?
White papers, speaking opportunities, webinars, product development, basically any activity that would help a brand to demonstrate thought leadership.
WHAT WOULD BE THE BEST WAY FOR A BRAND TO CONTACT YOU?
Brian Solis is principal analyst and futurist at Altimeter, the digital analyst group at Prophet, Brian is world renowned keynote speaker and 7x best-selling author. His latest book, X: Where Business Meets Design, explores the future of brand and customer engagement through experience design. Invite him to speak at your event or bring him in to inspire and change executive mindsets.
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