Questions CIOs Are Asking About Digital Disruption

Last week we had the pleasure of meeting CIOs and key decision makers responsible for innovation and IT at the True North Breakfast with a View briefing. Their observations and questions about disruptive innovation are perhaps common to many in an age of rapidly advancing technology, and ones you should also be asking yourself.

What stage is your company at in its thinking?

You may already work for a disruptive company, but chances are you might know rapid change is coming, but not be acting on that instinct. When it comes to disruptive innovation your company will be in one of this stages in the PathFinder 4 model:

  • Stage Zero – Where the company has no knowledge or awareness of the big changes about to hit the organisation.  It’s the head  in the sand stage of Denial, or “it won’t happen to me”
  • Stage One – Awareness of disruptive innovation and the vectors that drive the external environment.  Here leaders are aware of emerging technologies and shifts in consumer behaviour, but are not too sure what to do next.
  • Stage Two – Those who are aware, have a strategy and are actively planning to implement change.
  • Stage Three – Organisations taking action and innovation has become habit forming.

It is interesting that many CIOs will self-confess that their companies are in stage 1 of their digital transformation journey.  Many agree that there are pockets of awareness in their organisations but some have not yet moved into the planning stage. Some of this comes from organisations believing they are market leaders, but could this be a “Blockbuster” scenario for them?

What stage are you at in your thinking?

Interestingly, it isn’t everyone in a company that is in denial or lacks awareness. You may have been there yourself in a “told you so” moment, when it becomes blindingly obvious that the agenda you have been pushing so hard for so long is now urgent. If you are one of the enlightened, how do you then move the company forward, especially if you are not on the board?

Are the Board the Real Blockers to Disruptive Innovation?

With an average tenure of 2 and a half years, CEOs may be focussed on the shorter term results. And the board may well be so focussed on the here and now, that they are not fully cognoscente of the impact of their ignoring the fast approaching future.  This has inherent risk. There may well be a disconnection between modern day CIOs/technical leaders and the board members when it comes to the digital agenda. Often the CIO is not even present on the board. However, resistance to change in the business can come from any function, and any level.

Which are the most disruptive technologies?

The range of innovative and emerging technologies is vast, from block chain to robotics. However, we would argue that data, and the artificial intelligence to utilise that data, are the priority for your focus. Unsurprisingly, data is also considered by CIOs and technical leads to be the most important weapon in the tech armoury.

Most CIOs feel that they need to do more with data. There is a very real opportunity to drive new revenue streams into the organisation and better engage with the customer by using that data.

That said, handling the data lake can get very messy. There is a lot of it, sometimes in one big data lake, but often in various different unconnected ponds. Data may be easy to collect, but difficult to utilise. Even more difficult to monetise without a strong plan of action.   

Who is really leading the disruption in the industry?

Is disruption driven by customers, competitors or your company?  Of course there are mixed views on this subject. Disruption by its very nature often enters side wing, knocking incumbents off their feet. We tend to associate disruption with small start-ups coming out of no-where, and yet it is not impossible for a large company to do the same.

A common view amongst CIOs was that if you are reacting to a competitor, rather than being the game changer, you’ve already missed the boat.

How do you get buy-in to change and reduce resistance?

All change is likely to meet with some resistance.  However, communication is key. Unfortunately many CIOs identify that companies are quite poor with regards to their internal communication.  Often the conversation is left to one key person, exacerbating the siloed approach.

Who should lead innovation within the company?

CIOs, as the owners of data within a company are starting to feel more valued by their CEOs with regard to innovation and there is certainly a shift in the type of conversations they now have with board members.

There is an increase in the Chief Digital Officer, as the person who straddles the divide between CEO, CMO and CIO. This is an emerging move away from the silos of the traditional board. However, in reality, having one person on the board responsible for the digital journey, is putting too much risk into the hands of one board member, who may have a technical bias or a marketing bent.

To make innovation a success requires collaboration across all functions linked together with common objectives.


  1. It is imperative to understand the stage of thinking your company is at. Defining this stage drives the next. You can’t go straight to habit forming, if your company is still at Stage Zero, not getting off the blocks.  Adapt your strategy accordingly. If it is knowledge the board needs, find the right consultant. If you have a plan, but not the right people, find the right people. Determine whether you need to hire them, or form a crack team to take you to the next level.

  2. Identify your own stage of thinking and map that against the board. Are you ahead of the curve? Map your ideas and how to make them part of the board agenda. For this you might need extra knowledge, research, connections, expertise or mentoring.

  3. Utilise your data. We believe you need to add Artificial Intelligence to Data as the most important emerging technologies in your plan. Whilst data (or we could say digital) are driving forces, artificial intelligence helps you to make sense of it and execute mass customisation of your products and services to meet consumer needs.

  4. Understand the market. Steve Jobs famously said he would never ask a customer what they wanted because they don’t know. That said it is imperative to understand how your consumers' behaviour is changing and map technological possibilities to their unstated needs.

  5. Have vision. Don’t just tinker around with the current process. Disrupting your market means creating an entirely new experience. If you have a vision that responds to needs that are hard for consumers to articulate, in areas where technological possibilities exist, and new consumer behaviours can bring about a better experience, therein lays the profit.

  6. Raise the conversation. Put a plan of action together, get your strategy heard. Talk it through with others at your own level. Find advocates across all functions in the business.  Persistent repetition of the same simple message over and over again WILL sink into the company psyche if you say it to enough people, enough of the time. “Rapid Change is coming we’d better prepare”. Call in consultants, find the right research, talk to your peers. Do whatever it takes to make this a whole company agenda.

  7. Engage the right experts. The range of technologies is vast, and suppliers in each area are many. More than ever you need to find the right trusted experts and suppliers, with the right knowledge to move your company forward at the rapid pace that you need to go to beat competition.

  8. Lead upwards. We believe the whole board need to take on this responsibility for mapping the customer experience, and then put behind that the resources needed. A mix and match of human resource, finance, marketing, operations and technical leadership is very much necessary to make a new customer experience flow. But if this isn’t happening it’s time to take the reins, get the support you need, raise the bar and lead upward.

  9. PathFinder4 provides the connections, knowledge and expertise to answer these questions and help bring about disruptive innovation. Contact Us for more information on how to join the PathFinder4 ecosystem of disruptive innovators.

This blog has called on the exciting conversations that took place between PathFinder4 and technical leaders attending a recent True North Breakfast with a View.

For more information on future CIO breakfast briefings at True North, contact Ross Stacey via

Marc Dowd is a specialist in disruptive innovation and carries out research on how technology trends are changing the world.  Marc is the Founder of PathFinder4 and Manage Disruption Limited and previously spent nine years as the EMEA Principal Advisor to C-level executives for Forrester Research.



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