Why digital strategies fail
Most digital strategies don’t reflect how digital is changing economic
fundamentals, industry dynamics, or what it means to compete.
Companies should watch out for five pitfalls.
by Jacques Bughin, Tanguy Catlin, Martin Hirt, and Paul Willmott
The processing power of today’s smartphones are several thousand times
greater than that of the computers that landed a man on the moon in 1969.
These devices connect the majority of the human population, and they’re only
ten years old.
1
In that short period, smartphones have become intertwined with our lives in
countless ways. Few of us get around without the help of ridesharing and
navigation apps such as Lyft and Waze. On vacation, novel marine-transport
apps enable us to hitch a ride from local boat owners to reach an island. While
we’re away, we can also read our email, connect with friends back home, check
to make sure we turned the heat down, make some changes to our investment portfolio, and buy travel insurance for the return trip. Maybe we’ll browse
the Internet for personalized movie recommendations or for help choosing
a birthday gift that we forgot to buy before leaving. We also can create
and continually update a vacation photo gallery—and even make a few oldfashioned phone calls.
Then we go back to work—where the recognition and embrace of digital
is far less complete. Our work involves advising the leaders of large
1 Early versions of the smartphone date to the mid-1990s, but today’s powerful, multipurpose devices originated
with the iPhone’s launch, in 2007.
January 2018
2
organizations. And as we look at this small device and all the digital change
and revolutionary potential within it, we feel the urge to send every CEO we
know a wake-up call. Many think that having a few digital initiatives in the
air constitutes a digital strategy—it does not. Going forward, digital strategy
needs to be a heck of a lot different from what they have today, or they’re not
going to make it.
We find that a surprisingly large number underestimate the increasing
momentum of digitization, the behavioral changes and technology driving
it, and, perhaps most of all, the scale of the disruption bearing down on
them. Many companies are still locked into strategy-development processes
that churn along on annual cycles. Only 8 percent of companies we surveyed
recently said their current business model would remain economically
viable if their industry keeps digitizing at its current course and speed.
How can this be, at a moment when virtually every company in the world is
worried about its digital future? In other words,
why are so many digital
strategies failing? The answer has to do with the magnitude of the disruptive
economic force digital has become and its incompatibility with traditional
economic, strategic, and operating models. This article unpacks five issues
that, in our experience, are particularly problematic. We hope they will
awaken a sense of urgency and point toward how to do better.
PITFALL 1: FUZZY DEFINITIONS
When we talk with leaders about what they mean by digital, some view it as
the upgraded term for what their IT function does. Others focus on digital
marketing or sales. But very few have a broad, holistic view of what digital
really means. We view digital as the nearly instant, free, and flawless ability
to connect people, devices, and physical objects anywhere. By 2025, some
20 billion devices will be connected, nearly three times the world population.
Over the past two years, such devices have churned out 90 percent of the
data ever produced. Mining this data greatly enhances the power of analytics,
which leads directly to dramatically higher levels of automation—both of
processes and, ultimately, of decisions. All this gives birth to brand-new
business models.
2 Think about the opportunities that telematics have created
for the insurance industry. Connected cars collect real-time information about
a customer’s driving behavior. The data allow insurers to price the risk associated
with a driver automatically and more accurately, creating an opportunity to
offer direct, pay-as-you-go coverage and bypassing today’s agents.
2 See Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future, New York,
NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.

3
Lacking a clear definition of digital, companies struggle to connect digital
strategy to their business, leaving them adrift in the fast-churning waters of
digital adoption and change. What’s happened with the smartphone over the
past ten years should haunt you—and no industry will be immune.
PITFALL 2: MISUNDERSTANDING THE ECONOMICS OF DIGITAL
Many of us learned a set of core economic principles years ago and saw the
power of their application early and often in our careers. (For more on the
changing economics of digital competition, see the infographic on pages
66–67.) This built intuition—which often clashes with the new economic
realities of digital competition. Consider these three:
Digital is destroying economic rent
One of the first concepts we learned in microeconomics was economic rent—
profit earned in excess of a company’s cost of capital. Digital is confounding
the best-laid plans to capture surplus by creating—on average—more value
for customers than for firms. This is big and scary news for companies
and industries hoping to convert digital forces into economic advantage.
Instead, they find digital unbundling profitable product and service
offerings, freeing customers to buy only what they need. Digital also renders
distribution intermediaries obsolete (how healthy is your nearest big-box
store?), with limitless choice and price transparency. And digital offerings
can be reproduced almost freely, instantly, and perfectly, shifting value to
hyperscale players while driving marginal costs to zero and compressing prices.
Competition of this nature already has siphoned off 40 percent of incumbents’
revenue growth and 25 percent of their growth in earnings before interest
and taxes (EBIT), as they cut prices to defend what they still have or redouble
their innovation investment in a scramble to catch up. “In-the-moment”
metrics, meanwhile, can be a mirage: a company that tracks and maintains
its performance relative to its usual competitors seems to be keeping pace,
even as overall economic performance deteriorates.
There are myriad examples where these dynamics have already played out.
In the travel industry, airlines and other providers once paid travel agents to
source customers. That all changed with the Internet, and consumers now
get the same free services that they once received from travel agents anytime,
anyplace, at the swipe of a finger—not to mention recommendations for
hotels and destinations that bubble up from the “crowd” rather than experts.
In enterprise hardware, companies once maintained servers, storage,
application services, and databases at physical data centers. Cloud service
offerings from Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, among others, have made

4
it possible to forgo those capital investments. Corporate buyers, especially
smaller ones, won because the scale economies enjoyed by these giants in the
cloud mean that the all-in costs of buying storage and computing power
from them can be less than those incurred running a data center. Some hardware makers lost.
The lesson from these cases: Customers were the biggest winners, and the
companies that captured the value that was left were often from a completely
different sector than the one where the original value pool had resided. So
executives need to learn quickly how to compete, create value for customers,
and keep some for themselves in a world of shrinking profit pools.
Digital is driving winner-takes-all economics
Just as sobering as the shift of profit pools to customers is the fact that when
scale and network effects dominate markets, economic value rises to the
top. It’s no longer distributed across the usual (large) number of participants.
(Think about how Amazon’s market capitalization towers above that of other
retailers, or how the iPhone regularly captures over 90 percent of smartphone industry profits.) This means that a company whose strategic goal is
to maintain share relative to peers could be doomed—unless the company
is already the market leader.
A range of McKinsey research shows how these dynamics are playing out.
At the highest level, our colleagues’ research on economic profit distribution
highlights the existence of a power curve that has been getting steeper over
the past decade or so and is characterized by big winners and losers at the top
and bottom, respectively (see “Strategy to beat the odds,” on page 30). Our
research on digital revenue growth, meanwhile, shows it turning sharply
If you set a digital strategy without focusing squarely on the potential for customers
to reap massive gains, you are likely to be blindsided. Consider the insurance
sector, where digital competitors are poised to disintermediate agents and, at the
same time, intensify competition with lower prices and higher levels of service.
One major insurer is fighting back by writing and marketing its own digital policies.
This entails risks, starting with the alienation of agencies that have traditionally
distributed its products. But the insurer strongly believes that smart digital approaches
will enable better pricing and superior customer experience compared with that
currently received from agents, and it sees no reason to cede this battlefield to
someone else.
INSURANCE
GETTING A BETTER GRIP ON CONSUMER SURPLUS
5
Farming-equipment manufacturer John Deere is responding to the potential for
digital entrants to sweep up value as sensors, data analytics, and artificial intelligence
boost farming productivity beyond what has been feasible previously. That could
commoditize farming “hardware” such as tractors and harvesting equipment. John
Deere is trying to stay ahead of this shift by creating a data-driven service business
that collects soil samples and analyzes weather patterns to help farmers optimize
crop yields. Sensors in tractors and other machinery provide data for predictive
maintenance; automated sprinkler systems sync up with weather data; and an opensoftware platform lets third parties build new service apps. As the company’s
chairman and chief executive officer, Samuel R. Allen, told shareholders recently,
“Precision agriculture may evolve to a point that farmers will be able to monitor,
manage, and measure the status of virtually every plant in the field.”
Although still in the early days, the company’s moves position it to lead in the new
business of data-enabled agriculture while differentiating its traditional products
and services.
JOHN DEERE
STAYING AHEAD OF THE DIGITAL THREATS
negative for the bottom three quartiles of companies, while increasing for
the top quartile. The negative effects of digital competition on a company’s
growth in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization
(EBITDA), meanwhile, are twice as large for the bottom three-quarters of
companies as for those at the top.
A small number of winners—often in high tech and media—are actually doing
better in the digital era than they were before. They marshal huge volumes of
customer data drawn from their scale and network advantages. That triggers
a virtuous cycle in which information helps identify looming threats and
the best partners in defending value chains under digital pressure. In this
environment, incumbents often find themselves snared in some common
traps. They assume market share will remain stable, that profitable niches
will remain defendable, and that it’s possible to maintain leadership by
outgrowing traditional rivals rather than zeroing in on the digital models
that are winning share.
This phenomenon of major industry shakeouts isn’t new, of course. Well
before digital, we saw industry disruptions in automobiles, PC manufacturing,
tires, televisions, and penicillin. The number of producers typically peaked,
and then fell by 70 to 97 percent.
3 The issue now is that digital is causing such
disruptions to happen faster and more frequently.
3 Boyan Jovanovic and Glenn M. MacDonald, “The life cycle of a competitive industry,” The Journal of Political
Economy
, 1994, Volume 102, Number 2, pp. 322–47.
Disruption is always dangerous, but digital disruptions are happening
faster than ever.
0
Tipping point

Incumbents’
business
models are
threatened
Bold movers (attackers
and agile incumbents)
survive and rise
New digital
business models
Incumbent
business models

Majority of incumbents do not
respond and ultimately fail
A few incumbents
partially transform
and/or find niche
markets
Market share
Time
100
of companies believe their business
model will remain economically viable
through digitization
Digital competition shrinks value. Customers win, and companies lose.
Products/services become obsolete, and value pools consolidate.
A ridesharing service is 40%
cheaper than a regular cab for
a 5-mile trip into Los Angeles
$$$ Ridesharing
$$$$$ Taxi
When was the last time you used a travel agent,
bought a GPS device, or carried a point-and-shoot
camera separate from your phone?
Don’t underestimate how digital disrupts the nature
of competition.
6
Growth rates will plummet. To survive, companies must be first movers …
Percentage-point change in 3-year revenue growth
Respond at an
average level, and
you’ll barely cut
the drop in half
You’ve grown
comfortable with
a steady state
of revenue growth
… you’ll see a
precipitous drop
in growth
If you fail to
respond to the
current digital
challenge …
Full digitization
and continued
inaction = an even
steeper drop
–6.0
–6.7
+0.3
–12
Be bold (a rst mover or
among the fastest
followers), and you’ll
keep climbing
Winners will think
in terms of
ecosystems.
… and the payoff will
go to those who move
boldly.
Integrated
network
economy
By 2025, almost a third of total global sales
will come from
ecosystems.
Invest in
digital to protect
your core
Play in new sectors
or compete in
new digital ways
6%
ROI
12%
ROI
68% Traditional economy
32%
Companies need to change where and how they
play—by creating their own network or by partnering
with companies within and beyond industry borders.
Source: McKinsey Digital Global Survey, 2016 and 2017; McKinsey analysis
7
8
Digital rewards first movers and some superfast followers
In the past, when companies witnessed rising levels of uncertainty and volatility
in their industry, a perfectly rational strategic response was to observe
for a little while, letting others incur the costs of experimentation and then
moving as the dust settled. Such an approach represented a bet on the
company’s ability to “outexecute” competitors. In digital scrums, though,
it is first movers and
very fast followers that gain a huge advantage over
their competitors. We found that the three-year revenue growth (of over
12 percent) for the fleetest was nearly twice that of companies playing it
safe with average reactions to digital competition.
Why is that? First movers and the fastest followers develop a learning advantage.
They relentlessly test and learn, launch early prototypes, and refine results
in real time—cutting down the development time in some sectors from several
months to a few days. They also scale up platforms and generate information
networks powered by artificial intelligence at a pace that far outstrips the
capabilities of lower-pulsed organizations. As a result, they are often pushing
ahead on version 3.0 or 4.0 offerings before followers have launched their
“me too” version 1.0 models. Early movers embed information across their
business model, particularly in information-intensive functions such as R&D,
marketing and sales, and internal operations. They benefit, too, from word of
mouth from early adopters. In short, first movers gain an advantage because
they can skate to where the puck is headed.
How Tesla captured first-mover value in electric vehicles offers a lesson in
the discomfiting effects of a wait-and-see posture. Four years ago, incumbent
automakers could have purchased Tesla for about $4 billion. No one made
the move, and Tesla sped ahead. Since then, companies have poured money
into their own electric-vehicle efforts in a dash to compete with Tesla’s lead
in key dimensions. Over the past two years alone, competitors have spent
more than $20 billion on sensor technologies and R&D.
PITFALL 3: OVERLOOKING ECOSYSTEMS
Understanding the new economic rules will move you ahead, but only so far.
Digital means that strategies developed solely in the context of a company’s
industry are likely to face severe challenges. Traditional approaches such as
tracking rivals’ moves closely and using that knowledge to fine-tune overall
direction or optimize value chains are increasingly perilous.
Industries will soon be ecosystems
Platforms that allow digital players to move easily across industry and sector
borders are destroying the traditional model with its familiar lines of sight.

9
In an industry where long product life cycles have been the norm, BMW has moved
from an annual model cycle to one with continual improvements throughout the
year. This has helped it to learn and apply digital and other technology advances
at a faster pace than that of some competitors that have stayed with traditional
cycle times. “All aspects of our products—whether design, handling, or everyday
usage—will be modeled more closely than ever before on the customer’s needs,”
Klaus Fröhlich, BMW’s board of management member responsible for development,
noted recently.
Moving fast sometimes necessitates competing with oneself. Anticipating increased
cost pressures and a faster competitive landscape as the pace of digitization in
travel and tourism progressed, Qantas Airways launched its stand-alone lower-fare
Jetstar. Intensive use of digital technology in booking, app-based loyalty programs,
automated check-in, and baggage service, as well as digitization in other service and
operations arenas, prompted the creation of the Jetstar brand, which is differentiated
by lower fares and a better customer experience.
To speed up its response time and disrupt (rather than follow) the industry, Qantas
was open to cannibalizing its flagship brand. Today, Jetstar’s margins on its
earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) exceed those of the Qantas brand.
BMW AND QANTAS
MEETING THE NEED FOR SPEED
Grocery stores in the United States, for example, now need to aim their
strategies toward the moves of Amazon’s platform, not just the chain down
the street, thanks to the Whole Foods acquisition. Apple Pay and other
platform-cum-banks are entering the competitive set of financial institutions.
In China, Tencent and Alibaba are expanding their ecosystems. They are
now platform enterprises that link traditional and digital companies (and
their suppliers) in the insurance, healthcare, real-estate, and other industries.
A big benefit: they can also aggregate millions of customers across these
industries.
How ecosystems enable improbable combinations of attributes
Can you imagine a competitor that offers the largest level of inventory, fastest
delivery time, greatest customer experience, and lower cost, all at once?
If you think back to your MBA strategy class, the answer would probably be
no. In the textbook case, the choice was between costlier products with
high-quality service and higher inventory levels or cheaper products with lower
service levels and thinner inventories. Digital-platform and -ecosystem
economics upend the fundamentals of supply and demand. In this terrain,
the best companies have the scale to reach a nearly limitless customer

10
base, use artificial intelligence and other tools to engineer exquisite levels
of service, and benefit from often frictionless supply lines. Improbable
business models become a reality. Facebook is now a major media player
while (until recently) producing no content. Uber and Airbnb sell global
mobility and lodging without owning cars or hotels.
This will all accelerate. Our research shows that an emerging set of digital
ecosystems could account for more than $60 trillion in revenues by 2025, or
more than 30 percent of global corporate revenues. In a world of ecosystems,
as industry boundaries blur, strategy needs a much broader frame of
reference. CEOs need a wider lens when assessing would-be competitors—
or partners. Indeed, in an ecosystem environment, today’s competitor may
turn out to be a partner or “frenemy.” Failure to grasp this means that you will
miss opportunities and underplay threats.
While it’s true that not all businesses are able to operate in nearly frictionless
digital form, platforms are fast rewiring even physical markets, thus redefining
how traditional companies need to respond. Look around and you will see the
new digital structures collapsing industry barriers, opening avenues for
cross-functional products and services, and mashing up previously segregated
markets and value pools. With vast scale from placing customers at the
center of their digital activity, ecosystem leaders have captured value that
was difficult to imagine a decade ago. Seven of the top 12 largest companies
by market capitalization—Alibaba, Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple,
Facebook, Microsoft, and Tencent—are ecosystem players. What’s not
Intuit began taking an ecosystem view of its markets when a strategic review
showed that fintech start-ups had the potential to target its customers with digital
products. The review also showed ways the company could flex its financial power
and scale. Leadership decided to acquire new digital assets to expand beyond
its existing small-business and tax products, in an effort to reach digitally adept
consumers who were happy to use software apps to help manage their money
as well as to get a reading on their overall financial health.
Three offerings—Mint (for consumers), QuickBooks (for small businesses), and
TurboTax (for both)—have been integrated with one login, and the company
offers banks the ability to integrate customer accounts with its products, allowing
customers easier access to online bill paying.
INTUIT
BUILDING AN ECOSYSTEM BY ACQUISITION
11
encouraging is how far incumbents need to travel: our research shows that
only 3 percent of them have adopted an offensive platform strategy.
PITFALL 4: OVERINDEXING ON THE ‘USUAL SUSPECTS’
Most companies worry about the threats posed by digital natives, whose moves
get most of the attention—and the disruptive nature of their innovative
business models certainly merits some anxiety. Excessive focus on the usual
suspects is perilous, though, because incumbents, too, are digitizing and
shaking up competitive dynamics. And the consumer orientation of many
digital leaders makes it easy to overlook the growing importance of digital
in business-to-business (B2B) markets.
Digitizing incumbents are very dangerous
Incumbents are quite capable of self-cannibalizing and disrupting the status
quo. In many industries, especially regulated ones such as banking or insurance,
once an incumbent (really) gets going, that’s when the wheels come off.
After all, incumbents control the lion’s share of most markets at the outset
and have brand recognition across a large customer base. When they
begin moving with an offensive, innovative strategy, they tip the balance.
Digitization goes from being an incremental affair to a headlong rush
as incumbents disrupt multiple reaches of the value chain. Digital natives
generally zero in on one segment.
Our research confirms this. Incumbents moving boldly command a 20 percent
share, on average, of digitizing markets. That compares with only 5 percent
for digital natives on the prowl. Using another measure, we found that revved
After a wide-ranging strategic review, Telefónica saw that it was vulnerable to digital
players that were offering mobile customers lower-cost plans and more flexible
models. In an effort to meet the challenges, the company launched an independent
“brownfield” start-up, giffgaff. Its hallmark was an online-first model for customer
support that uses community-based digital forums to resolve customer queries.
Incumbency offered an important advantage: one of the company’s key assets
was its O2 digital network, which provided resources and technical capabilities in
support of giffgaff’s innovative business model.
TELEFÓNICA
LEVERAGING INCUMBENCY
12
up incumbents create as much risk to the revenues of traditional players as
digital attackers do. And it’s often incumbents’ moves that push an industry
to the tipping point. That’s when the ranks of slow movers get exposed to lifethreatening competition.
The B2B opportunity
The importance of B2B digitization, and its competitive implications, is easy
to overlook because the digital shifts under way are less immediately obvious
than those in B2C sectors and value chains. However, B2B companies can
be just as disruptive. In the industries we studied, more B2B companies had
digitized their core offerings and operations over the past three years than
had B2C players. Digitizing B2B players are lowering costs and improving
the reach and quality of their offerings. The Internet of Things, combined
with advanced analytics, enables leading-edge manufacturers to predict the
maintenance needs of capital goods, extending their life and creating a
new runway for industrial productivity. Robotic process automation (RPA)
has quietly digitized 50 to 80 percent of back-office operations in some
industries. Artificial intelligence and augmented reality are beginning to
raise manufacturing yields and quality. Meanwhile, blockchain’s digitized
verification of transactions promises to revolutionize complex and paperintensive processes, with successful applications already cropping up in
smart grids and financial trading. Should the opportunities associated with
shifts like these be inspirational for incumbents? Threatening? The answer
is both.
PITFALL 5: MISSING THE DUALITY OF DIGITAL
The most common response to digital threats we encounter is the following:
“If I’m going to be disrupted, then I need to create something completely new.”
Understandably, that becomes the driving impetus for strategy. Yet for most
companies, the pace of disruption is uneven, and they can’t just walk away
from existing businesses. They need to digitize their current businesses
and
innovate new models.
Think of a basic two-by-two matrix such as the exhibit on the following page,
which shows the magnitude and pace of digital disruption. Where incumbents
fall in the matrix determines how they calibrate their dual response. For
those facing massive and rapid disruption, bold moves across the board are
imperative to stay alive. Retail and media industries find themselves in
this quadrant. Others are experiencing variations in the speed and scale of
disruption; to respond to the ebbs and flows, those companies need to
develop a better field of vision for threats and a capacity for more agile action.
Keep in mind that transforming the core leads to much lower costs and

13
Exhibit
greater customer satisfaction for existing products and services (for example,
when digitization shrinks mortgage approvals from weeks to days), thus
magnifying the impact of incumbents’ strategic advantages in people, brand,
and existing customers and their scale over attackers.
Beyond this dual mission, companies face another set of choices that seems
binary at first. As we have indicated, the competitive cost of moving too
slowly puts a high priority on setting an aggressive digital agenda. Yet senior
leaders tell us that their ability to
execute their strategy—amid a welter of
cultural cross-currents—is what they worry about most. So they struggle
over where to place their energies—placing game-changing bets or remaking
the place. The fact is that strategy and execution can no longer be tackled
separately or compartmentalized. The pressures of digital mean that you
need to adapt both simultaneously and iteratively to succeed.
Needless to say, the organizational implications are profound. Start with people.
Our colleagues estimate that half the tasks performed by today’s full-time
workforce may ultimately become obsolete as digital competition intensifies.
4
New skills in analytics, design, and technology must be acquired to step
up the speed and scale of change. Also needed are new roles such as a more
diverse set of digital product owners and agile-implementation guides.
And a central organizational question remains: whether to separate efforts
to digitize core operations from the perhaps more creative realm of
digital innovation.
4 See “What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills, and wages,” McKinsey Global Institute, November 2017,
McKinsey.com.
Q1 2018
Digital Strategies Fail
Exhibit 2 of 2
Since the extent and speed of disruption varies, companies will need to
calibrate their response.
These companies need to prepare
themselves for big changes but
cannot lose focus on their existing
businesses in the short term.
Live in two worlds
These companies (eg, those in media,
retail) are faced with severe—and
perhaps fatal—disruption unless they
make big moves.
Take bold steps
These companies can cherrypick simple plays but are relatively
unaffected.
Make low-risk moves
Degree of
change
Pace of change
These companies need to make
rapid moves but cannot let the
scope of these changes overshadow
existing businesses.
Build agility
14
While the details of getting this balance right will vary by company, two
broad principles apply:
Bold aspiration.The first-mover and winner-takes-all dynamics we described
earlier demand big investments in where to play and often major changes
to business models. Our latest research shows that the boldest companies,
those we call
digital reinventors, play well beyond the margins. They
invest at much higher levels in technology, are more likely to make digitally
acquisitions, and are much more aggressive at investing in businessmodel innovation. This inspired boldness also turns out to be a big performance differentiator.
Highly adaptive.Opportunities to move boldly often arise as a result of
changing circumstances and require a willingness to pivot. The watchwords
are failing fast and often and innovating even faster—in other words,
learning from mistakes. Together they allow a nuanced sensing of market
direction, rapid reaction, and a more unified approach to implementation.
Adaptive players flesh out initial ideas through pilots. Minimum viable
products trump overly polished, theoretical business cases. Many companies,
however, have trouble freeing themselves from the mind-sets that take
root in operational silos. This hinders risk taking and makes bold action
difficult. It also diminishes the vital contextual awareness needed to
gauge how close a market is to a competitive break point and what the
disruption will mean to core businesses.
As digital disruption accelerates, we often hear a sense of urgency among
executives—but it rarely reaches the level of specificity needed to address the
disconnects we’ve described in the five aforementioned pitfalls. Leaders
are far more likely to describe initiatives—“taking our business to the cloud”
or “leveraging the Internet of Things”—than they are to face the new realities
of digital competition head-on: “I need to develop a strategy to become
number one, and I need to get there very quickly by creating enormous value
to customers, redefining my role in an ecosystem, and offering new business-value
propositions while driving significant improvement in my existing business.”
Such recognition of the challenge is a first step for leaders. The next one is
to develop a digital strategy that responds. While that’s a topic for a separate
article, we hope it’s clear, from our description of the reasons many digital
strategies are struggling today, that the pillars of strategy (where and how to

15
compete) remain the cornerstones in the digital era. Clearly, though, that’s
just the starting point, so we will leave you with four elements that could
help frame the strategy effort you will need to address the hard truths we had
laid out here.
First there’s the
who. The breadth of digital means that strategy exercises
today need to involve the entire management team, not just the head of strategy.
The pace of change requires new, hard thinking on
when to set direction.
Annual strategy reviews need to be compressed to a quarterly time frame, with
real-time refinements and sprints to respond to triggering events. Ever
more complex competitive, customer, and stakeholder environments mean
that the
what of strategy needs updating to include role playing, scenarioplanning exercises, and war games. Traditional frameworks such as Porter’s
Five Forces will no longer suffice. Finally, the importance of strategic agility
means that, now more than ever, the “soft stuff” will determine the
how of
strategy. This will enable the organization to sense strategic opportunities in
real time and to be prepared to pivot as it tests, learns, and adapts.
Copyright © 2018 McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved.
Jacques Bughin is a director of the McKinsey Global Institute and a senior partner in McKinsey’s
Brussels office,
Tanguy Catlin is a senior partner in the Boston office, Martin Hirt is a senior
partner in the Greater China office, and
Paul Willmott is a senior partner in the London office.
The authors wish to thank Laura LaBerge, Shannon Varney, and Holger Wilms for their
contributions to this article.

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