Chief Content Officer,
Techstrong Group


In this video, Mike Vizard talks with Frank O’Connell, author of, “Jump First, Think Fast, about his book, along with the problems encountered during digital transformation initiatives.



Mike Vizard: Hello, and welcome to the latest edition of the Digital CxO Leadership Insights video series. I’m your host, Mike Vizard. Today we’re with Frank O’Connell, who is author of, “Jump First, Think Fast.” And Frank has also been with a litany of companies over the years – Reebok, HBO Video, Indian Motorcycles, Gibson Greetings – so, he’s got a wealth of experience to share. Frank, thanks for being on the show.

Frank O’Connell: Well, thank you for inviting me on.

Mike Vizard: One of the issues that we are seeing companies have with this whole business of digital transformation is for every, I don’t know, dozen of these projects that get launched maybe one comes to anywhere near living up to its promise. So, what’s your sense of what goes on in corporate America when it tries to engage in one these digital transformation efforts? What do you see that people are kind of underestimating as the amount of effort required?

Frank O’Connell: Well, the one thing that I see is not having inside-the-company trained people who really are up to speed on the current technology. And I can give you an example of this which is very current. We have a toy company that’s been very successful, but we had a CFO who really was the old-school and wasn’t really up to speed on the new technologies. And we had to start to really implement AI and a whole series of power analytic tools to really run and grow the company, and he wasn’t really capable of leading it. So, we had to make a decision and replace him with someone who was really very contemporary, and we changed our whole IT system and went to the cloud, and that really released us from being captive, if you will, with the old data sets, et cetera. And it’s made a huge difference. But now we’re going through the educational process for the whole organization now, how to use the tools, et cetera. But to me, the greatest thing is having people who are really understanding and capable of the implementation and how to train people to use the tools.

Mike Vizard: Do you think the pace of innovation is starting to move faster than businesses can absorb? Because for decades business is always screaming at the IT department about how slow they are, so is that conversation changing?

Frank O’Connell: Yeah, it’s definitely changing. I mean, the technology is moving now so fast. And a great example of this is we used to be able to bring into our own IT department people who were pretty much up to speed on what the new tools were and they could do the implementation. That’s no longer true. We have to kind of hire outside consultants in a lot of areas now to really implement – to be able to implement the tools. And the speed of change, now when we look for people we don’t look for skill sets anymore; we really look for mindsets and people who are very agile to learn the new tool boxes. So…

Mike Vizard: One of the things that we have seen is this proliferation of titles throughout organizations. There’s chief digital officer, chief data officer. There’s a chief for just about everything that ever happens. And my question is: Is that a moment-in-time thing or a more permanent change? Because it seems like a lot of these titles exist to compensate maybe for the folks that you described that aren’t technology-literate.

Frank O’Connell: Yeah. I think it’s going to keep changing. And the big piece, I think, that’s going to keep changing is what’s your whole organizational structure really going to look like going forward. And I’m finding first we start with a strategic plan in all the companies I’m involved with, no matter what their size is, and then we come up with the right organizational structure, including what should be the structure of the IT department. What skills do we need? And often, if we’ve got a group already, we have to do an assessment of their skills and some will fit going forward, won’t fit, and then we identify the new skills and set up a structure. But I think you’re going to see a constant change in the structure, which will make it tough regarding titles that have real clarity in terms of what is that position supposed to be?

Mike Vizard: You may have an outcome that you’re responsible for achieving, but that’s about it in terms of what the actual job description is. Do you think as we go along that we’re going to see IT become more distributed within these organizations? Because historically, IT was kind of – it was a centralized function, it often reported up to the CFO, but maybe it needs to be more diffusely embedded through all the business units.

Frank O’Connell: I completely agree. And I’ve seen that happen now – in particular, we’ve got one company where I’ve been on the board for 16 years and I’ve watched it grow to $7 billion, and we’ve reorganized about every 6 months, but – into operating divisions, et cetera – but progressively we’ve had to really put IT skills into each one of those businesses because in many cases they have very different needs, and of course also different users in how they’re using that information to make decisions. So, it’s becoming much more customized by certainly your business units.

Mike Vizard: Why did you write the book? I mean, clearly like me – I think we’ve both been around the block, but you have nothing left to prove per se, so what’s the point of the book and what motivated you to write it?

Frank O’Connell: Well, it’s a good question. Most people are writing books for a platform to go forward and do something else. That’s not what I’m trying to do at all. I developed a 250-page outline about 5 years ago, and what I found is I’ve spent a lot of time throughout my career – I’ll say mentoring, but a lot of it is working with and talking with young people. And the question always comes up: “How in God’s name did you move from motorcycles to food to trading cards to all of these very diverse businesses?” And then, a lot of what I also found was that my value to a lot of these – I’ll call it mentees – really was encouraging them to take risks and grow personally, to grow professionally, and to grow their businesses. And so, the book really is – it is really geared to encourage risk-taking. And again, I talk about – the book would be a lot smaller if I only talked about my successes, but I talk about my failures as well.

And so, the book is really geared to mentoring. Hopefully, people will pull from these, my stories – and I try to – the stories are pretty, hopefully, entertaining – they pull messages from that that are relevant to them. And I took that approach instead of the typical – I’ve got all the business books that say “Follow the following steps – one, two, three, do this, do that, and you’re going to be successful.” Mine is all stories and then pull out of that what’s relevant to you and your career.

Mike Vizard: I remember talking to a fellow who had just got out of Harvard Business School and he was telling me all about it and I said, “So, what’s the one thing you got out of that?” He said, “Well, it’s easier to change something in motion than it is when it’s standing still.’ And of course I looked at him and said, “You could have gotten that out of a science high school class.” But the point I’m trying to make is do you think that we suffer from a paralysis of analysis and that part of the reason that we’re not moving fast enough is that we just analyze the risks so much that we’re afraid to actually do anything.

Frank O’Connell: Yeah, I completely agree with you. Trying to prove you’re right before you move is difficult. And I’ve done, I think, four turnarounds. They’re very different. You learn a lot in doing turnarounds. You frequently don’t have the time or what I call the cash runway to spend both all the money, getting all the analytics, and you don’t have all the time to do all of that testing to find a new path and execute it. So, there you’ve got to move much faster and what I call “error correct.” I say the bad news, I’m still making decisions. The good news – yeah, I’m still making bad decisions. The good news is I’m making them faster, so I can correct much more quickly.

And the other part of that is you’ve got to use your intuitive skills as well as just the analytical skills because the analytical skills aren’t going to tell you the path to success. You’ve got to come up with those alternatives.

Mike Vizard: There’s a business corollary to an old military maxim, that no business plan survives first contact with a customer. Are we obsessively following business plans regardless of what the customer tells us and maybe we need to be a little more freewheeling in our thinking?

Frank O’Connell: Yeah, most definitely. I always encourage – it’s a bit old school, being very close to the customer and listening to the customer. Everybody used to observe – when I’d go in and take over a company in a new industry I’d say, “I don’t want to talk to anybody. What I’m going to do first is go and talk to as many customers as I possibly can to see what is – what are their needs and how do we fit strategically into their plan?” So, I just – and in many cases – now, if you’re in the food business, a good deal of your new product ideas and whatever are going to come directly from your customers. And while we do tons of studies on customers, there’s just nothing like standing toe to toe with a major customer discussing their business.

Mike Vizard: Speaking of discussions, do you think that the business execs and the IT folks need to find some sort of common language? Because historically, IT people have their own nomenclature and the business folks of course have their own nomenclature, and one could be talking about faster times to market and the other one is talking about agile software development and they’re really kind of talking about the same thing; they’re just using completely different terms. So, do we need to kind of just put everybody back in a room and say, “These are the terms that we’re going to use?”

Frank O’Connell: Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right. And incidentally, you’ve brought up a very good point, which is put everybody in a room. And a lot of what I do is when I go in – and there are normally problems between those, between IT and the users – I put them together in the same room, I go to white boards and said, “Okay, so depersonalize it. Let’s write down all of the issues and then let’s come up with a plan for a solution.” But just getting people together and listening to them and getting down what they think are the issues and then working towards a solution. But it’s – in the same room is extremely important.

Mike Vizard: All right, folks. You heard it here. A little therapy, a little sense of maybe “Fear is – the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” right? And then, maybe we can succeed and get on with the day job. Hey, Frank, thanks for being on the show.

Frank O’Connell: I guess I have to end with one of my mantras, which is, “Have fun. Be fun.”

Mike Vizard: There you go. Hey, I want to thank you all for watching this latest episode of the Digital CxO videocast series. You can find this one and others on the Digital CxO website. And we’ll see you all again next time.