Michael Gale on the “digital helix”: An interview by Bob Morris

Michael Gale founded Strategic Oxygen in 2001, which was widely seen as one of the technology industry’s primary data toolsets for marketers, used by over 20 brands and used to model over $4 billion in marketing and sales investments. The company was sold to Monitor Group, where he was a group partner from 2006 to 2010. In 2011, he became a partner at Pulsepoint Group, a digital consulting company, which was acquired by ICF in 2015. Michael has also served as chief web officer and GM at Micron Technology and was the vice president of worldwide brand research at IntelliQuest.

Michael is the co-author with Chris Aarons of their latest collaboration, The Digital Helix: Transforming Your Organization’s DNA to Thrive in the Digital Age, published by Greenleaf Book Group Press (October 2017).

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Before discussing The Digital Helix, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Besides my wife Lara who is the greatest compass in life I would say Pete Carroll. He has a very particular focus on continually growing and pushing personal barriers

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

I don’t like looking backwards because I still believe I have so much more to learn, grow and develop. Chris Aarons, my co-author of The Digital Helix, has been immensely important because the book was a complex journey during which we had to push boundaries in knowledge and ideas.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

I have had a few of these. I don’t think it is any one moment as everything or every moment is important. Launching my first company 2001 felt really special and I would recommend entrepreneurism to anybody. It is invigorating and stretches you.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

A lot of good and some bad. I wish I had done a lot more science. School was always a struggle for me so I had to grind it out all the time in nearly every subject. School taught me the value of structured thinking and grinding through unclear and tough moments because I always felt something good was about to happen.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

So, so, so true. Digital world’s present amazing, almost infinitely available opportunities. This means we feel or hope that anything is possible. Michael’s quote might be more relevant than ever before.

From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

We live on the edge of constant innovation. We do this simple exercise in presentations where we ask people if they have an electric car; either a pure one or one with a combination gas and electric power drive. Maybe 8% of people stand up. We then ask them to stay standing and we ask how many people will be replacing their cars in the next five years. 75% of the rest of the room stands up. Then we ask those people standing how many of them will seriously consider an electric car. Generally 80% say yes. This shows how Dawkins quote is so true. In less than five years the whole car industry (120+ years) will be completely rewritten. Look at retail, look at banking; the same is true of them.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Drucker’s quote is really important. We have spent the last 50+ years getting better and better at things. Being increasingly efficient. Transformations are about giant leaps in changing the model. That model is not about efficiency but about leaps in effectiveness that in themselves may not be very efficient but are huge potential jumps forward. We need to start thinking and acting this way because you cannot digitally transform in small increments.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Tradition is the illusion of permanence. We can thank Woody Allen for that quote. Use the car example because buying a gas car has been a tradition for over 120 years. We have all done it, all been part of our parents and grandparents doing it. Time and time again.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Any CEO, now or in the future, needs to recognize that at least 20 hours of their week has to be dedicated to pushing their organization through digital transformation. 40% of the executives we talked to believed they needed to be digitally transformed in less than three years. That sounds very optimistic. Executives need to be digital explorers and that is a commitment to a growth mindset, not one moment.

Now please shift your attention to The Digital Helix. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.

First, when and why did you decided to write it and do so in collaboration?

Chris and I have worked together for a while. I was seeing pain in big marketers unable to handle the transitions in digital delivery. This went back to a business I sold to Monitor Group and then Forrester Research. The world was changing faster than many organizations were and it was structural in nature and not just a passing transition. I had done a very unique project with the Economist Intelligence Unit on social engagement and through the models you could see the six or so key markers for success. Many of the things that made it work (econometrically) were wonderful contradictions that in themselves inferred a different way of thinking and acting in an increasingly digital world. Chris got it very quickly and it just became a really natural process together of mapping and interviewing some really cool people to test the models.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Too many to write or talk about. Everything from the mindset imperative to the way all seven components of the Digital Helix really connect together in the physical world.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

I think it is way better. Chris bought a remarkable discipline in thinking and structure.

In your opinion, what is the single most troublesome misconception about organizational transformation? What in fact is true?

A simple answer. You cannot buy this. You have to build the team, process, and a sense of being more customer and employee centric than you could ever imagine.

Why should business leaders care about digital transformation? Why now?

Because this is Armageddon for binary companies. It doesn’t matter if you are Home Depot and you sell sinks and wood and screws. If you have not integrated a digital centric way to work, communicate, sell and market with customers you will die a slow death. Consider this, 55% of executives told us that start-ups present an absolute clear and present danger to them. Just look at GE right now.

Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. Why do so many C-level executives seem to do that?

We reward incrementalism from quarter to quarter. We look at relative market share, brand awareness, margins, OPEX, SGA, etc. We do not measure forward looking metrics that will help us get ready to handle a radically different world.

How should the DNA version of an organization be determined?

It is progressive. There is no end game here. It’s like the evolution of mankind. If you can open up more opportunities, cut costs, and also charge more than that is the magic sauce.

For those who have not as yet read your brilliant book, what — in your opinion — is the single best example of what a digital transformation can help to accomplish?

An ability to get to the future. It’s like the car example. Why do you think so many car companies are vowing to be electric? Gas prices are down, the cost of cars is nearly cheaper than ever. It is because all the manufacturers have done the same hands up exercise we talked about. An ability to play the next years is what companies like GE now hunger for. Look at the retail industry. They would love to have a future in ten years or maybe five years guaranteed to them. As a CEO your job is to make sure your organization is ready to handle the future.

To what extent can any organization’s leaders determine if it is set up and equipped “to thrive and reach [its] full potential or possibly even overachieve in the digital age”? Please explain.

Look at the seven drivers and the seven challenges and see where you are against each. Then pull off the front cover of The Digital Helix and examine each of the seven digital DNA markers on the inside of the book cover. You need to start here versus a more exotic approach at the front end. Invest eight hours reading the book because thousands of people’s jobs will depend on how you orchestrate that digital future.

Of all the essential tools you provide in the book, which seems to be the most difficult to master? Why?

I think or believe it is the mindset development process. Remember for the 16% that get it right there are another 32% who did almost the same things but couldn’t punch in the results. You can see how the lack of investment in collaboration skills hurt them. 40% or more of these organizations slow down or give up on digital transformation plans. That can’t be the technologies they buy or the ideas they buy into. It has to do with how they are organized and how they think.

In the last chapter, you pose this question to your reader: “What is your potential first hundred-day plan for becoming a digital leader?” Where to begin when making that determination? Why?

Because you need to be able to take a breath and plan what those first steps look like. You need to bring a lot of people and groups together to start doing some amazing transformational things together. You need that sense of buy in.

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Michael cordially invites you to check out these websites:

Amazon link

linkedIn link

Forbes magazine interview link

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