Driving digital transformation at your company? Think like a National Geographic explorer

By Kristine Hamlett

Posted on 11-23-2020

If 2020 has a business lesson to teach, it’s that the world is changing fast, making it difficult to predict the future or how different industries may be forced to evolve, shift strategy and digitally transform. If we can adapt, endure and pivot, both personally and professionally, we’re set up for success.

According to speakers at a virtual event hosted by Deloitte Digital in partnership with Adobe and National Geographic, the mindset of an explorer and a c-level executive isn’t all that different, and there are principles in wilderness exploration that can also be applied to a digital transformation strategy.

At the event titled, Transformation is Exploration, Lead with an Explorer’s Mindset, photographer and National Geographic explorer Ronan Donovan shared his experiences exploring the Arctic. Andy Sandoz, partner and chief creative officer at Deloitte Digital, Michelle McGuire Christian, managing director and media and entertainment industry leader at Deloitte Digital, and John Travis, vice president of brand marketing at Adobe, joined Donovan for a discussion on the parallels between explorers and the mindset required to overcome challenges, while putting the human experience front and center.

Below is a recap of some of the key discussion points, boiled up into the top four takeaways for digital transformation leaders.

Embrace change and the unknown

According to the experts, wilderness explorers, much like digital transformation leaders, can sometimes get too fixated on perfection. However, there is so much to be gained from failure, making mistakes, and being forced to change course.

"All of the challenges that came along this year forced us to let go of the obsession of perfectionism. As a result, agility and risk-taking don't feel as risky as they used to. [As marketers], we're learning and can change so rapidly. We can let go and be much more agile.”

John Travis, VP of brand marketing, Adobe

For Donovan, his journey to the Arctic had several completely unforeseen issues. At the start, he had to quickly pivot and iterate on his plans when it came to just about everything including traveling throughout the region, and even the very basis of his study – finding a pack of wolves to follow. “Initially, the dozen or so wolf dens I knew of and had planned to study were completely frozen over. I was left with no subject matter at first. I had to figure out quickly how to adapt to continually changing circumstances [such as these], stay optimistic and keep going,” Donovan said.

He learned to collaborate, enlist help, and to adapt his methods and processes to innovate. “I’d get stuck, ask for help, adapt a new technology and ideas, and it quickly became this integral part of maximizing my ability and skill for this project.”

Confidence and self-care matter

Prioritizing your own well-being isn’t an indulgence, it’s a necessity. In order to maximize productivity, creativity and engagement, both digital leaders and explorers need to be mindful of stress, burnout and creating space for themselves to breathe.

“I had all kinds of moments of just questioning myself on whether or not I could get this done.”

Ronan Donovan, explorer, National Geographic

When things didn’t go as planned, Donovan sought the advice of his editor to give him new perspective. “I thought I’d failed from the beginning – this wasn’t the outcome I’d set out to achieve and I didn’t know where to go from there,” he said. “I needed a reset in my confidence and the assurance that it was OK to change course and start over.”

Being your best self both mentally and physically is critical in any environment. Throughout his trip to the Arctic, Donovan injured both his knees but had to muscle on and figure out how to adapt.

“The idea of having a resilient mindset and looking after oneself is important. You have to bring your best self to work – you’re no use to anyone if you’re not your best self in moments of collaboration and teamwork.”

Andy Sandoz, partner and chief creative officer at Deloitte Digital

Donovan found that he too couldn’t be at his best if he wasn’t in the right shape for it. “Self-care has to come first for you to succeed in anything, especially now.”

Necessity is the mother of all… creativity

The act of being creative is an innate human ability to connect things in your own way, said Sandoz. The basis is a desire to innovate and not repeat what’s already been done. And according to Adobe’s Travis, “creativity thrives in duress.”

However, in both business and in the wilderness, creativity is going to be something different for every person, according to Sandoz. “[Creativity is] using your ability to have ideas and then think differently,” he said. “We as businesses and leaders must allow people to own their creativity by changing the framework and to innovate their own processes.”

While creativity has always been considered a top-10 most valuable skill, the global pandemic and current socio-economic climate is accelerating the desire to be creative. So much so that the World Economic Forum named creativity the third most valuable skill in the world.

At the onslaught of the pandemic, as states sheltered-in-place, teams at Adobe had one month to turn our annual Adobe Summit, which was supposed to be an in-person event for more than 20,000 marketing and IT professionals, into a virtual event.

Come October, Adobe teams took the lessons learned from the spring Summit and transformed Adobe MAX. It went from a 20,000 in-person three-day creativity conference to a virtual event with 2.2 million visits to the event site spanning 11 days of total content. “We’re forever changed and have a completely different mindset that couldn’t have happened if we hadn’t gone through the challenge of rethinking our entire events strategy. We’re inventing as we go along, which is what we as marketers do – continue to reinvent.”

Empathy and understanding

To succeed at visual storytelling, marketers must take a human-centered approach to their experience strategy, the experts all agreed. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, either. Explorers and businesses both must grapple with different personalities, such as headstrong people with their own agendas.

“As leaders, whether in the wild or in the office, we have to emphasize with and understand people,” Deloitte’s Sandoz said. “That leader has to plan, make decisions, adapt, be understanding, and have a resilient mindset.”

According to Sandoz, we need to look at the human or customer experience from the viewpoint of where the decisions are made – at the leadership level. Leaders must become more open and vulnerable while adopting softer values in order to keep the human experience front and center, leading to increased teamwork, collaboration and empathy.

The Arctic taught Donovan a similar lesson when he took on a scale of a project he’d never encountered before. Much like a business leader, Donovan sought to tell the story from the lens of his subjects, the wolves, starting with empathy and highlighting the struggles and challenges they endure. Combining a photographic and television medium and dealing with injuries, unpredictable terrain and climates, “forced me to put a new lens on, and deal with failure, adaption, innovation and the importance of storytelling.”

To view the entire discussion, click here.

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Topics: Leadership, Events, Responsibility, Customer Stories, Advertising, Experience Cloud, Partner Story, CMO by Adobe, Digital Transformation, Marketing