Bolting on digital accessories is building up to be a big headache for established enterprises. The dull, throbbing pain for CIOs and their executive peers includes increased cost and complexity, bigger systems integration challenges, fragmentation of data sources and stores, and growing operational and cyber vulnerabilities.

For large, established organisations, the alternative to this incremental struggle towards a digital future is a tough road. It’s the pathway of deep and meaningful digital transformation, cutting hard into the cultural bedrock, mapping out a clear-sighted future vision, and charting a credible, funded plan to evolve beyond the clutches of legacy systems and beliefs.The key to opening up this pathway is your frame of reference on the challenge.

Are your looking forward one quarter, or one quarter century? Are you including only the usual suspects in your conversations about the future, or reaching out to customers, suppliers, partners, internal mavericks and your next generation of talent? Are you investing in digital tools, methods and mindsets for your employees, equipping and energising them to re-imagine the kind of customer experiences and operational simplicity your future success will depend on?

Today, I believe the first job of a leader is to create spaces in which talented people can use their unique gifts in concert with one another to create new value for customers. Supporting those in your charge, inspiring them with a clear and compelling sense of purpose. This means adopting the stance of an adventurer, not the expert. Rather than jumping in with answers, jump-starting conversations with big yet focused questions.

A simple story shows the power of perspective. We were working with a multi-cultural broadcaster, who was determined to become a modern, unified, digital media organisation. While never a headline sponsor, they would always send journalists to cover major international sporting events — tennis, rugby, the Commonwealth Games and so on.

In fact they would send lots of radio and TV journalists — one fluent in the tongue of each main visiting team — and some of the lesser ones too, since they broadcast in more than 70 languages. The thought that a French language journalist for example, after capturing the triumphs of his/her mercurial champions, might also put his microphone in front of the competitors from Spain, China, Russia and Indonesia, and bring all the audio or video of them speaking with other foreign language media back to their broadcast production teams, was virtually inconceivable.

However, as they began to operate as one team, rather than one for each broadcast language, the idea of capturing content in multiple languages, and creatively repurposing content from one language to many others, became an obvious way to contain costs and leverage digital content for additional revenue. A subtle yet significant shift in perspective was sufficient to make change possible.

This is why, when it comes to executing the change needed by established organisations, I’m not advocating for revolution. History tells us revolution must be a last, bloody resort for transformation — the French, the American, the Russian and China’s Cultural one. The costs are always ghastly and incalculable.

Evolution really is the only way to get to a sustainable future, but therein lies the rub. Without declaring outright war on the status quo, you risk too many people taking comfortable choices, too often. Rather than steadily and decisively advancing towards a transformational outcome, you can find yourself going around in frustrating circles of failing profitability.

Leaders must become adept at creating a far-sighted, yet clear and pragmatic story of why change is needed, for whom, and what needs to be achieved by when. Such a story creates the space for talented teams of people to figure out the how, in a dynamic, learning process of ‘point-to-point’ navigation. It also means that if one or two steps don’t work out as intended, teams can pull back and look for another direction. Obsessed with the vision, teams will openly challenge operational ideas and business models that aren’t working, not letting them hide in the ‘too hard’ basket.

Rather than imagine the organisation as an ocean liner that can be steered from the bridge by one all-knowing captain, we need to engage the collective intelligence of a more cellular, holarchical organisation that is itching for change, rather than under control, to navigate a sustainable path to digital transformation.