Digital leader challenges

What are the biggest challenges facing digital leaders today? An interview with Neil Thornburn.

This month Neil Thornburn popped into the studio to chat with our CTO, James Forage about the challenges facing digital leaders in large organisations.

Neil has held senior digital roles at J.P. Morgan Asset Management, the RNLI and Smiths Medical where he has led teams of between 5 and 50 people. We were keen to learn how Neil balances the needs of his projects, teams and stakeholders, and to ask what digital transformation really means in 2019.

Digital transformation
I see the term digital transformation actually going away and it just being business as usual. It’s about the behaviour of organisations, and making sure they become scalable so they can keep up with any technology changes and changes in end user behaviours
Neil Thornburn, VP of Digital Strategy

There is room for creativity everywhere

  • Creativity comes in many guises. It's not just about the creative outputs, but the process too. It could be about finding a better way of handling translation for your website, or a new way of starting a conversation at an event. In any case, creativity is your differentiator.

  • Success as a leader even requires you to be creative in how you approach communication with your internal stakeholders because the way you might successfully sell an idea to your CMO might be very different to how you'd want to approach the CFO.

When everyone is working to a deadline, budgets are typically quite low and there’s a lot of BAU noise, creativity is always seen as a nice to have. In a world of ever-increasing MVPs it seems to be the first thing to go. It should be the last thing to go, because that’s what gets you noticed. That’s what you can use to demonstrate success.
Neil Thornburn, VP of Digital Strategy
Winning over stakeholders
The easiest way to win senior stakeholders over is to show them something. Show them something they can actually see, touch and feel - and prove success in a really small part of the business.
Neil Thornburn, VP of Digital Strategy

Talk to me like I'm five

Talking in simple, easy to understand sentences and phrases is important, primarily because it's hard to fake. Talking to someone like they’re five is incredibly difficult to do if you don’t understand what you’re talking about!
Neil Thornburn, VP of Digital Strategy

Transparency and simplicity in communications is key to every relationship. Success in digital is to a large extent about being able to communicate both the current issues and complex legacy hindrances in a simple way, alongside illustrating how to resolve them and how they align to larger organisational objectives.

  • Break it down into small chunks

    Delivering a message in small, concise parts gives the recipient time to digest it and respond appropriately

  • Know your audience

    User-centered design is no stranger to us, so why not use the same approach to understand and adapt how you work with your stakeholders?

  • Avoid technical terminology

    Buzzwords are often the first thing to fall into a sentence when someone is unsure of a topic. On the other hand, overly complex phrasing for something simple is the fastest way to baffle the brains of the audience. If you're talking about something new, don’t assume people will ask for an explanation if they’re not following

  • Show me, don’t tell me

    Help your stakeholders to visualise the key message with images and diagrams

Keep it simple

Balance of skills

The T-shaped profile

You want a team who are quick and effective in responding to the challenges in front of them. This requires them to be acutely aware of how their skills fit within the wider team.

Even at a relatively junior level, team members need to know to ask the right question at the right time of their stakeholders. They can then take steps to involve other team members and stakeholders at the right time.

This produces the need for ‘T-shaped’ characters: people who have a broad understanding of many of the various elements of digital. You don't need specialists in every single area in all meetings or projects if the people in the room have a wide breadth of knowledge and skills. They will know enough to add value to projects and will have a clear understanding of if, when, and how to involve more specialist support.

Having the t-shape profile within your employees means that they have a context of the work that they do, and an empathy of its place within the wider organisation. Certainly in our experience digital has started to become much more part of the fabric within our customers and there’s a huge drive within our customer base to upskill internally in terms of digital
James Forage, CTO at Yoyo
T Shaped Profile


If your team have those broad skills, you don't need a person who has an expert background in that area: they can actually work with a vendor and find a solution. So it really is about partner networks as well, rather than trying to build a team of digital experts and saying there isn't anything we can't do
Neil Thornburn, VP of Digital Strategy
I like to break down the barriers between a vendor and the internal teams and actually have them working together collaboratively and exposing different facets of your team to the agency. The more they see, the more they become part of your organisation and the more it feels more authentic.
Neil Thornburn, VP of Digital Strategy

The challenges ahead

Digital future

There will be a number of challenges ahead for organisations, especially larger ones that need the top-end skills when it comes to integrating digital into the business

Attracting and retaining talent

When you're competing with the likes of Google, Amazon and fast-paced start-ups, it’s very difficult to attract the really talented individuals. If you can hire them, then retaining them is the next big challenge because money will only keep them so long. You need to foster that culture of creativity and ensure there's room for growth, variety and challenge within the role. Large organisations have big projects which can often be slow to progress - but there's a need to find the right balance with smaller more innovative projects to ensure your best employees don't get bored. Each member of your team may have very different priorities and expectations, so this will be no easy feat. 

Mindset change

Organisations created digital teams because of the need to keep up with rapid changes and new technologies. This has demanded very specialist skill-sets, but as 'digital transformation' starts to become the status quo, digital teams cannot remain in a silo. Digital skills and responsibilities will be dispersed back into the business, which forces a huge mindset change. Behaviours and beliefs of teams will be challenged, and the need to facilitate communication and knowledge sharing between departments becomes critically important.

Putting the processes in place and the technology there: I think that is relatively easy. But getting that cultural change and that acceptance of people letting go and other parts of the organisation starting to take things on board - that is a big challenge
Neil Thornburn, VP of Digital Strategy
Ipad 01

What's your challenge?

At Yoyo we help large organisations create experiences with impact. When you need something a bit different to get you noticed and engage your customers or employees, our specialist experts can become an extension of your team. Together we can create something bold, beautiful and immersive. Just what an experience should be. 

Want some inspiration?

Browse our work