Jacques Bughin, Tanguy Catlin, Martin Hirt, and Paul Willmott:

Most digital strategies don’t reflect how digital is changing economic fundamentals, industry dynamics, or what it means to compete. Companies should watch out for five pitfalls.

The processing power of today’s smartphones are several thousand times greater than that of the computers that landed a man on the moon in 1969. These devices connect the majority of the human population, and they’re only ten years old.1

In that short period, smartphones have become intertwined with our lives in countless ways. Few of us get around without the help of ridesharing and navigation apps such as Lyft and Waze. On vacation, novel marine-transport apps enable us to hitch a ride from local boat owners to reach an island. While we’re away, we can also read our email, connect with friends back home, check to make sure we turned the heat down, make some changes to our investment portfolio, and buy travel insurance for the return trip. Maybe we’ll browse the Internet for personalized movie recommendations or for help choosing a birthday gift that we forgot to buy before leaving. We also can create and continually update a vacation photo gallery—and even make a few old-fashioned phone calls.

Digital rewards first movers and some superfast followers

In the past, when companies witnessed rising levels of uncertainty and volatility in their industry, a perfectly rational strategic response was to observe for a little while, letting others incur the costs of experimentation and then moving as the dust settled. Such an approach represented a bet on the company’s ability to “outexecute” competitors. In digital scrums, though, it is first movers and very fast followers that gain a huge advantage over their competitors. We found that the three-year revenue growth (of over 12 percent) for the fleetest was nearly twice that of companies playing it safe with average reactions to digital competition. Our research confirms this.

Incumbents moving boldly command a 20 percent share, on average, of digitizing markets. That compares with only 5 percent for digital natives on the prowl. Using another measure, we found that revved-up incumbents create as much risk to the revenues of traditional players as digital attackers do. And it’s often incumbents’ moves that push an industry to the tipping point. That’s when the ranks of slow movers get exposed to life-threatening competition.