It’s autumn again

Oops, missed a few months there – and now there’s a crispness in the morning air, some glorious colours starting to come on the trees and I’ve realised that it’s summer over, autumn is here. Not a problem – I really like autumn.

But I’ve also realised that the summer (at least here in the UK) wasn’t exactly like summer as I remember it either. The whole thing of each of the four seasons being distinct is less and less true. We’ve had fabulous Februarys in recent years, and horrible Julys for example. And the more I think about it, the more that blurring of boundaries is increasingly true for many aspects of business.

Think of the tech sector for example – and just how many organisations are labelling themselves ‘tech’ when in reality they are simply tech enabling their operations. Just what is a ‘tech’ stock these days is a really interesting question.

Then look at other sectors – and the blurring of lines between media, data, information finance etc – think about a company like Nutmeg – yes it’s a financial services investment company but it is also about information – it’s business model (and the regulatory environment) requires it to provide a lot of information in a way that used be done F2F.

And the blurring of corporate boundaries – collaborative participation such as Network Rail & the Samaritans, or Apple’s Developer Network or Foldit illustrate just how porous some of those boundaries are in terms of key aspects of the business operations.

So blurring of some really traditional boundaries is increasingly common, acceptable and frequently very positive. The trick is to know where staying within boundaries is the right thing to do, and where blurring is a plus!

autumn

Most innovative

Each year I look out for Fast Company’s most innovative companies – it’s always a fascinating list not least because it is genuinely different every year. In 2017 its tempting to see its just the usual suspects with Amazon, Google, Uber, Facebook and Spotify in the top 10 but look a bit further and there are new companies I’ve never heard of and more established ones like Marriott. Last year GE was in at no 20. I take a look at where the companies are (it’s quite a US based list this year but again this varies) as well as which industries and levels of maturity are most represented. The very fact that the top 50 change on a regular basis makes this genuinely representative of innovation – and reflects that not everyone can be permanently innovative. Some companies do indeed make the list more frequently  but there is a wide selection – this is the 10th year and I suspect it’s a long list when you look back over the whole lot.

The issue for me is not so much whether companies aspire to be on the list – that’s a pointless exercise, but whether they aspire to innovate as rapidly as many on the list – increasingly that’s a pre-requisite to deal with a VUCA world.

drone-innovation

Fast and slow


Many years ago I worked in publishing – as a commissioning editor for books and journals in research level chemistry. (No, my degree is in geography!). It took about 3-5 years to commission and publish a book – and I’m talking about 25+ years ago here.

I’m currently writing contributions to a book and I’m interested to find that it still seems to take about 3-4 years to commission and publish a book. Which makes me wonder why we still do (don’t get me wrong – I still have a passion for books – witness too many around the house, I read a lot of books, both fiction and non-fiction, and I was delighted to be asked to add my perspective to this one). Perhaps even more interesting, I wonder whether we are clear about what kind of content can stand the longer gestation and what like this post has a much shorter half life (time for content to receive 50% of the total views it ever will).

So I started doing some digging. The half life of a tweet is apparently less than 30 mins – that of a Facebook post about 90 mins. So now I’m thinking what the half life of a book is, and whether something like Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility even has anything like a half life. And whether there is, or should be, a relationship between the half life of, and the time taken to create, content. Or whether that depends on the content – something which is classic may have no relationship. Something which is superseded (back to the research interests) may have a relationship at the time it is created or written but then be completely redundant if the science moves on. (I was always fascinated by the difference between science and maths – it appeared to me that the latter could be improved but never proven wrong . . . . ).

I’m interested in all of this because of the sheer volume of material being created and curated- Mary Meeker’s wonderful annual report on the internet had a slide (number 90)  on the daily photos added which makes this abundantly clear.  Our old ways of publishing had built in obsolescence mechanisms (one of my least favourite aspects of publishing was deciding what to do if a book wasn’t selling as well as we thought it would) but today’s internet doesn’t. And yet . . .  much of the content has a significantly shorter half life than ever and if frequently more personal, less clearly created with any wide audience in mind.

Does it matter? I don’t know – but I worry that, like my memory as I get older, we’re filling up the spaces with stuff that might not be the most relevant for our future – simply the most resonant of our past.

What’s purpose for?

abstract purposeI’ve been working with KPMG around trust – as the critical currency for organisations to be successful and thrive in the future. The thinking here is that in our connected world, it is no longer feasible to focus on one or two key stakeholders – connectivity means that there are many different stakeholders and to grow means working effectively with all of them. For some, financial performance (to my mind the traditional metric of success with stakeholders) is still key – but looked at collectively it is too narrow, hence the broader currency of trust. Trust being built in many different ways, and top line growth/profitability just one of those routes.  Indeed, some of the complexity lies in the fact that the alternative ways of delivering trust do not appear to be on the face of it to be compatible with one another. Digging deeper, routes to success lie in achieving that compatibility and reconciling the alternatives (potentially over time even if not simultaneously).

But from that premise, I’ve been musing on where connectivity requires broader definitions elsewhere. And so, I’ve been thinking about strategy.  Strategy seems to me to be a somewhat thankless task in these VUCA times. To go deeply enough into a medium term strategy has traditionally taken time and resource – but that time means that the completed strategy is often at risk of being superseded by events or by disruptive elements in the sector. That is the thinking behind Shaping Tomorrow which I’ve mentioned before – to have an automated process for as much of strategic planning as possible to make the creation of strategy a rapid, and hence if need be frequent, event. Or there is the Google approach – review strategic priorities every 90 days (bearing in mind that Alphabet and Google may now have different approaches to this).

I’ve also been working closely with Blueprint for Better Business and thinking about purpose – to my mind a much misunderstood and overused term in the business world. The various challenges around strategy led me to wonder whether, like performance, this now requires something broader – and whether in reality the framework for organisations to thrive is now purpose. Strategy then becomes (like performance) one demonstration or lens on the wider purpose (ie like performance it is not redundant, but now part of a menu).

Going beyond strategy, purpose sets the boundaries for innovation but does not constrain ideas and insights to the purely incremental or business as usual (which is often the practical reality of strategy as communicated, even if not the intent). Purpose can inspire and motivate people and communities, and hence foster self management and decentralised decision making within an aligned and coherent whole. Purpose can align partners and networks around a common goal or achievement, even where the agendas of the players are different.

And to come back to the thinking on trust, purpose which is key to reconciling the engagement of, and building trust with, multiple stakeholders.

Dawn Chorus

blackbird

For any non-bird watchers amongst you the dawn chorus is one of the best indicators of spring – the choir of bird song which heralds sunrise and the active business of breeding, feeding, growing the next generation. And if you want to hear it there are two ways to do it – the first is to stay in bed, set an early alarm call and trust that your garden has a suitable representation of song birds (and your double glazing not completely sound proofed!). The second involves setting an even earlier alarm call and getting up, going out into the countryside or a nearby park and waiting for dawn and the chorus to arrive. That way you not only hear the music but with luck you feel in amongst it and will see the individual birds that make it up;

So is this a post about bird watching? No actually it isn’t but the analogy came to mind when I was thinking about foresight and innovation. I’ve been working in that area for nearly 10 years and suddenly in the last six months or so, I’ve heard the dawn chorus. I don’t mean that innovation hasn’t been around, or that futurists haven’t been predicting change and disruption for years – but suddenly there is a loud chorus of companies getting actively involved. My evidence? Well – take a look at Fastco’s 2016 Top 50 innovative companies and see how many are established organisations like GE or Bristol-Myers-Squibbs are there alongside the startups and the Alphabets & Apples. Take a look at the range of organisations involved in corporate venturing – Johnson & Johnson or Cisco have been in for the long haul, and Google Ventures (Alphabet) is certainly no surprise but GM have recently invested in Lyft and there are other new entrants. But these are not particularly novel indicators (I could have written pretty much this post n 1999 about the dotcom boom for example!) – what I think is different is the attitude behind these.

Traditional and established corporates seem to me, from those I have met over the last 12 months to have woken up to the VUCA world. They have begun to recognise that seeking growth in the same old ways is not necessarily going to succeed. And they have begun to accept experimentation and inherent uncertainty as business as usual – the new normal. Some of this has a defensive feel to it, arising as it does after the debut of new competitors (think Airbnb and the hotels business) but some is distinctively more pro-active and novel – GE is looking to be the leader in the industrial IoT space for example.

There is a greater confidence in digital solutions – not just the app which replicates the old process but something designed to be genuinely customer centric. I’ve just downloaded ‘Paint your room’ from Crown Paints -which allows me to see what my room will look like if painted in any colour I choose. So I don’t need to paint a range of blob on my wall, or to envisage my furniture replaced or the books removed (thank goodness).

And inevitably there is a related growth in the innovation support space – whether we are talking platforms, methodologies or services. But what intrigues me even more is where is this taking leadership skills? Can conventional organisational structures, roles and leadership capabilities simply expand to include experimentation, uncertainty and innovation as a core competence – or do we need a new kind of leader? And if the latter – is the tangible evidence of greater exploration and bravery being reflected today  in leadership skills – or are the corporate antibodies just as active as ever?  I hear mixed messages in the market place – so I think its a question of watch this space.

What’s there when the lights go out

sky-night-space-trees-large

Just been creating another short ‘card’ on the website – called Into the dark.  It extends the thinking on tolerance of ambiguity, triggered by a conversation with my friends at AbyI and Tim Stanyon in particular around just how far tolerance of ambiguity needs to stretch.

It is easy to recognise (not necessarily easy to put in practice) the need to become more conversant with complexity and to understand how complicated situations vary from complex. It is much less simple to follow the thinking through and conclude that if we are in a VUCA world, if change is the new normal then maybe the idea of all those targets and budgets and plans is not such a good one. All those milestones and beacons might just be taking us down the wrong path. But without them what have we got? What does happen when the lights go out?

Two current commentators have very similar views on this. Dave Snowden in his Cynefin framework suggests that Probe-Sense-Respond is the appropriate journey in the complex domain. And in Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations, several of his case study organisations have no budgets, no targets. Instead they use their evolutionary purpose to drive direction and their staff to do the right thing.

For those used to the discipline of project management, strategic planning and management reporting this really will feel like the lights going out – and yet, these companies find the way to grow and prosper, even in times of financial stress.

What cannot be underestimated however is the radical nature of the thinking here – this is not something that allows for a half way house. And removing the planning tools and targets cannot be achieved on its own. Above all, it is critical to know (not just as leaders but across the organisation) which is the right direction. Whether driven by evolutionary purpose or some more tactical objective, creating an initial action and seeing whether it progresses before iterating further cannot be undertaken as an isolated action – it has to be part of a wider context.

The issue then is how many companies are ready for this shift in thinking – and how many will require the leverage of an external event – perhaps disruption in their market? More on John Hegel’s latest paper next time

 

 

 

From scarcity to abundance

SONY DSC

My last post focused on tolerance of ambiguity – my latest ‘card’ on the shift from scarcity to abundance – in this instance in relation to the potential impact of 3D printing on replacement human organs.  And to me there is an enormous link between the two. Really since the dawn of mass commercialisation, our business models have been predicated on scarcity – even mass manufacturing serving really to highlight how appetites stimulated by scarcity and rarity (not that many Maseratis are made) can be met by cheaper mass produced models (the model T Ford being the classic). The decisions around operating models and pricing are therefore linked to how scarce I choose / have to make my offering. When I worked in research level publishing, there simply weren’t that many libraries / institutions working in some of the fields that we published – so the price of those books was geared to the tiny market size. Equally, Rolls Royce choose to create an incredibly high class product and charge accordingly in comparison with smaller and more mass market cars. Whilst the optimum decision is not necessarily easy the model is widespread and established.

But just look at how many assumptions are challenged in the business models based on abundance. Assets are owned not by the customer but by the providers / suppliers who may also be users / viewers /customers. Pricing is more transparently related to quality but is not necessarily homogeneous (think about the range of prices on Airbnb for example). Audiences are less mass market segments and more about tribes – tribes whose values may be similar within themselves, but where the values from one tribe to another may vary hugely. And abundance is opening up markets that never existed previously – how many of the artists and craftsmen on Etsy would previously have had a global market available to them?

And this requires a huge tolerance of ambiguity around business models – the recognition that pricing and marketing principles that worked well in the past will no longer be optimal necessarily in the future. Other people’s views (especially if more comfortable in the digital arena) may be as, if not more, valid. And new competition may arise not only from left field but within timeframes that we traditionally think of as project cycles at best.

In this context tolerance of ambiguity is really about the ability to question the status quo, to reassess fundamental assumptions (many of which are not even necessarily overt assumptions), to be humble enough to admit that not only does one not have all the right answers but that for some questions there are in fact multiple right answers. Because part of the problem with tolerance of ambiguity is understanding just what the phrase means . . .

Alternative futures

city-cars-road-traffic-medium

In my talks on megatrends I almost always finish on what I think is the key leadership skill of the future – tolerance of ambiguity. And it is beginning to dawn on me just how difficult / rare this is to find in business. This week I was talking at a global mobility conference – concerned with the ability to provide people around the globe in timely, productive and cost effective fashion. So demographics, technology, working patterns, automation etc were all discussed. But at the end of the day, my suspicion was that most people wanted to know the answer to a binary question – in the future will we or won’t we move people around the world to work?

I have every sympathy with the group tasked with achieving that today – after all international regulations, tax jurisdictions, budgets, pace of change, pressure on talent are all factors which make this hugely difficult. But when you look forward it seems to me that there is only one real answer to their question – Yes and No. Meaning that there will still be roles for which the personal, hands on, physical presence is essential, but at the same time there will be other roles which have traditionally been done in person which can be handled remotely or through an alternative route.

This is by no means a unique example – it just happens to be the one that is current to me this week. And it illustrates the business mind set – to pretty much all commercial questions there needs to be a one size fits all (and hence definitive) answer. But what is increasingly clear is that there are many alternative futures and technology is presenting us with more options all the time. At the same time, customers and users are becoming more demanding, have higher expectations and are accustomed to ever more levels of personalisation, whether in terms of product, service or experience. The one size fits all option is therefore highly unlikely to be the right way to go either from the demand or supply side. So many questions may get answered with Yes and No.

And that is where the tolerance of ambiguity comes in because so much of the corporate infrastructure is designed to create efficiency – efficiency which is predicated on economies of scale. And in the same way that the internet has created abundance (rather than scarcity) in terms of markets, it seems to me have created abundance in terms of solutions. Finding the right match for the right customer therefore goes beyond the efficient here’s the one and only solution, to the agile and adaptable – how can we have a basket of options that handle what our customers want in an efficient way?  The discussion of such agility tends to move rapidly to digital enablement, technology solutions, platforms, automation etc but it seems to me that culturally agility is simply not comfortable for many people’s mind set. The possibility of providing multiple options with the same (or better) levels of efficiency as before sits in the ‘does not compute’ box.

And none of this is surprising – tolerance of ambiguity has never been high on the list of attributes for high performance historically. Decisiveness, clarity of vision and purposeful action are all much easier and comfortable to recognise and deal with. So, in amongst the rest of the issues around creating agility, how to achieve a mind set shift to tolerate ambiguity, alternative futures, or solutions which feel radically different (potentially impossible\) to history becomes a major hurdle.

Faster than fairies, faster than witches

From a railway carriage – by Robert Louis Stevenson. A poem of its time, when the railways were amazing people with their speed (faster even than the supernatural) and at the same time democratising travel. We’re living in similar times today – my latest ‘card’ on CIAO is on geolocation / GPS which is one of those innovations that like train travel begins as a marvel and rapidly becomes the norm. I was visiting Seaton Delaval over the weekend and not only used my phone to direct me there but also realised that the National Trust app was showing me details of the nearest other properties and included Belsay Hall (English Heritage not National Trust).

All very well I hear you say but what’s the point. Well it occurred to me that so much of this data (like the application of Waze to satnavs) is happening without our really recognising what’s going on. We are just becoming very used to having contextual information provided as we move around – and increasingly expecting added value data to complement the central question we may have asked or is implicit. So we ask about local restaurants and burger bars and get not only the information but also which ones friends have liked or where we went to something similar recently. And all of this is changing our behaviour in some really subtle ways.

First, we no longer need to frame the right question – we can be much more lax about the key enquiry as our devices will supplement the answer with a raft of related information. Secondly, we don’t need to remember anything – our history (and our friends history) are increasingly available to us on our devices. Thirdly, all of this is in real time, so our need to organise in advance is also reduced. All of these might sound trivial but on a large scale they change how we think, how and what we remember and how we plan our days.

And, as I suggest on the ‘card’, all of this may be fine if we are all in the same boat but what about those without smart technology. As life evolves (especially with the advent of sensors and the internet of things) there will be an implicit assumption that everyone is sharing these behaviours, and all have access to smart devices. Over time of course this may be true (especially as technology becomes automated and less user triggered) but the interim is different. You only need to look at how many older cars are still on the road to see that not everyone can or will change at the same speed.

GPS