Change is an Opportunity

Change

I love www.pexels.com! This is a really short post – to thank pexels for their wonderful resource and to introduce what I hope will be a useful resource for some people – my new website changeisanopportunity.info. You will find some stuff about me on there but it is really a way of me collating and showcasing stuff on trends that I find interesting, challenging, provocative or just newsworthy. Let me know what you think – particularly if you have suggestions for ways to make it better

Who cares? and Why?

Chain

Thinking about language again I was struck by the word chain – suggesting either a constraint or, as in a bicycle, an enabler and accelerator. It’s that more positive interpretation that started me thinking. Because I’ve been discussing value chains a lot recently and making the mildly depressing discovery that actually a lot of organisations are a good deal more articulate about their supply chain than their value chain. Starting with the question ‘why’ do you do what you do – in association with ‘what’ do you do, frequently elicits the immediate answer ‘to make money / profits / growth’. Further exploration of this usually fleshes this out to get more focus on the customer but this question of why is increasingly fundamental for at least two reasons in my view:

1. The customers view of value is shifting and shifting fast. Think about the impact of collaborative consumption – the sharing economy. The value used to be in owning an asset, that was how you de-risked a business. Now the high growth marketplaces are precisely those without assets – Uber has no taxis, Airbnb no hotels. Borrow my doggy, no dogs. What consumers of these services care about is convenience – how fast, how easy, how relevant.

2. People engage around a purpose or a ‘why’ that resonates with them – either as consumers / buyers or as workers / employees. And frankly for most employees once the immediate ‘I am going to get paid’ question is answered the idea of making money for shareholders (unless you are one of them . . . ) is not the most personally relevant or resonant answer – they want to feel that they are making a difference, or a contribution and that the work they are doing is valuable.

But I do think that question of purpose is getting very confused. I personally think purpose, like innovation and a number of other once quite innocuous and clear words, has become very, very ambiguous. Sustainability is another. We just don’t really have a common language any more. For many people, purpose and sustainability are about ethical issues, or about environmental or social concerns. And the problem there is that they then become emotive – and for those not engaged, divorced from the commercial aspects of the business. But purpose as I’ve suggested as above is integral to the business – it is the essential raison d’etre for being there. And sustainable in the dictionary is defined as ‘able to maintained at a certain rate or level’ which has no specific direction to that rate or level.

Oh the joys of our evolving language . . . .

Unknown territory

road

For many years I drove all over the place, on my own, and I got very comfortable about knowing roughly where I was and roughly where I was going – basically I worked out which big towns I needed to go between and only worried about the detail of my actual destination when I got near to it. I’ve been doing a lot of driving recently with the ‘aid’ of a sat nav – and I’m really struck by the contrast. The  whole route is defined for you from the outset – and if you veer off it (which I am wont to do if I think somewhere looks interesting) the instructions are pretty vehement to get back onto the main road, the direct A-B. And of course sometimes that’s the right thing to do. But I think sat nav is also an analogy for how big business works these days. We have to know, not just where we are going but the whole route to get there. Hence project management, business planning etc. And yet . . . .

The world is becoming increasingly complex – and complexity means that properties (and hence events) are emergent. Not linear, not extrapolatable, not plannable – they emerge from the interplay of forces and drivers. Which means that you might know where you want to get to, but you can’t know the best way to do it. You have to prototype, to experiment – see what works and when it does, do more of it. Where it doesn’t, be quick to close it down and move on. I’m hearing a lot about innovation but innovation seems in many cases to be really project management by another guise – take the chosen ideas, develop them according to the plan, stage gate then, lose (sometimes) the ones that don’t work and follow the plan on the others. It all feels rather sterile and fails to take into account emergent properties – they don’t fit the plan.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that there are many reasons I like the Cynefin framework but one of the most obvious is that it makes this tension really explicit – the VUCA world we live in means that events, actions etc are becoming more (albeit not exclusively) complex rather than complicated or simple – ie the operating environment is moving anti-clockwise from simple through complicated to complex and even chaotic. At the same time my basic understanding of how our brain works suggests that our instincts are all about moving clockwise – taking the complex (unknown and unpredictable) and seeking to map it to things we are already familiar with and hence making it known and predictable. So that gives us an ever increasing tension between the two. And as Dave Snowden points out in the video the real world is a mixture of both – but we do need to be explicit about where we are for any given context and we have to be comfortable with the complex . . .  It’s that lack of comfort with the unpredictable, with the lack of a given route map that I feel instinctively is perhaps one of our greatest risks.

Business or do I mean business?

Busy

Inevitably some of my colleagues are manically busy (most of them in fact) and I was emailing one to say that I hoped their business (‘biz-ee-ness’) was productive when it occurred to me that that was spelt exactly the same way as business (‘biz-ness’). And one of the things that I have noticed now I am spending more time working for myself is that biz-ee-ness is a culture specific to biz-ness – or at least the culture of proving that you are busy all the time is specific to business.

I am relishing the time to think, to research, to post (well I am, even if you aren’t relishing reading them!) and to choose what I work on. I am also realising just how much of what I used to spend my time on was so unproductive. Multiple meetings to discuss what things needed to look like or how they were going to work – which in reality were more about making all those involved feel that they had contributed. Why? Wouldn’t it be more productive for each to contribute something different to the agenda rather than all contributing to the one item?

I am not disparaging my colleagues here – this is not unique to them or the organisation I worked for. It is the way business has productionalised things. We think by introducing hierarchy and project management we have professionalised the process – but in reality we seem to have created an industry – and one where success is not measured by the outcome of whatever the project is for but whether the gantt charts, project plans, action minutes and issues log are up to date. There are people (fortunately not too many) who believe that theirs is the most important job on the project when what they actually do is ring round and chivvy. What happened to trust? What happened to autonomy and initiative? And what happened to just get on and do?

In all of this there is a set of underlying assumptions that what we need to do is a) predictable and plannable in advance, b) unchanged by events as the project moves forward unless something unfortunate (a difficult client, an unforeseen hiccup, a piece of data missing) happens and c) subject to a single, right solution. And increasingly I am just not sure about that . . . . in a VUCA world, there are often multiple options – some better today, some better tomorrow, some better for particular cultures or personalities. And where there is volatility, there will be events which are unforeseen – no one’s fault, no-one missed anything just a genuine shift. Complexity means emergent events and properties – you need to foster the ones that are helpful and constrain those that aren’t – neither particularly easy to plot on the gantt chart in weeks 5 and 6 when you don’t even yet know what the emergent properties are let alone when or how they might manifest.

And then I worry that innovation is increasing the biz-ee-ness in biz-ness. We don’t really seem to consider that innovation in how we work might deliver the best value of all – no, we are more concerned with a new product or even a new business model. So we need to work out how to handle all of that alongside the rest of the day job – find some time to put your idea into the ‘Idea of the month’ scheme or build on someone else’s bright thinking.

And yes, I get that I am lucky and yes, I do have periods when I suffer from biz-ee-ness. But that makes the opportunity to think, to gain insights and to experiment to see what happens all the more valuable.- and raises these interesting questions!

X being an unknown quantity, and spurt being a drip under pressure

direction

An old joke but one that started me thinking about experts and expertise. Do we need experts any more when information is available at the click of a mouse? What is their role as we look forward? Increasingly access to expertise is becoming more transparent, easier and cheaper. Google and similar search engines make finding solutions and answers to known problems or access to those who can help easier. Crowd sourcing solution sites such as Innocentive offer simple, timely and cheap means to access a global audience of solvers (from amateur to truly deep experts) for an ever increasing range of problems. Ideation schemes (whether internal or open innovation ) provide banks of ideas from the incremental to the novel.  Marketplaces and apps offer the opportunity to receive a range of quotes and possible solutions on a pull rather than pushed basis, providing real competition to conventional sales and marketing routes.  And in high growth areas such as app development the rapid change means that an expert will be someone with perhaps 2-3 years experience, not 20.

When I read the Oxford Martin School’s paper on the probability of automation it seemed to me that many of the most likely jobs which could be automated were focused on the type of expertise that relied on knowledge and information – built up over many years. It isn’t really difficult to believe that a supercomputer like IBM’s Watson, with all its capacity and processing power would indeed be more accurate in diagnosis than a doctor (which is not of course the same thing as trusting it more . . . )

So if it is not expertise based on knowledge that is still needed then what else? The security of someone giving you ‘the solution’? I’ve spent a lot of time with experts whose experience leads them time and again to identify the issue and be able to apply solutions from elsewhere to get to the best action plan. My concern there is that in a VUCA world there is no guarantee that the solution that worked last time is the best for today (let alone tomorrow) or even that the underlying problem or question remains the same. Scenario planning and systems thinking are coming back into fashion – no surprise given the complexity of today’s world, but neither of them posits a nice simple ‘one right answer’. So maybe it’s not to give us certainty then.

Most rapid change happens in the B2C environment, driven by individuals and consumers. This offers B2B the ability to identify changes that may subsequently impact the B2B environment. One such is the increasing influence over brands and purchasing by the consumer themselves. The role of ‘people like me’ in providing trusted judgement, the ability to personalise, the focus on experience and resonance (is it cool?) are all drivers of this shift – which is driven by the underlying level of connectivity and transparency (for example reviewing pricing through comparison sites). There are some signs that this degree of ‘pull’ from customers is beginning to be seen in the B2B space. The impact on expertise is that those with problems are not necessarily looking any more to be given a prescribed solution or told what to do. Increasingly people want options, alternatives with a holistic assessment of each and the decision to be clearly theirs – you might look in the shop, but compare prices and buy online. They also want the right level of solution – not always the Rolls Royce or expert one. The latter is particularly pertinent in areas of technology where they can see an ever changing future in which today’s technology will be superseded quickly and where tomorrow’s solution is likely to be quicker, cheaper and more flexible. Whilst none of these trends is new of itself, the depth to which they combine in buyers who are translating their consumer experience to work is definitely new. But lets not forget they also want and need to know what to do.

So perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way round – perhaps the need is not so much for experts as expertise – expertise which simply comes in a wider and wider range of formats, from the friend who can mend your leaky tap to the app that helps you sleep. From the antiques expert who can tell the fake from the authentic to the algorithm making decisions for you – we simply have more expertise than ever available to us. Now all we need is someone to tell us which is the best one to use . .

Language – is it for us or against us?

The lecture I remember from over 30 years ago is the one where our lecturer came in and, with no preamble, said “There are hundreds of hexagons on that blackboard (trans: an arcane precursor to whiteboards) but you can’t see them until I draw round them for you”. Which he proceeded to do. It was a great introduction to the power of images and more importantly mental images. I’ve been thinking about this recently in the context of communication and language around concepts.

The memory came back when reading John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel when I was astounded to discover (arrogantly as I came to realise) that nuances of language are more common the less industrialised the society. In other words that we become less capable of subtlety in language the more technologically advanced we are. And also that in creating a more prescriptive or definitive vocabulary we potentially can lose some associated capabilities. Lera Boroditsky on The EDGE highlights how societies without the concept of right or left and other specific directional terms have an innate spatial awareness of where they are in relation to north.

Then routinely in my job I am asked for a definition of innovation – at least that’s the spoken question. I have come to recognise that the real question here is more like “I have a definition of innovation in my head and it is one that says innovation is not relevant to me so how are you going to persuade me that it is?” And yet if you ask them they probably couldn’t articulate that personal definition. We have become so occupied by day to day actions, by practical activity, that we struggle to communicate or even relate to more conceptual issues especially those that have a flavour of change or unfamiliarity about them.

And yet – complexity, ambiguity, volatility all combine to make simple extrapolation of what we have done thus far less and less likely to succeed. We need to get back to being able to translate new, different ways to work into communicable ideas and to debate them freely. Hence an increasing tendency to use visual imagery, comic or entertaining videos, experiential learning and story telling to conjure mental images which fire imagination or engage the audience. Our visual sense is far more acute and uses much more of our mental capacity than language or speech – and perhaps that’s why a picture or mental image is frequently less controversial, easier to gain real consensus around or simply more powerful.

So perhaps our professional world needs to become more visual, to involve more imagery and story telling – not just in advertising or marketing but in every day communication?

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