Yearly Archives

72 Articles

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Ubiquity: Cheap cars and quick innovation

I talk a lot. More specifically I talk a lot about how ubiquitous technology is today and what effect that has. Ubiquitous technology strips friction from our interactions, lowers barriers to access and enables rapid innovation and development. Not all of these things are the positives they sound to be. Just look at the landfills full of tat we will create this Christmas. But for me, right now, ubiquity is a boon.

Programmable magic wands

Before I started talking and writing for a living, I thought I was going to be an engineer. I did all the classic engineer things. Dismantled all my toys and anything else I could get my hands on. Built lots of random stuff. First out of foil and rubber bands. Later out of MDF and veroboard. Bike wheel wind turbines, radio-controlled sailing boats, Spectrum-based robot controllers, and a couple of very heavy, very dangerous wakeboards. All sorts.

A few years ago I really rediscovered my love of making, enabled by the incredible accessibility of components via eBay and AliExpress. I’ve been playing with all sorts of projects since, most still semi-complete. But now I think I have found the motivation I need to get things finished. Do them for my kids.

The project that has brought this home is building programmable magic wands. I’d been considering a magic wand for my youngest for Christmas. Not one for performing. One for play-acting. Casting spells and shooting out crystals Lolirock/Winx Club-style to fend off evildoers. That’s her favourite fantasy world. But all the toy ones I found were too flimsy.
I wanted something more robust. Then one night at dinner we were discussing Laser Quest, and I figured, why not combine the two? Could I make some magic wands and targets so they could shoot spells at each other? Even better, could I make it all programmable? What a way to teach code: write your own spells.

A few hours of hacking later and I had two rechargeable magic wands made from old toilet cistern parts. What can I say? I horde. A lot. And with a little Dremel-ing they were the right shape and size. Some RGB LEDs, a couple of Arduino Pro Minis, recycled 18650 Li-Ion batteries from an old laptop, and switches recovered from the front of a PC. Total cost? Less than a couple of quid.

Weekend magic wand project ready for painting. Kids can program their own ‘spells’ (lights) using integrated #arduino

— Tom Cheesewright (@bookofthefuture) December 18, 2016

The targets won’t be much more. Perhaps the only components I will need to buy will be the infra-red receivers. As I say, I horde. A lot.

This is ubiquity in action. Custom toys, in hours, for pounds.

Further lessons in bangernomics

A week ago my car started making an ominous noise. The sort of clunk that anyone intimately familiar with the drivetrain of a modern automobile knows means expense. Sure enough, the garage confirmed my suspicions. It already had a fairly serious fault, but that was fixable at a reasonable cost. This was economically terminal.

The car had only lasted twelve months since I bought it. I never expected it to last that long with over 120k on the clock, but I was worried about my record. I was aiming for a total acquisition and maintenance cost over my ownership of less than £50 per month. With the bits of servicing I’d done, this was going to be more like £75. £800 to buy, £30 on MOT and £60 on brakes.

Fortunately — and trust me a danced a little jig afterward — I managed to get a decent trade-in against a replacement. £340 back meant I smashed my £50/month target, demonstrating just how cheaply you can own and operate a car now, tax and insurance notwithstanding.

We are at peak car right now. The technology is totally ubiquitous and hugely accessible.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Hard work makes the most of good luck


Successful people who concede the role of luck in their lives are, sadly, rare. Trump, I would propose, is unlikely to acknowledge the role of luck in allowing him to reach his current lofty position. But as Robert H Frank points out in his recent LSE lecture, luck is important. Not least in where and to whom you are born. A study from New Zealand published today shows a very high predictability for people’s ultimate cost to the state that can be established at the age of just 3 years old.

Companies can be equally guilty of dismissing chance. The corporate ego rarely acknowledges the role of luck in its products or services proving to be precisely the right offer at the right time. There’s only so much control businesses can exert over the four Ps.

What confuses people about all this is that they believe it is an argument against hard work and personal — or corporate — achievement. It is anything but. It’s like the old joke about the [insert offensive stereotype] and the lottery ticket. The [offensive stereotype] prays to their god for a lottery win and then curses them when weeks later they haven’t won. The deity retorts “Meet me halfway. At least buy a ticket.”

Ultimately, there are two traps to fall into here.

Firstly, if your company has been lucky to date, don’t believe it will stay lucky. Start working now to make up for the day when your luck fails you. And for everyone’s sake, be humble and acknowledge your luck while it lasts.

Secondly, don’t work on the assumption that you will ever be lucky. You may feel cheated by those who seemed to sail towards success on an unseen wind. They may shout about how it was all down to their brilliance when you know better. But there’s nothing you can do to change it, so keep plugging away. Maybe your day will come, maybe it won’t. But you’ll never know if you’re not in a position to catch that wind when it comes.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Five year plan: Soviet relic remains a business reality

Does your business have a five year plan? Probably. You may not think it does. You may think the idea sounds a little Soviet. But think about it. When did the leaders of your organisation last have the time to step back and consider the future with an open mind?

In my experience these events are infrequent. Every five years or so, something happens to trigger such thinking. You get a new leader or perhaps a new investor. Perhaps your company is bought out. Maybe you win a big new customer or lose one. Something happens, the leaders gather and you put a new plan together. Thus it becomes by default, the new five year plan.

Motion and Direction

Five years is a long time. Five years ago is when Google+ launched, and more successfully, Siri. Steve Jobs died. 2011 was Occupy Wallstreet, the UK riots, Will and Kate’s wedding and Bin Laden’s assassination. In five years a business can go from launch to a multi-billion dollar valuation (SnapChat). Or it can go from multi-billion sales to near-collapse (Staples).

A five year plan can only define a destination and a direction. It cannot define motion: the process of achieving that destination. Because your motion will have to change too frequently for it to be defined months or years in advance.

Most organisations do have annual planning exercises too. But in my experience, these exercises are usually heavily defined by the five year plan. Not just by its goals, but by its methods. Not what the organisation should achieve, but how it will achieve it. Annual planning sessions are usually about telling people to do more of the same. They ascribe failure to people not doing enough.

Five year plan, six-month cycle

Leaders need to have a very clear separation in their planning between direction and aspiration, and action. Set direction every five years. By all means, it is important to have a vision. But every six months, every organisation should go through an exercise of challenging its behaviours, priorities, and assumptions. Looking outside and in to see what is around the corner.

That is a recipe for sustainable success. Blindly following a five year plan is a recipe for disaster.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

What’s the right structure for a large organisation?

What’s the right structure for a large organisation? There have been a few interesting blog posts about this in recent days, looking specifically at Apple and whether it is equipped to support its own scale.

It’s a topic that I started to tackle a few years ago with Enfield Borough Council when the chief exec asked me what a future-ready council should look like. I tackled it again when a £250m turnover logistics business asked me to help them to be future-ready. Neither of these businesses is Apple-scale. But I think the answer holds as you scale up.

My answer in both cases was similar. It starts with perspective. Every org chart is created from the leader’s perspective, and so has the leader at the top or in the middle. But we know that the most important person in any organisation is not its leader. It’s the customer.

Reorganising the businesses around the customer gave us a model of concentric circles: a common interface layer, a common network layer for data, and a common external interface for partners. This, in turn, led to a clear need to define the interfaces at each of these layers very carefully to minimise friction — another way of maximising the accessibility that Steve Yegge talks about in his famous platforms rant.

Where things get really interesting is when you diminish the friction not just between layers in this model, but between different services and functions.

Functional vs Divisional

In the classic org models, you would divide the business up by functions (HR, finance, sales, marketing) or by business line (product A, product B, product C). Most companies do a bit of both. The attempts to rationalise this hybrid often end up with a matrix: people have a functional reporting line (more senior people of their discipline) and a divisional reporting line (more senior people responsible for the delivery of products or services).

In our model, we proposed more of a service model. Part of this fits with the description of Amazon’s data-driven approach as Yegge describes: there are lots of interfaces that are currently based on high-friction, human-to-human interaction where little would be lost and lots gained by changing them to low-friction digital interactions. But there are also interactions where the human-to-human component is absolutely vital: creative, decision-making, or complex communication. Here we often suggested more of an agency/client approach.

Such relationships in the past may have been very high friction, hence the perceived need to co-locate people or set out the org chart to define hard connections. But technology has enabled very low friction interactions — e.g. shared documents, instant messaging — that supplement the richer face-to-face interactions that these relationships require.

Define interfaces, not connections

If you focus on defining the interfaces between units in an organisation and then optimise those interfaces, you can map it much more easily and more importantly, maintain that mapping. You can see through the organisation and understand value flows and interactions. You can keep goals coherent.

In 2017 I hope to expand further on this premise — the basis of our Stratification model. Perhaps through research and perhaps through direct application to an organisation.

Any volunteers?

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Outsourcing: why it works

Why do companies choose to outsource? Or more importantly, when? What’s the motivation for outsourcing? The trigger?

The usual answer, it seems, is cost. Company leaders believe they can achieve the same ends for less money. In an ideal world, they test this belief before the decision is made. Then the relationship between supplier and customer is codified in a contract. ‘We will get X for Y by Z’.

Now imagine having that contractual relationship in place for every function of your business. Not as a step to outsourcing. But as a means to better understand your business. You don’t need to spend millions on lawyers and contracts. You don’t even need to spend thousands on consultants. Just spend some time understanding the inputs, outputs, and expectations for every function of your business.

In my experience, very few organisations go through this exercise with any frequency. The worst offenders are profitable companies with happy, long-serving staff. They sound like great places to work. But in these places, people rarely ask difficult questions.

This lack of clarity has three effects.

1. Poor value measurement

If you don’t know the inputs and outputs of each function, it’s hard to understand how value flows through your business. For example, properly matching sale prices to input costs. This is particularly challenging in service businesses, or businesses with a blended product/service model.

2. Misalignment of goals

I don’t believe that everyone in even a medium-sized company can be aligned with the same goals. Without the constant reinforcement of day-to-day reality, goals are just words. Each business function needs to operate to a goal that is coherent with the organisation’s goal. And each function’s goal needs relevant metrics in place against which its success can be measured.

3. Lack of agility

Changing a function you don’t understand is hard. Understand your business functions and their interactions, and you can reorganise them more quickly as your business changes. Or, if it makes sense, outsource.

Outsourcing works, even when it doesn’t ultimately deliver value, because there is clarity in the relationship. Because inputs and outputs are understood. Because metrics are defined.

There are a lot of costs involved in outsourcing. A lot of friction in the contractual relationship between supplier and customer. Before you consider outsourcing, before you even start looking at your costs and seeking savings, consider how well you understand the interfaces between the functions of your business.


Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The best strategy? Not either, but all

Alphabet (the business formerly known as Google) has become infamous for its project culls. Shiny programmes that look from outside like enviably serious businesses, either stripped back or canned altogether. Its drone programme, Project Wing, seems to be the latest (Bloomberg via Benedict Evans’s newsletter). Evans suggests that following a spread of bets across potential game-changers, Google knows now that machine learning is the future and so it can double down on that*.

But that doesn’t mean that the other bets Google made, and has pulled back from, couldn’t be serious businesses in their own right. Someone is going to make a lot of money selling (or perhaps leasing and operating) delivery drones. As the Motorola Moto Z I’m currently testing ably demonstrates, modular smartphones may be viable, despite the death of Project Ara.

Google may have selected the best opportunities. But the others are still opportunities.

Second Place is Great

I’m doing a little piece on local radio this morning about the death — or otherwise of the DVD. A well-loved film store in Kent is apparently closing because of lack of demand. It’s no great surprise: sales of video discs have halved in the UK since 2008 according to IHS. That’s a tough market in which to sustain a small business when you’re likely being undercut by the nearest supermarkets, and outsold by the internet.

But I’ll be arguing that the DVD won’t go away. Not for a long time at least. It will be diminished: digital streaming will take the lion’s share of film sales. But there will be a hard core clinging on, for whatever reason. Like the US prisons, highlighted recently by 99% Invisible, that still use cassette tapes.

In our globally connected, diverse market, even the smallest opportunities can be significant.

This or That? Both

This reality doesn’t offer the sort of certainties people like.

“Is the answer A or B?”

“Well it’s about 40% A, 25% B and have you considered C and D?”

But in all spheres of our life we are going to be experiencing, and taking, more choices.

That includes our working environments, something I’ve been looking at again recently due to some engagements in the property sector. Thanks to the Workfit-T from Ergotron I’m currently testing for The Loadout, I now spend some of my day standing, and some of it sat. Like most people my days are also divided between working in the office (less) and working remotely (more). A mixture of my kitchen island, coffee shops, conference centres, hotels, railways, airports and other people’s offices. There are not going to be office workers and remote workers — especially since the office-bound jobs are the most likely to be automated. We will all be on the move.

Hedging Bets

The best strategy in this diverse and complex environment is to embrace as many good options as your resources allow. This doesn’t mean chasing every avenue. It means selecting the best opportunities early, experimenting, and learning to cull when you’ve learned what you need to learn. It means adapting when new opportunities you hadn’t considered become available, even if the idea wasn’t yours. And it means learning to be comfortable with complexity and some level of disorder. This is not easy for us as a species: we like to put things in boxes and draw dividing lines: this OR that, not this, that and the other.

In business we can only afford to support this complexity if the interfaces between us and our many choices are low-friction. Small opportunities can be made unviable if the cost of addressing them is too high.

Inside a company this is often about measurement and decision-making: so much energy is expended in making decisions that there is too little left for the practical experiments that might inform them.

At the borders of the business, friction is often the difference between being able to pursue lots of opportunities and having to make a few big bets.

Lower your friction and your business can be much more secure.

*This would be consistent with Google’s continued investment in human computer interaction technologies that can increase the bandwidth of the input and output of data from these learning systems.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Engaging tomorrow’s influencers

Like many industries, print media was slow to adapt to the realities of the internet age. Even now many of the giants of the media world are wrestling with fundamental issues about how to remain profitable and competitive: income streams, distribution channels, reader relationships, content quality, and volume.

There are success stories. New firms who have understood what the new world means and built a business on it. But even they, lean, multi-channel, and socially-distributed, feel like interim steps. Iterations of what went before, not fully realised examples of what will be.

Exploding the media business

Imagine a magazine or newspaper business fully exploded into its component parts: information gathering, verification, content synthesis, quality control, curation, and distribution. Plus of course, the vital function of income generation. Now consider, each of those functions as a standalone function:

  • Information gathering: The internet brings us text, video, audio and documents from almost every corner of the earth.
  • Verification: Imagine an algorithm that could parse information and assess its validity based on the history of that source and corroboration. Imagine every meme that hits your inbox with a trust rating.
  • Synthesis: Every human being in the developed world now has the tools to produce content, and if they lack the skills, they can access endless education materials to improve them.
  • Quality control: Tools like Grammarly are getting ever smarter about telling us how to write well
  • Curation: Tools like Feedly and Flipboard have been allowing us to curate our own newspapers for a while now. Tools like Buffer streamline and even automate the curation of our own news feeds.
  • Distribution: solved by open publishing platforms, search, and social engines
  • Income: programmatic advertising and paywalls with ever-lower friction

The super-influencer

Now consider how many people might be required to build a media empire in a semi-automated future leveraging these tools. We already have super-powered YouTubers, most of whom leverage other channels. Take them to the next level: multi-channel media moguls with the clout to spur sales and shape markets.

Today the YouTubers typically parlay their success into engagement with more traditional media and brands hungry for the association. But it’s easy to foresee a time when these influencers are the media. When newspaper brands are just aggregations of the best bloggers on a shared political platform. When the radio-to-podcast path is fully reversed and radio just becomes the curation of podcasts.

Engaging tomorrow’s media

This has huge implications for an industry I’m looking at now for a potential project: PR. Most PR agencies also missed the digital transition. Many are still reliant on their relationships with the traditional media for their income. Few know how to value non-traditional influencers, let alone engage with them. I know this because, on a small scale, I am one. Take, for example, the rash of emails I received on Monday offering me comment off the back of a BBC Breakfast story about ransomware. None of them seemed to notice (and they certainly didn’t reference) that I was the expert interviewed for the story, despite the BBC sharing video of me across social channels alongside the TV appearance.

As our diversity principle* suggests, the future of the media is not only these super-influencers: it will be an increasingly diverse space. But that only complicates the picture for both the brands trying to survive today and the businesses trying to engage with them tomorrow.

Now is the time to start thinking.

*Read the Applied Futurist’s Manifesto to understand our Five Vectors of Change

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The coming of the post-screen age

Screens are a seriously limited form of interaction between us and our digital worlds. Communicating via a screen is like a novice eating with chopsticks: not very efficient.There is just a very small number of pixels with which to communicate, either capturing your touch or returning information via the image. Compare this to the majesty of the physical environment and its 360 degree canvas of sounds, smells, and sensations on your skin. This is why I have long been a believer* that the screen has a limited lifespan as the primary component in our digital interactions. The post-screen age is coming.

We hear a lot about ‘big data’. And about the increasing speeds with which data can be delivered to our devices: ‘superfast broadband’, 4G, fibre. We hear little about the speed with which we can consume and process data. Part of the answer to this comes in improvements in the device’s capabilities, and part of it comes from improvements in the user interface design. But fundamentally we will always be limited if we stick to the screen as the primary means of consuming and interacting with data.

In a post-screen world we use a rich array of sensors combined with machine learning to accurately interpret what they are saying, and foretell what it is we might want before we even ask for it. Control input and feedback comes from a new range of touch technologies, combined with sound, voice and more visually integrated design features. Examples: the Lechal Pods that I’ve been testing that give satnav directions by vibrating under your left or right foot at appropriate moments. Or the Withings Activité Pop that displays your steps walked with a simple dial rather than a flashy digital screen.

Google and others have long been working on mid-air touch technologies, using radar to expand the canvas of the touch screen and give us new interaction opportunities. Wired reported a few days ago on a UK company looking to return information using directed sound waves to create the sensation of touch on the fingers.

*See ‘Emerging from the Colossal Cave’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass: Tomorrow’s Office in the Post-Screen Age

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

What do you want to be when you grow up?

What do you want to be when you grow up? Fifty years ago the answer to that question may have been singular. Astronaut. Doctor. Ballet dancer. Footballer. Train driver. One, lifelong ambition and career.

My eldest wants to be a scientist, a children’s book author and prime minister. She is on the right lines.

We have known for some time that the 40-year, single-employer career was dead. That’s just not the way the world works anymore. But it’s increasingly clear that the model that replaced it, bouncing every two or three years between employers to climb the corporate ladder, is equally dead. For a number of reasons.

The reality for today’s school leavers is that whatever career they enter first simply may not exist in just five years time. Train drivers? What are they, my grandchildren will ask. My great grandchildren may be equally baffled by doctors, lawyers, accountants, bankers.

If you want to keep working, you’re going to have to learn to do something else and learn often.

For employers too the world is changing. The increasingly short, cyclical nature of success means that the need for people, even of the highest calibre, is likewise cyclical. Margins and risk may not allow the maintenance of their employment while the business adapts and finds a new role for employees. So they may be released and re-hired when the time is right.

What do people do when this happens? They do something else. Perhaps for themselves.

The future career will likely not just be a series of increasingly short hops between employers. It will be a dizzying blend of concurrent engagements with an array of employers seeking your skills at the appropriate point in their life cycle. It will be overlaid with owned micro-enterprises: content creation and curation and promotion. Hyper-local services. It might be supplemented with participation in community mutual schemes for care, crop growing and local maintenance.

The downside is that none of this will be easy.

The upside: you no longer have to choose between scientist, author and prime minister. Maybe you can be all three.

Maybe you will need to be.

Tom Cheesewright