Monthly Archives

7 Articles

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

One world, many realities

In the immediate aftermath of the US election, the LSE hosted a roundtable event to try to understand what had happened. How the predictions had been so completely wrong, and what the next steps might be. Bronwen Maddox noted something that others have since echoed. There were two realities in America. Two tribes in their own media bubbles, each unable to comprehend how the other could support their chosen candidate.

The picture of Brexit Britain is not dissimilar.

The downside of diversity

There is a downside to the diversity I discuss so often. Not the diversity of race, creed, colour or gender — something in which there are clear business benefits, let alone everything else. But the diversity that allows multiple bubbles to co-exist without interaction.

Narratives can be so reinforced in these echo-chambers of opinion that even the most powerful facts cannot penetrate the bubble. This presents a problem when it comes to tackling issues that require the support of whole populations.

Sustainable development

I hosted the second in a pair of events for the Institute of Chartered Accountants yesterday, looking at the UN Sustainable Development Goals and how business may have to transform if it is to help to achieve them. The changes required are radical, if aims like ending poverty and hunger are to be met within the 13 year timescale of the goals.

This radical change will need widespread support. Support that will not be forthcoming while one half of the electorate distrusts global institutions, believes climate change is a conspiracy, and wants to throw up walls to protect their own interests at the expense of others.

The business of discourse

Diversity at its best is about an inclusive conversation. An exchange. Not a ghettoisation of culture and political position. We will need a discourse if we are to address world-scale problems like the UN Sustainable Development goals .

Right now it doesn’t look as if political institutions or our current media will provide space for this discourse. Even Facebook is highly ghettoised. Twitter may face criticism for the trolling and abuse of women, but at least here different views conflict. The medium may not leave much space for well-formed debate but I have managed to have a few good-tempered discussions with people of wildly different views.

Perhaps one of the first things business can do to help us to address world-scale issues is to create the platform for a productive global discourse.

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

Asteroid risk: a shared threat we can agree on?

Neil deGrasse Tyson makes a compelling argument for investment in ‘pure’ science. In the most recent Guardian Science Weekly podcast, he condenses what he says should be a half-hour answer down into a handful of sentences. Put simply, research into medical science doesn’t give you MRI scanners or X-rays. Research into ovens doesn’t give you microwaves. We can’t always predict what we are going to find and we certainly can’t predict its applications. So we should chase the lofty goals and always support (and fund) curiosity, even where its application isn’t clear.

Space is deGrasse Tyson’s passion. He would probably be a passionate supporter of one lofty goal proposed at this week’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union: weaponised spaceships to defend us from asteroid and comet impacts.

The scientists proposing this are not joking. Drilling on the site of the impact that wiped out the dinosaurs recently revealed the scale of the devastation it caused, driving granite “flowing like liquid” into a tower ten kilometres tall. An impact a fraction of this size would be catastrophic if it landed on or even near a city, as the 2013 airburst over Chelyabinsk showed.

In a time of austerity, it may be hard for politicians to argue for more funding for ‘pure’ research. Objectively, it is the best route to long-term economic growth and improving our overall welfare. But in this post-fact world, that means little. Flaming death from above, though? Surely that’s a narrative that everyone can get behind. What better project to unite the world than the defence of the human race?

Of course, we already have a big project on our hands to save the human race. One that presents a much more certain risk to our continued existence: climate change. The interests ranged against that campaign are many and varied, though, and currently enjoying a return to power.

But asteroids? No-one’s going to lobby for asteroids. Unless of course, they believe that they are a NASA conspiracy too…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The path of progress

Have you ever watched a lava lamp? When a big bubble of wax is rising from the heat, sometimes the temperature differential means the top separates from the bottom and leaves it behind.

I’m not sure I understand the physics, since the heat is at the base. But I like it as a metaphor. Looking at the voting patterns for Trump and Brexit, it feels like our society has separated. There are those that have benefited from progress and those that have been left behind.

These aren’t absolute states, they are relative: it’s about the change you have experienced in recent years. The benefits of change have been very unevenly distributed. Those that have benefited, economically, or through greater equality, have voted to maintain the direction of travel. Those that haven’t benefited, or feel disenfranchised by the change, have voted to throw things into reverse.

This is why you have weird coalitions on both sides. The wealthiest and the poorest coming together based not on their condition but how they have experienced and perceived change.

Progress, for those seeing progress, will slow. On many fronts, economic and social. There will be a period of reconciliation, and though that word sounds soft and friendly, it won’t be. Hard battle lines have been drawn. There’s a fight breaking out about the social values of both the US and UK, along very similar lines.

I’m not looking forward to this fight. I was a net beneficiary of progress. I would have been quite happy for things to keep rolling along. That sounds selfish, but as the voting stats on both sides of the Atlantic show, I was only barely in the minority. In the echo chamber of media, polling and social networks, it was easy to believe we were in fact, the majority.

Perhaps, with different economic policies distributing the benefits of progress more evenly, things could have continued as they were. Instead, we will have a bloody few years where we thrash out what it means to be British, or American — something this year’s Reith lecturer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, has been addressing.

Only once society has been reformed into a more coherent whole can we return to the path of progress. Unless this time we do things differently, the cycle will repeat itself once again.


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?

Tom Cheesewright