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Making changes, living the future

Are you a new year’s resolutions person? For me, new year 2017 prompted a serious re-evaluation of what I’m doing, and how I’m doing it — work, and my working life. Now, nearly half way through the year, many of the changes I planned are finally happening.

Here are four things I realised were wrong in my business, and what I did about them (though let’s be clear, this is all a work in progress).

1. Clarity of proposition

In January, I realised that my proposition remained very confused. People didn’t understand my work and they didn’t understand Book of the Future. So I broke one website into three, each with a single purpose.

bookofthefuture.co.uk

This domain started as a blog about the future and technology back in 2006, and I have returned it to those roots. Yes, I’ll plug what I do on here sometimes, but it’s mostly a pure content play.

tomcheesewright.com

Secondly, there’s tomcheesewright.com, which is for all the time-based work that is the bread and butter of a futurist — speaking, writing, broadcasting, consulting.

futurism-tools.com

Thirdly, there is futurism-tools.com. This is where the products live that aren’t just about me: the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit and the courses at the University of Salford.

Three sites, each with a single proposition. This may not be optimal in terms of attracting traffic, but I’m hoping that it is much easier to understand.

2. Knowing what you’re not

The next realisation was about what I’m not. I’ve advocated many times that we need to learn to identify gaps in our own capabilities and fill them. Mostly I’ve talked about using learning to fill those gaps. But sometimes you have to accept that other people can do things better than you.

What am I not? A marketer.

This was a hard realisation for me. As, though I studied engineering, marketing was my first career. I’ve worked in PR, and wider consulting, and run a digital marketing agency. I was in charge of marketing at the start-up I co-founded. I’ve continued to consider myself competent at the basics of marketing.

Until I looked at the evidence.

While the time-based side of my business — speaking, writing, consulting — has continued to grow, in the last twelve months I haven’t significantly grown the user base for the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit. There’s progress, particularly with the new course at the University of Salford, but it’s not enough.

This is not just bad for business performance. If I don’t think I’m proficient, then I can’t teach. So how can I develop the marketing assistant who joined me as an apprentice three years ago, and who has done such an incredible job of growing our audience?

3. Spending time — and money — wisely

When I started this business at the end of 2012, I believed it would grow to about six people. A couple of futurist consultants, a couple of marketers, a sales person and an administrator. Time was the only offering at this point.

When I came up with the idea of productising the processes I’d built, I figured we may need a couple more: a community manager and someone dedicated to e-commerce.

Then my own predictions started to come true, confounding my instincts about the business. Automation replaced roles, and low-friction interactions with others helped me to scale.

Automation meant there was a limited role for an administrator, and what there was (finance), generally needed to be handled by someone with more training or experience than I could afford full time. The result was that when the administrator I had hired decided to go back to university, it didn’t leave a huge gap.

Sales has been increasingly outsourced, after a conversation over lunch with Don’t Panic’s Nicky Wake a few years ago ended up with her starting a speaker bureau. Now most of my new enquiries about speaking and content are routed through Sarah at the Don’t Panic Speaker Bureau, where I’m represented alongside such luminaries as Lemn Sissay, Penny Haslam, and Clint Boon (it’s a diverse stable).

Needless to say, it’s a very low-friction relationship.

I’ve been able to keep on top of the all the time-based work, and with the network of licensed futurists at least starting to grow, the future plan is to refer excess work to the network, rather than recruit.

4. Work to your rhythm

I wrote earlier this year about my failure to break the habits of the 9–5 — at best I’ve shifted it forward a few hours. I still don’t really work to my own best rhythm. Part of the reason for this is having staff, and an office. You have to give them times to work to, and a place to work, and hence you have to try to be in it when they are — at least some of the time.

The problem is that I don’t always want to be in the office. And even when I do, the reality of speaking and broadcasting means that I can’t be. The resulting compromise has seen me paying for a space in which I spend very little time, and my remaining employee being on his own much of the time.

This clearly makes no sense.

Change for good

Much of what I’ve written above essentially comes down to differences between my instinctive expectations for what a business should be versus the changing reality — something my clients struggle with all the time.

I thought I needed people, but actually I need partners. I’m completing the switch to a fully-outsourced model with Mason, my excellent marketing assistant, moving over to a marketing agency, who will become my retained agency. They will continue his good work, and give him a better working environment and career path. And they will give me the marketing expertise I have sorely lacked in trying to grow the subscriber base for the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit.

I will close the office and be totally mobile from the end of June, albeit with a refurbished home office and workshop, which will be my base. I will continue to try to free myself from the outdated expectations of when and how I should work. And I plan to experiment more with the processes and technology I use — particularly how I create and present content (and getting away from lugging around a laptop).

Six months on, I’m finally making my new year’s resolutions a reality.

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Technology won’t save us… It already has.

On Monday this week, a radio presenter asked me to talk positively about technology. In the wake of stories about the WannaCry malware and AI taking over, he wanted to reassure his — largely older — audience that technology was a positive thing that could be trusted. I don’t think I did a great job, responding to a question about AI taking over with the rather ambiguous “They’re not… yet.”

How positive you feel about technology depends on what you mean by the term. Like this presenter, when most people ask me about technology, they typically mean the diverse members of the computer family, from phones to consoles.

I prefer a broader definition of technology. I have two favourites. The first, with apologies/thanks to Zanussi, is simply “the appliance of science”. This includes the broadest sweep of human-made tools, from the spear to the supercomputer.

The second captures a simple truth about technology. “Technology is anything invented after you were born.” Alan Kay, as ever, bringing sharp and pithy insight. The point is, if it’s older than that, it’s just ‘stuff’. Hence why ‘technology’ today tends to refer to computers and their brethren.

Toilets are technology

If you take my broad definition of technology as being science applied, then it’s much easier to talk about its positives. For the simple reason that we wouldn’t be here in our current numbers — or some would argue, even our current biological form — without technology. Technology is what allows us to feed ourselves, whisks away our waste, keeps us warm. People may be afraid of a computer but they’re generally comfortable with a flushing toilet or a radiator.

On better form I could have made the argument for computers being a clear positive too, and one with which everyone should be comfortable. Just take one example: the world wide web. Instant access for a large fraction of the global population to a large fraction of the world’s knowledge. That is an unarguable good.

At least until events like Monday night happen.

Closing the box

I have nothing useful to add about what happened on Monday, or about the immediate response. Many of my friends here in Manchester have already written more movingly and insightfully than I could manage.

What I can say, is that in the wake of such an atrocity, there are many questions. Attention will undoubtedly turn to the role of technology, in connecting the weak-minded to the ill-intentioned. In enabling the flow of hate that has followed. Already, politicians are starting to take advantage of the incident to further agendas of greater control and reduced privacy.

But technology — and access to it — is not, and never has been, the problem. To try to limit its reach and capability is to deny our nature as a race of toolmakers. A race whose very existence is bound to our ability from the earliest days to apply science. The problem is not the technology we have but how we apply it and to whom the benefits accrue. These are issues of policy and economy, not science and technology.

Technology will not save us. But we can use it to save ourselves.

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In the future, will our past be held to ransom?

This weekend my friend will be working to restore her small corner of the NHS’s systems, after it was compromised by the WannaCry malware. Across the country many other NHS staff are probably doing the same. Trying to restore vital records of our past that have been captured and held to ransom.

This was not an attack on the NHS. Calling it one is like ascribing intent to a cold virus — albeit a variant that came out of a lab. No-one pointed a weapon at the NHS and pulled the trigger. It just so happened that the NHS was particularly vulnerable to a spreading infection that could — and did — land anywhere it found the right environment.

The NHS was vulnerable for two reasons. Firstly, scale: with over 1.7 million employees, it has a huge amount of ‘surface area’ on which the virus could land. Just one person needed to click on the wrong thing and the malware had a route in. Of course, not all parts of the NHS are interconnected — something that is often a weakness was a defence in this case. But because of a large cohort of ageing and insecure machines, the malware could spread rapidly once it got inside. This was the second reason.

The mechanism for this machine-to-machine communication of the malware was something called EternalBlue. This vulnerability in the Windows operating system allowed one machine to execute code on others on the same network. Microsoft released a patch for all supported versions of Windows not long after the vulnerability came to light — when it was stolen from a cache of tools created by the NSA. But they didn’t patch really old versions of Windows and not everyone had applied the patches when the malware hit.

As usual when an event like this happens, my phone started ringing. Various radio stations wanted me to go on and explain aspects of the story. The questions they asked were interesting.

“What is bitcoin?”

The ransomware asked for payment in bitcoin, something that is still little understood by most of the public.

“Was this Microsoft’s fault?”

One interviewer was most interested in the effect this attack might have on Microsoft. Will people now look for alternative software for their desktops given the security threats to Windows? I didn’t think so. Microsoft behaved pretty well through all this and was compromised only because its own country’s government conspired to keep from it a major threat to the integrity of its product, and because its customers and partners failed (albeit often for understandable reasons) to maintain their systems.

“How can people keep themselves and their businesses safe from threats like this?”

I started answering this with the usual responses: keep backups, be vigilant etc. But after the interviews I found myself straying back to an old idea I had when speaking at a conference on the future of security a few years ago.

Our past, our memories — both personal and professional — are increasingly stored in digital form. Documents, scans, photographs, videos, audio recordings. The more we have instant recall with a few taps into a search engine — or increasingly a call out to our voice assistants — the less we are likely to store in our heads. This expands our capabilities, making us functionally bionic, but it also leaves us exposed.

Ransomware is only going to become more effective — and affecting — as a threat. Not because we store more digitally —for the fraction of the population to whom this wasn’t already clear, the damage to the NHS demonstrated quite clearly that we are absolutely reliant on digital storage. Rather, because we store less and less physically: in our heads or on other media outside of them. And because we are getting closer and closer to that digital storage, blurring the boundaries between human and machine.

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Good people are bad for organisations

I’ve never been much of a sports fan. I’ve enjoyed going to games, and even followed a football team on a few European trips. But if I’m honest, my enthusiasm has always been more for the beer than the game itself.

As a result, I don’t use that many sporting metaphors in my work and those that I do are probably lifted from elsewhere. So forgive me for any cliches in the following post.

As in sport, so in business…

Four things you notice about football teams, even if you don’t watch that much football.

  1. Truly great players can make things happen, even in the most unlikely scenarios
  2. If there’s one player in the team who is very significantly better than the rest, all the others look to them to win the day
  3. A well-organised team of average players will perform more consistently than a badly organised team with a few superstars
  4. Superstars tend to leave

I’ve spent the past week in an institution that is relying on the hard work and good will of a couple of superstars. Only their efforts are keeping it running.

These superstars operate in a sclerotic, chaotic environment. They are the people their co-workers turn to in order to answer questions. Without them, the system would fall apart.

At some point, they are going to leave.

For these superstars, it won’t be a multi-million pound transfer that takes them away. But it will be a better offer elsewhere: more money, less stress. Perhaps retirement. Either way, it will probably take the organisation a whole ‘season’ to recover from their departure.

Systems create freedom

When I work with organisations I preach investment in good systems. This is often seen as being at the expense of the freedom and creativity of the people. “We’re not robots,” I hear. But what people don’t see is that the systems create freedom, they don’t destroy it.

The great football teams are not ones that are arbitrary collections of great players. They are well-drilled players within a system. If that system is properly designed, the superstars can shine within it — in fact they have a greater opportunity to shine because they aren’t picking up slack elsewhere on the pitch.

Learning from the pitch

Great organisations are the same. Everyone wants superstars in their organisation. But the risk is that they become a substitute for good systems. When that happens the organisation becomes inefficient and brittle. Because — through sheer force of will — superstars keep things ticking over, weakness elsewhere is covered up.

Look beyond the superstars in your organisation. How would you function if they were removed? What would fail? If you fix those problems now, you’ll free your superstars to deliver much greater results.

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In the future (carrying) less is more

There are four things I hate carrying around: wallet, house keys, cash, laptop. They just add friction to your day, discomfort to your pockets, and weight to your backpack. I’m working to do away with all of them.

Wap your wad

The wallet and the cash are increasingly easy, as long as you don’t care about loyalty card points. I’m willing to ditch those in favour of a nice empty pocket, even without the privacy concerns. For most of this week I have been relying on my phone for payments and have found few occasions when it has not been accepted.

I have tried tucking a credit card and a single cash note into my jeans for those occasions but found the credit card gets easily bent. A little engineering along the lines of the Ridge wallet may be required.

Unlock your pockets

The keys are more complicated. Yes, there are digital locks, like the Yale lock I tested recently, which I will be fitting to the door of my workshop (when I get around to fitting a door to my workshop). But this would annoy the crap out of the rest of my family as a front door control.

Instead I need a system where I can use my phone (or RFID) while they continue to use a key. I haven’t yet found one fits my front door, and I don’t really fancy replacing the door just yet.

Leave the laptop

The laptop is perhaps the biggest challenge. I’m lucky to have a pretty dinky laptop but it’s still the biggest and heaviest item I have to carry each day.

Until now I’ve always believed that mobile devices lack the horsepower for a lot of my work, but I now think it is only the interface that stops me getting everything done with a pocket sized device. And I mean that in every sense: even if I can type fast enough on screen — as I’m doing now — I don’t have the screen size or mouse-driven precision for video or audio editing, or presentation prep.

Lots of attempts have been made to overcome these challenges with hybrid devices and accessories. But, of course, the more additional hardware it involves, the more you may as well carry a laptop. This will require experimentation…

In the future…

So far this has just been a post about my pet peeves. But there is a point to it: this stuff all goes away, and soon.

The first step will be further consolidation into the smartphone as it increasingly integrates all of the major wallet functions — not just payments but smart cards, loyalty schemes, and ID.

Then it will start to absorb the key chain. Right now, digital locks are a pain: power is a problem, people are concerned about security, and there’s no straight electronic replacement for barrel locks and security doors — without changing the door. But all of these problems will be solved in time.

Where it gets really interesting is when these functions start to explode out of the phone and either become device-less, or integrated elsewhere.

The first place people think of for this integration is the body, but given the fast pace of technology change, I remain sceptical about anything embedded under the skin. Rather, I think we’ll see schemes that replace the device altogether: biometric sensors for identification could go a long way to replacing keys and cards. Maybe a single, small, ID device could provide a second authentication factor.

Likewise with computing power: why take it with us when the power can be hosted in the cloud and projected to us when we need it? Future devices might only need a minuscule physical presence if they can capture voice input, or project three dimensional interfaces through augmented reality. Even the AR device may only be the size of a contact lens.

A minimalist future

We may be on the path towards a minimalist future already: most media items are disappearing — discs, newspapers, magazines. We may be buying more books for now but how many people do you see out listening to, watching or reading from their digital devices rather than a dedicated physical medium?

The convergence of devices into the smartphone is already cliché, but it hasn’t finished until it has swallowed the wallet and the key chain. I still believe we will see an explosion of functions out of the smartphone as more ergonomic options become economically viable. But long term, those devices may be so small, that we don’t even remember we’re carrying them. Or, there may be no device at all.

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Is the world spinning faster now?

At the start of many of my talks, I ask the audience: “Do you believe that change happens faster now than in the past?”

More than half usually agree. Over the course of the talk I can convince another 10–20%, sometimes more. But in many ways, it’s the wrong question. Or rather, it is insufficiently nuanced.

The problem is that change has many facets and can be described in many ways. In a previous post, I’ve described it as a wave:

The criticism of the theory [of accelerated change] is based on the idea that changes of greater magnitude happened in previous eras. Robert J. Gordonfocuses on the period from 1870 to 1970 (‘the second industrial revolution’) when advances in transport and domestic appliances transformed people’s lives. There were drastic improvements in mortality rates, and falls in the time taken to keep a household clean and fed. And much less horse manure on the streets.

It is impossible to ignore the magnitude of these changes. Has the impact of widespread internet access and the computer (in all its forms) been as great as the impact of the car? It’s hard to say without the benefit of historical perspective, and because perhaps we don’t yet know what will be the most important metric by which to measure the impact of these things.

But to try to argue that the computer is more important than the car is to miss the point. Here comes the science bit: it is to confuse amplitude and frequency.

Amplitude and Frequency

Amplitude and frequency are two of the characteristics of waves. Amplitude is how far the wave moves up and down from the baseline: how much does it change. Frequency is the speed with which it does so: how many times does it change in a given period.

The amplitude of changes like the advent of the washing machine is clearly very great. But the change happens slowly: the frequency is low. It takes a long time for such a product to be developed. For that design to iterate. For the public to adopt it.

Today, whatever the amplitude of the change, the frequency is much higher. We create, iterate, adopt and abandon new ideas and products at a much greater rate than at any point in history. We can see this in adoption curves for modern products versus those such as the washing machine: our hyper-connected societies spread these ideas much more quickly now. We can see it in the turnover of the stock markets: innovators displace incumbents faster than ever before.

If you are a business leader, or involved in the running of any organisation, then large-scale, slow change, may be challenging. But we have developed decades of business practice to deal with this. Most organisations have evolved in a world where change happens at this pace. Still, not everyone keeps up, but the planning and execution cycle have been built with this pace of change in mind: annual budgets, five year plans, ten year strategies and — for the largest businesses — twenty year foresight.

In a world of high frequency change, these schedules are insufficient. Worse, the tools used to conduct the processes at those intervals are not fit for purpose. They are time-consuming and slow, and often rather passive. That’s not to say that they aren’t important — you can’t do away with annual budgets overnight, and developing a twenty year vision is still a valuable exercise. But you need a set of tools — in fact a whole new organisational structure, that is designed to respond within the new high-frequency environment.

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You’re amazing (biologically speaking)

Over the bank holiday weekend, my family visited Rodbaston animal centre. There, we saw all sorts of creatures, some cute, some endangered, some terrifying.

They were all incredible.

The leafcutter ants stick most strongly in the memory. Their mass co-operation to strip a plant, carry its components — up to 5000 times their body weight— across metres of rope and down into their nest was a sight to behold. Inside the nest is a fungus that the ants cultivate to feed their young. Yes, the ants are farmers, growing a fungus they domesticated millions of years ago.

We’ve invented everything

At the turn of the 20th century, the US Commissioner of Patents is purported to have said:

“Everything that can be invented, has been invented”

He didn’t. But the phrase is oft-repeated because I think it captures something of the sense at the time. A sense that there had been so much progress that surely there was not much more to achieve. A sense of pride, but also perhaps a touch of arrogance.

I think we risk the same arrogance now.

We are not gods

The tech news now is awash with talk of human-grade artificial intelligences. AI stands to have a dramatic impact on our world in the next 20 years. But just because a machine can replace a human in certain contexts, that does not make it equivalent to a human. A hammer knocks down nails better than a fist, but that doesn’t mean you’d want a hammer instead of a hand.

We should be proud of our achievements but we shouldn’t be under any illusion that we are close to matching nature’s billions of years of evolved complexity and wonder. Or even understanding it.

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VUCA is coming to get you

VUCA is not a Croatian hit man in a throwback, Guy Ritchie-style, East End gangster movie. She does not live on the second floor.

VUCA is an acronym for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. It’s not new. It came from post-Cold War thinking in the US Military and was popular a few years back in management thinking. It encapsulates many of the challenges I see as part of an accelerated world: rapid change and lack of clarity.

Advising people about VUCA may be a passed fad but its message resonates more strongly now than ever, both in its original geopolitical context, and in business. Our world seems incredibly volatile and uncertain, creating a fog ahead that might freeze many attempts at planning.

Accommodate uncertainty

The only response is to create new behaviours that accommodate uncertainty.

Think about navigating in the dark — for me, often finding my way out of my kids’ bedrooms at night after switching off the lamps they have left on. I’m on the far side of the room from the door and I know the floor is strewn with toys. What happens? While my eyes readjust, touch becomes hyper-sensitive. The slightest toe-tap from a My Little Pony makes me shift my balance. I navigate with small steps until I reach the door.

This is how we operate in an a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. We enhance our senses for good information. We learn to react faster to feedback. And we experiment, feeling our way through the gloom.

An applied approach

Looked at in this context, applied futurism could be seen as a response to VUCA. Near-term foresight tools to help you feel your way. Narrative planning for rapid response development. An agile organisation framework to give you flexibility.

It’s not the only approach, nor the first. But with VUCA coming for you, you might want all the help you can get.

Tom Cheesewright