How do you deal with the volley of high speed information facing you today? Can you raise your game and accelerate your response?Read More
I’ve just been through the arduous process of remortgaging. For various reasons, my remortgage was more complicated than most, which meant more interactions with the lender’s solicitors than might otherwise be required.
It was painful.
Just writing about this now I can feel my tension-levels rising. By the end of the process I started to get irritated as soon as a new form dropped through the door or another piece of correspondence pinged into my inbox.
I hate form-filling at the best of times. Were I wealthy, my biggest luxury would be to never touch another piece of administration. But I can just about cope if the forms, and the rules behind them, are well designed.
These were not.
Every instruction and interaction was confusing, non-specific and poorly designed. It was clear that the rules that they were trying to satisfy through this appalling bureaucracy were also somewhat archaic and arcane.
There was just no need.
Even accounting for the ageing laws behind the process, good design could have contracted the process by three quarters and cut the number of interactions by about 90% (in my very rough estimation).
But what would this do?
This would cut down the amount of work involved for the firm of solicitors conducting the process. As I mentioned in a previous piece, some organisations like friction. It’s where they make their money. Law firms are one of them. Friction equals time, and time is what they bill for.
Ultimately though, this sort of white-collar busywork is unsustainable. Friction starts fires — in other words, friction is always an opening for disruption. Eventually someone of sufficient scale will do this so much better that everyone else will have to follow.
I don’t intend to be remortgaging again any time soon. But for the next person, I really hope that day comes soon.
Agility is about being able to receive signals and make strategic change. But it’s also important to be able to receive, process and act on information quickly at an operational level. This is increasingly the expectation of customers and partners. Being able to do so reduces your risk with shareholders and regulators — you are always ready to respond.
There are two approaches to improving performance. One is to speed the flow of information through the organisation. The other is to push power to the edge, closer to customers and partners. I’ve seen examples of both approaches in my work.
Push power to the edge
In retail it’s increasingly common to push marketing and merchandising decisions out to the edge of the organisation to allow rapid response to market changes and opportunities.
I’ve seen this a lot in the research I’ve done with Salesforce Commerce Cloud.And elsewhere — take, for example, the response of LIDL to the departure of Zayn from One Direction. According to its submission to the UK Social Media Communications awards (of which I am one of the judges), it received the news through its social media team, organised a response, and then shared that response in a matter of minutes . Since 20% of the band had left, they wiped 20% off the price of One Direction Easter eggs. A neat and effective response that won them an award.
Accelerate information flow
One of the most interesting areas of development within the business right now is — perhaps surprisingly — finance. Finance was the birthplace of corporate IT, and yet all the action in recent years has largely been around marketing technologies. Now though, finance is catching up.
The work I’ve done with Prophix on the future of finance has shown that there are many organisations starting to leverage technology to accelerate the flow of information through their business with finance acting as a hub for this information, providing the tools and skills to collate and process and share value across the business.
In the process, the time-lag for information coming from and through finance has been cut from weeks, to days, to — in some cases — hours. With better historical information people can also project forward much more usefully.
Either way, act faster
In some ways the approach you take to accelerating your response doesn’t matter. The reality in any complex business is that it will likely require a combination of both. But you have to find a way to stay in sync with the market and environment around your organisation. And since those are getting faster, so must you.
What does accelerated change mean for organisations? Accelerated adaptation. Or put another way, agility.
Agility is an over-used word in business these days. The perceived sexiness of agile development methods spilled out of the product labs and the IT function and into the rest of the business. It’s a useful word but you have to define what you mean when you use it outside of those product or project contexts.
Perhaps it first makes sense to define what it means in those contexts. Here, agile development is about formalised alternative approaches to the classic ‘waterfall’, where all possible requirements are captured at the start of a project and then development continues until those requirements are met. Agile approaches are instead iterative, testing requirements with the customer at every stage. This avoids long product builds where the end result has either diverged from the customer’s original (or real) need. Or products that become less and less fit for purpose over the life of the project.
In a broader organisational context, agility is about the ability to change rapidly in response to a variety of signals. Agile methods may be part of this response but this is really about the capability of the organisation to receive those signals, process them, and act on them quickly.
For clarity, that’s three clearly different capabilities that I’ve defined before:
- The antennae to detect change signals from inside and outside the organisation and particularly from adjacent spaces — often blind spots from which the most serious challenges may come
- The ability to process this information and build a response plan rapidly, gaining assent from, or at the worst compelling change in, the relevant parts of the organisation
- The flexibility to act on that response plan at speed
Examples of signals that might trigger this chain of responses include:
- Internal functional failure or degradation
- Accelerated direct competition
- Adjacent market competition
- Customer channel shift
- Collapse of product or service relevance
I’ll break those out in more detail
Internal functional failure or degradation
How fast could you rebuild one of your core business functions if it appeared to be failing? How much disruption would it cause? How would you know it was failing in the first place?
I haven’t worked with an organisation where one or other unit wasn’t failing the rest. But they often don’t know they’re failing and nor do their managers — at least, they can’t prove it objectively. They don’t have the benchmarks against which to measure the performance of procurement, finance, HR or IT teams.
That’s not to say they don’t have some metrics in place, but these metrics are usually operational and based on a historical idea of how that unit should perform. They don’t measure its contribution to the organisation’s wider goals.
This isn’t easy. Part of the problem is often a disconnect between what these functions think their role is and what it should be for the long term health of the organisation. Only with a proper alignment of expectations and measurement built around those shared expectations will you ever get a signal that something is wrong.
Accelerated direct competition
The most obvious form of signal is direct competitors applying the accelerating effects of technology to overtake. But this is perhaps the rarest example I see and the one for which most organisations are reasonably well prepared. They are focused on the rear view mirror, so see these organisations approaching in the outside lane.
Adjacent market competition
This is the blind spot. The one that people don’t see coming until it’s too late. Or that they are too arrogant or ignorant to acknowledge. This is the Netflix vs Blockbuster battle. Kodak vs digital (and now the rest of the camera industry vs the smartphone). It’s HMV vs iTunes or Yellow Pages vs Google.
Customer channel shift
The way customers communicate with their suppliers, and buy from them, is changing.
Case in point: a couple of years ago a friend asked me to speak with the MD of a small-ish (a few tens of millions) manufacturer. He was about to push the button on a new website costing a few tens of thousands — perceived as a big investment for him. He had cold feet and wanted to check his strategy before paying out.
I looked at his business — selling to service providers, retailers and manufacturers — and asked him a few questions. One of the first was “Do you sell on Amazon?” He got quite annoyed at this point. “You’ve got the wrong end of the stick. We only sell to other businesses.” I convinced him to bear with me and go onto Amazon’s website, and type in some keywords related to his products. “Oh shit,” was his response, or words to that effect.
To his surprise (though obviously not to mine), his competitors were already selling their wares there. More to the point, his distributors were selling his products there. And he had no idea.
Collapse of product or service relevance
The lifespan of products is getting shorter and shorter. Take the ‘hoverboard’ for example. In the space of six months it went from appearing under the feet of celebrities and costing the thousands, to being a huge phenomenon (and costing hundreds), to being effectively banned from the streets, killing the market.
Monitoring such rapid rise and fall in relevance is a challenge.
The faster you’re travelling, the further ahead you look. Behind the wheel of a car, we do this automatically.But we don’t seem to do it in business.Read More
Have you ever met someone so charismatic that you could watch the room light up in response to their presence?
I have, and it was in a pretty unlikely scenario.
My first job was working for a marketing agency for tech firms. One day in the early noughties we went to pitch to take over the PR account of a medium-sized US tech firm. No-one you would have heard of, unless you worked in that area.
It wasn’t the biggest account, but it wasn’t the smallest either. Worth having, so we were well prepared.
I remember there was an unusually large number of people in the room. Normally when we pitched, it was to maybe two or three people from the marketing team. This time it was five or six, plus our team of maybe four, so most seats around the board room table were full. Except for the head of the table, because we were waiting for the MD.
While we waited, we did the usual, slightly forced but nonetheless good-natured, small talk.
Then he walked in, and the effect was dramatic. You could watch the people who worked for him literally light up. It was like flowers turning to face the sun. And the effect was infectious: you couldn’t help but pick up on this incredibly positive vibe that his staff clearly got from working with him.
What he did next gave me some clue as to why people loved working with this guy. In a few sentences he quickly brought the meeting to order and explained why everyone was there. He explained why they were looking for a new agency and enthused about the business with great passion.
When he was done, we really wanted to work with them.
It was an unsexy, medium-sized technology business that most people would never recognise. But when he’d finished telling the story of where they were and where they wanted to be, it felt like we would be working with Apple.
We didn’t win the pitch.
I can’t say I remember many pitches apart from the absolute disasters. The one where I crashed my car on the way over. The one where the client immediately and vocally hated the central theme (my idea). The one where the prospects barely said two words and just stared at us for about 40 minutes.
This one stuck with me. What I learned was not just the power of charisma but one of the tools that underpinned it: great storytelling.
My job? Telling stories
In retrospect, a lot of my work has been about storytelling.
When I worked in marketing it was about taking a product — usually an unsexy tech product — and building a story around it that gave it context and appeal to its target audience. I spent quite a lot of time travelling around Europe helping others to do the same, teaching resellers and systems integrators for one of the largest tech firms to do their own PR.
These days, I help to explain big tech stories to the public for the BBC and others by building a narrative around what has happened. And most importantly, I build stories about the future for clients, whether that’s in reports, consultations, or presentations.
Because I do this a lot, a few years ago I tried to formalise the process. How do you tell a story of tomorrow? I realised there are a few key ingredients to a great story — ingredients that my charismatic tech boss understood very well.
These ingredients have been described so many times in so many ways — perhaps most simply and memorably in Kipling’s Six Honest Serving Men. But I think of them as Audience, Context, Action and Impact.
Stories are different for every audience. The starting point for every story — at least in business — has to be the audience. Who is listening and what will their reactions be? What do they care about?
My old boss described this as the view from your audience’s window. You’re about to tell them that something is happening. Something they don’t know about — maybe shocking. If they’re going to buy what you’re telling them, you need to ground it in their context first.
In PR we used to constantly ask “What has changed?” If nothing changes then there is no story, just a sketch.
Action without impact is an unfinished story. Impact is “What happened next?” Or in my case “What will happen next?”
These are the fundamental components I use when building reports, presentations, articles about the future. They’re all part of the Arcs framework for narrative planning — itself part of the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit. This also includes templates to apply these components, whether you’re writing a report for the board, a piece of content for marketing, or a business strategy.