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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Spellcheck for truth

Spellcheck for truth

I’m at a conference in Prague, bringing together the sales team for my client, BTC Europe, from across the continent. Everyone is speaking English, fluently. But will that be the case in thirty years’ time?

Live translation technology is so good now that remote conversations can be held in two languages now with a digital intermediary processing the translation in near real-time. It’s never quite as good as the staged demonstrations, of course, but it is nonetheless impressive. When everyone is sporting compatible hardware (mixed reality glasses), will we even bother to learn a foreign language?

Sadly, I think fewer people will bother. Those that do will recognise the value that it adds: the understanding of structure and nuance, as well as the ability to connect with someone more closely.

Beyond translation

In a world where machines can live-translate our words into any language, what else will machines be able to do in real-time with our communication? Given the proliferation of fake news recently, I wondered if we might also have a ‘spellcheck for truth’ built into our written and spoken communication.

This could work both ways. When we’re speaking, or writing, our personal digital assistant (renewing an old acronym, PDA to describe an assistive AI) might highlight inaccuracies, reviewing what we have written against sources from across the web. I can imagine a subtle red glow at the edge of your field of vision when you say something a little off, through to a migraine-like pulsing if you tell a total porky*.

Of course, these sources themselves will need some sort of accuracy rating, and some people might decide such ratings are themselves a conspiracy and turn off any analysis. After all, some people still insist the world is flat.

Our PDA will also be able to analyse the information we receive, underlining written sentences in a new colour — I suggest a bovine waste shade of brown — to highlight when they’re untrue. Or we could have some sort of animated overlay on someone’s person, since we’re operating in mixed reality. ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire’? That could be entertaining.

Absolute objectivity

Of course, there is no fact-checking source for some lies. But we will all have access to other indicators when someone is not telling the truth. Every pair of mixed reality glasses could, in theory, analyse someone’s voice patterns, heart rate, breathing, and perhaps even their sweat levels, and provide a level of lie-detection. Would we find this too invasive? The technology largely exists today but I’ve not noticed anyone discussing the prospect.

Then there is the question of whether we want absolute objectivity. I think if we tried to pursue it, we would realise a lot of our lives are based on small fictions. There is some analysis of reason that suggests it is entirely retrospective: we take decisions and then retrofit a narrative with facts to justify them. If this is true, deep analysis of the narratives of our lives that we tell ourselves could be deeply uncomfortable.

As always, I think reality will end up somewhere away from either extreme: today’s reality where untruths seems to have incredible power, and a tomorrow where a fact-driven reality is a little too cold and hard. But that is still an incredible shift to come in the next thirty years.


*’Porky pie’ = lie, if you’re unfamiliar with the vernacular

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

What does a practical commitment to innovation look like?

What does a practical commitment to innovation look like?

I went back to the city where I grew up yesterday, though it wasn’t a city when I lived there, just a humble old town. I didn’t go to see family but to see an organisation that has interested me for a while. One that appeared to have a real commitment to innovation and change.

On closer inspection, it does.

This isn’t a tech start-up, a cool retail business or the next Deliveroo. Bromford is a housing association, albeit a very large one, operating around 30,000 homes across the UK and turning over around £170m a year. This is a fairly big business, but not a flashy one. And in its unflashy way, it has in place one of the simplest and smartest programmes for innovation that I have seen.

Here are some of its key features that I learned about yesterday.

Separate ideas from evidence

One of the first things I learned about Bromford’s Lab, is that they have divorced the testing of solutions from their design and development. A separate team validates proposed ideas as they flow through the development process, assessing the validity of the need and the viability of the solution at each stage. This ensures that each project is properly assessed on its merits by people with a more independent perspective, and that investment is staggered and justified.

Invest consistently but conservatively

Bromford invests less than 1% of profits in its lab and insights team. But it does so consistently, maintaining small, full-time teams to run both functions. This ensures that innovation isn’t an occasional push in response to an identified threat or opportunity, but a continuous programme of company-wide development. The effect of this is that lots of people are engaged in change and that it becomes normalised: there’s no shock and resulting resistance when they want to change how things are done.

Align efforts to strategy — but not too closely

Bromford’s Lab team, led by Paul Taylor, has been acutely aware of balancing the need to tie innovation to corporate strategy, while not being so closely bound to it that innovation becomes only incremental improvements to the status quo. Paul acknowledges that in the past their attempts have been too haphazard and disconnected from strategy, and also at times too defined by it. Today they seek to strike a balance, addressing core issues that support company strategy but also assigning time to more left-field projects that might deliver step-changes in performance if they succeed.

None of these features is revolutionary. They are, you might think, common sense. And yet I see efforts like this so infrequently on my travels through organisations in both public and private sectors. Consistent investment, dedicated teams, proper evidencing of decisions, alignment with strategy. A simple but critical recipe for innovation in future-ready organisations.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The privilege of stability

The privilege of stability

Can you make good decisions when you’re on a burning platform? It’s eight years now since Stephen Elop’s famous (infamous?) memo to the staff of Nokia, highlighting their precarious position. The evidence from that saga would be that it is certainly challenging to make good decisions under duress.

A burning platform may be an overstatement of the situation for many right now, but it’s certainly true that people and organisations alike are sensing a growing instability. And I’m concerned what this means for the future: are we making bad decisions now, and will we continue to, out of this sense of pressure? A feeling that our footing is already weakened.

A little life

What started me thinking about this was not the anniversary of a memo, but a piece of fiction. Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel, A Little Life, tracks the lives of four college roommates, before and after their meeting. It addresses many themes, but the one that really stood out to me was the privilege of stability. The characters are divided by the various instabilities they all faced growing up: economic, cultural, family, identity, and these early issues play a huge role in shaping their later lives.

I come from a position of enormous stability, both growing up and now, and recognise the privilege that represents. And it makes me very conscious of the lack of stability others are forced to address before they can begin to move forward. My concern is that this basis of instability is growing.

Economic instability

The host of a BBC local radio show on which I sometimes appear tweeted this week that two thirds of people think life was better in the past. The source is a survey by Sky Data and Demos, as referenced in this story. I questioned what people preferred: higher mortality and inequality?

The most interesting response was that it was about inflation:

The degradation in available spending power, particularly for the young, is well documented. But this set of statistics makes it particularly stark. Economic stability, historically represented by home ownership, is an increasingly distant prospect for many.

Stability of identity

One of the primary effects of technology that I talk about often is the choice it brings. By connecting communities and cultures across the world, it gives us access to more ideas, information, products and services than we have ever had before. This is mostly a good thing, in my opinion, but it’s not without its challenges.

In a world where your cultural and identity options were defined by the sources accessible in your immediate surroundings, usually the town or village where you grew up, there was little choosing to do. However uncomfortably it fit, most people slipped into a defined identity shared with the people around them, or at least shared many common cultural touchpoints.

Today we are much more free to define our identities, joining the dots between global cultural touchpoints. On the whole I think this is very positive. But it isn’t always easy. Choice is challenging, especially at the ages we have to make many of these choices, as teenagers and young adults.

Managing instability

There are many more examples of instability currently. I haven’t even touched on politics, for example. So what do we do, as people and organisations, to deal with this environment of instability?

I think there are three steps we can take.

  1. Think about the future: We really don’t think about the future, in any formal sense, with sufficient frequency. Live in the moment by all means, but take time frequently to think about where you want to be. Not necessarily in 20 years, but in five, two or even one. Do it often: every six months for organisations, maybe every two or three for individuals.
  2. Link goals to activity: Once we have a view of the future, we’re often poor at connecting our targets back to our day-to-day behaviour. This is particularly true of organisations that struggle to make consistent behaviour change in the pursuit of goals, but I think it’s probably true for people as well. Always refer back to your goals when planning your immediate activities.
  3. Learn to love change: This reality is not going away. The VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) environment is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Nostalgia for more stable times in the past does us no favours. Instead we need to accept change and learn to welcome it. As Leonard Mlodinow pointed out in a recent talk, we are all neophiles when change is positive, so we have to try to steer the changes in our lives and businesses and make them positive.
Tom Cheesewright