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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Google’s antitrust fine: facing platform fear

Google’s antitrust fine: facing platform fear

Google’s antitrust fine: facing platform fear

For most companies, the prospect of a £3.8bn fine would be an existential threat. For Google, it’s perhaps the cost of doing business, and at just a few percent of its cash reserves, an affordable one at that.

Google is being pursued by European authorities for throwing its weight around, applying the leverage of its dominance in smartphones to shore up its position of strength in search and browsers. Three numbers assert the scale of this dominance: Google takes over 90% of search queries, provides the platform for 80% of smartphones, and has 60% of the browser market.

It is a principle of our moderated markets that if one company becomes too dominant in one area, then applies that dominance to squash competition in adjacent areas, authorities will intervene on the consumer’s behalf, on the grounds that consumers lose out when competition is impossible.

This provides some hope for the direct competitors Google faces, in Europe at least. Their prospects of getting their own browser or search engine onto people’s Android devices may be improved. But such regulations have done little to settle the nerves of companies perhaps less directly related to the current EU campaigns.

I haven’t yet engaged a corporate client in a discussion about strategy without the global tech platforms — Google, Facebook, Amazon particularly, Apple and Microsoft to a lesser extent— being number one on the agenda, or thereabouts. Some are concerned about direct competition, in retail, media, or digital services. Some are worried about the power these companies command over the channels between them and their customers. All want to know what the the platforms are going to do next.

I can’t tell them of course, though I might point in certain directions. But I can tell them how to prepare for whatever it might be. The prescription always follows similar lines.

— First, pay closer attention to the future. Many of my clients run infrequent but serious looks at the 30 year horizon. All run detailed planning for the next twelve months. In between, things get a little fuzzy. I advocate a six-monthly foresight process focused on the next 2–5 years following a formal process designed to break people out of their blinkered view of the world.

— Second, get closer to your customers. People have higher-than-ever expectations of their suppliers and you need to be more responsive to direct and indirect signals. Increase your listening capability and either accelerate the flow of information to decision-makers, or even better, push that decision-making power as far to the edge of the organisation as you dare.

— Third, experiment more. Experimentation is cheaper now than it ever has been, and it’s easier to test and validate prototypes with good data. Test the things customers tell you they want, but crucially test the things they don’t yet know that they want. Do it consistently.

— Fourth, prepare the organisation for radical change. This has many components: structural, cultural, operational. It’s about transparency and comprehension: how well do you know how your organisation *really* works, and would you know how to change it when the time comes? It’s about attitude: do your people fear change because it threatens their role and their comfort? Are they prepared to learn? And it’s about process: How does information flow through your organisation and how much friction and risk is involved in that flow?

Ultimately, every company, and every leader, has to face their fear of the platforms. They can choose to do it today, or they can wait for the threat to become real.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

How different do you want the future to be?

How different do you want the future to be?

“Past performance is no guarantee of future returns.”

Ever seen that disclaimer on an investment ad? Despite this standard warning, history is often used as a weapon with which to fight arguments about the future. “It has never happened like that before so why should this time be any different?”

I’m all for a level of conservatism: every prediction (and particularly those with the most hype around them) should be subject to challenge and question. But as the Cambridge historian David Runciman says, “history is a poor guide”. Now is different to then. And tomorrow? Well, tomorrow could be anything.

The question is, how different do we want tomorrow to be? And how fast do we want the change to come?

The one lesson I do think we can take from history — and that has direct parallels in my original discipline, engineering — is that rapid change is often less stable change. When the pendulum swings too far, too fast, the resulting correction is often pretty violent as well.

This is in part why democracy has been so successful: it promotes a relatively slow and steady pace of change with regular swings back and forth. Two steps forward, one step back, but ultimately towards a healthier, wealthier population.

The ideal would perhaps be consistent slow steps forward. But how do we achieve this?

Competing ideologies

Democracy maintains slow progress because of the competition between two distinct ideologies. One government may reverse some of the steps of the predecessor and vice versa. But in business we should be able to avoid this oscillation.

Futurism — strategic planning in general — needs to be conducted at two speeds, or rather focused on two distinct intervals.

There is the long term, potentially a 25–30 year vision: what do we want to be, to see, to deliver? How do we believe our ability to deliver that vision will be affected by the influence of macro factors?

Then there is the near term: inside the agreed framework of our vision, how will we be affected in the next 2–5 years by macro factors? What will have the greatest impact — positive or negative — and how do we respond?

In the immediate term, there is a process of constant innovation, driven by the near-term challenges and opportunities identified. In theory we should be able to maintain most of the changes of direction within this process through experimentation and testing. Occasionally the whole company will need radical change. But if this innovation process is run consistently, and at sufficient scale, it should be possible to minimise these dramatic changes of direction.

Should and do

Of course, few people or companies operate like this. Change programmes are generally undertaken when there is a clear external motivation: falling profits or market share, mergers and acquisitions. It is hard to devote a sufficient proportion of our time and effort to changing the business. I’ve rarely met a small business owner, large company MD, or frankly a CEO, who didn’t want to spend more time ‘on’ the business and less time ‘in’ it.

But somehow we must.

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.

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*’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.
Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

You work too hard

You work too hard

70% of employees work more than their contracted hours. This is according to a new study from my client Tarkett, who I’ve been working with for Clerkenwell Design Week, an absolute festival of interior design. Why are we all working so hard? And is it productive?

Think about your role. Do you add most value based on your throughput of work? Or do you add more value with creativity, insight and inspiration? Either is a valid answer. The reality is probably somewhere between the two.

But look at what is happening to the sheer throughput side of our work. Even those who don’t believe that automation is going to take swathes of jobs, generally accept that we can progressively outsource the more mundane aspects of our work to machines. Technology can accelerate our output and allow us to focus on the things that really matter. The uniquely (for now) human capabilities that allow us to really add value.

So think: are your best creatively when you’re overworked? Listen to Leonard Mlodinow on ‘elastic thinking’ at a recent RSA talk and he’ll tell you a good state of mind is critical to these skills.

Factor in the potential shortage of jobs in the future — perhaps even more realistic if you believe David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs’ analysis and consider those might be the first to be automated away — and a small number of people doing excessive amounts of work looks even less sensible.

Tomorrow’s workforce is going to be made up of people valued for their human skills, not employed as cheap robots, as is often the case today (see Paul Mason’s point about car washes moving from automated to manual). Future-ready organisations should be starting now to focus on mapping desirable outcomes — sustainable success — much more closely to human skills of creativity and insight, than to sweat and toil.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future of work: What matters?

Future of work: What matters?

I’m working on a talk on the future of work at the moment, to be presented alongside my client Tarkett at Clerkenwell Design Week. The core of this talk is about the alignment of what is good for organisations and what is good for the people that work for them.

The UK has something of an adversarial history in this field, at least over the recent past. The rights of workers are often perceived as being at odds with the needs of the business. The result is constant combat with employers begrudgingly releasing greater flexibility, leave, pay and other benefits.

Of course, not every organisation operates like this. There are companies in the UK, and many more abroad, who take a more collaborative approach, recognising that the organisation can benefit when workers are happy and engaged. This is no panacea, as I’ve noted before: happy workers often risk complacency. But it’s increasingly clear that a more collaborative relationship will be the right approach for the future.

The reasons for this are manifold, but I will pick on two.

Human interactions in an hourglass economy

Firstly, there is the changing nature of job roles. The UK has exemplified the ‘hour glass’ shift away from middle-skilled jobs, into high and low skilled. Where other countries have seen much more of a shift into high skilled work, in the UK the split is roughly even.

What is important to note about both groups of jobs is that they involve interfacing with people as much or more than machines and will do so increasingly. Middle-skilled jobs often involved knowledge of specific machinery, whether it was a lathe or a typewriter. The growth in low-skilled jobs is more about knowing people: care, service, food and drink. At the high end, even roles like software development are increasingly collaborative rather than solo pursuits.

If you’re going to build a business that is driven by human interactions, then it pays, over the long term, to underpin those interactions with a genuine enthusiasm for the work.

Maximising productivity

The UK’s poor productivity is a much discussed subject. Why do we toil more hours here for less reward? If we are to tackle this, then more flexible work seems to be part of the solution. Consensus now is that far from limiting productivity, flexible working actually boosts it.

The conversation about flexible working is usually tied to issues of family, helping people to balance work with home life. But I think there is a real conversation to be had about allowing people to work when they are most productive. We’re all different and 9–5 is a very poor fit for some people’s body clock, me included.

7AM to 11AM I am generally at my best, creatively, working at a furious pace. But after that I need food and a nap before continuing. This might be acceptable in a Silicon Valley tech firm (though they probably expect most people to be there from 7AM to 7PM anyway), but it’s not exactly normal in a UK business. At least, not yet.

Too often we are focused on outputs, not outcomes, to borrow a favoured phrase from impact consultant, Monika Neall (whose husband I happen to be). We worry about people being present and completing assigned tasks, not what they actually do for the business.

Give people more responsibility for results and control of their hours, and they will both me more engaged in the business and deliver more.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Tomorrow is tactile, not sterile

Tomorrow is tactile, not sterile

What is a phone for? It sounds like a daft question. It certainly would have done twenty years ago. A phone is for calling other people, right? It’s a second rate alternative to seeing them in person, that has advantages of range and convenience.

Today, of course, a phone is rarely for calling other people. It’s for listening to music, browsing social networks, playing games or watching films. Cue the complaints of commentators around the world that no-one talks anymore, that we’re all lost in our screens.

There is certainly a measure of that. My only conversation on my regular train journeys up and down to London this week, was to help someone else connect their screen to the Wi-Fi. Maybe in the past I might have chatted more to other passengers. Maybe that would be ‘a good thing’.

But look at how we actually use our phones, particularly the youngest group of adults, and I think the picture is rather rosier than usually painted. Four of the top five iOS apps for 2017 were communications apps. Not solo pursuits like video streaming, or even books, or news. But ways to interact with other people. Our phones have become a more common medium of communication, often acting as a broker for physical interaction — as dating apps have become — but the virtual world remains clearly subordinate to the real.

Invisible digital

This is not a brief respite in an long decline. I don’t believe the direction of travel is downward. Our technology is becoming more transparent, not more opaque. There will be a digital layer to our reality for most of our waking (and possibly sleeping) lives within a few short years. But this technology enables us to design interfaces and interactions that are natural and derived from our long-developed experience with the physical world. Instead of staring at screens we will have digital information naturally inserted into our physical world. And our need to interact with it will be progressively reduced as we hand over more decision making to semi-autonomous systems: exception management replaces remote control.

This terrifies many, particularly those with clarity about the security implications. They are right to be scared. But I don’t think this fear will slow the direction of travel: we will simply have to address the threats as we go.

Direction from the vinyl groove

Swallow down this fear though, and I think the picture is largely positive. More things will be digital and virtual. But just as has happened with music, there is a counter trend when this happens. We’re happy for the day-to-day to be low friction and virtual, but this almost enhances our desire for richer experiences: live music, and vinyl.

Tomorrow is not sterile screens and pallid human automata. It’s rich, tactile and human.

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Tom Cheesewright