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Simplicity is hard. That’s why it is valuable.
I am subject to one criticism more than any other. That what I do, and what I write, is too complex, too difficult to understand.
I am rather bad at dealing with this criticism, for two reasons.
Firstly, accepting that what you do is too hard for other people to grasp feels like arrogance. Like you are showing off about your own intelligence.
This is, of course, nothing to show off about. Communicating in a simple fashion ideas that you have spent years understanding and expanding, is what takes the greatest intelligence. Accepting that you can’t properly explain the things you say and do is really an acceptance of failure.
Which brings me to the second reason I struggle with this criticism: it means more work. I have to go back to the drawing board and revise and refine what I’ve done. I have to think harder, work harder.
This has become a constant process for me. Right now I’m re-writing my executive training course in Applied Futurism, teaching executives how to understand and respond to this age of high frequency change. New dates will be announced shortly (drop me a line if you’re interested in attending).
It’s had good feedback to date, but this time it will be even simpler. And as a result, more accessible, and more useful.
Engaging with a process
Getting to this point has led me to think more about how humans engage with information, and particularly with instructions. Instructions need context — without it they are meaningless. But everyone in my training sessions, or using my tools, brings with them their own unique context, depending on their cultural reference points, role, seniority and more. How do I ensure the relevance of the instructions so that they connect with the greatest possible number of people?
So far I have found three options:
- Lowest common denominator
What are the social, cultural and workplace touchpoints with which the greatest number of people identify? Focusing on these means you should at least reach a large proportion of the audience. But there will always be people you miss, and always the risk that your experience is so different to that of the audience that you miss people.
2. Query their experience
You can take a question and answer approach to key instructions and information into people’s own experience, letting them fill in their own context to the process. This should reach everyone equally, assuming they can articulate their own experience, but it places a greater burden on the audience, and there is always the risk that their experience doesn’t fit your expected parameters.
3. Primal drivers
The third, and perhaps most brutal option, is to focus on the bottom tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy: the most fundamental human needs that we all share. If you can communicate your instructions as a way to address these fears, risks and needs, then you should be able to find a language that the whole audience can understand.
I’m sure there are other ways to reach a large proportion of the audience and make new information and instructions accessible. These are working well for me so far but I’m always open to learning new ways. How do you do it?
With the exception of the occasional pub quiz polymath, most of us have our specialist subjects when the microphone comes out on a Wednesday night at the local. As you might expect, I’m happy to have a crack at science questions. I’m also pretty good on 80s & 90s pop lyrics. But throw me a question on geography, history beyond the last century, or sport, and I will likely flounder.
We tend to think we are the subject matter experts in our own workplaces. We spend hours there each day, toiling away at the same problems, getting to know our own industries. Take a pop quiz on your industry and you would probably do pretty well.
But this presents us with two problems.
Firstly, everyone else in your industry is a subject matter expert too. How can you differentiate, personally or as a company, when you all have the same subject matter expertise?
Secondly, if the answers we need come from knowledge of our own sectors, why do we ever get disruption? Why do companies get defeated by new entrants and challengers, arguably with less accumulated knowledge?
In reality, many of the questions we face — and the answers to those questions — come from beyond our own sectors of specialism. Sometimes it’s new ways of working, systems or technologies, developed in an adjacent sphere that might be transformative to our own. It might be someone else’s solution to a very similar problem.
These are not ‘unknown unknowns’, but rather ‘unseen unknowns’: questions and answers that exist and are understood, but that are outside of our current domain.
When looking to the future, part of the challenge is imagining things that are yet to be, anywhere. But much of it is helping people to see the unseen, channeling lessons from adjacent spaces into their domain so that they can see how they can — and likely will — be applied.
The question is often not ‘if’ but when. And the answer only comes from looking beyond your own domain.
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.
No item is more over-used in analogies than the humble Lego brick (I refused to call them ‘Legos’). I acknowledge that as a pre-emptive request for forgiveness for the cliche that follows. Because I have yet to find a better way of explaining the difference between being adaptable, and being optimal, than the comparison between a die cast toy car and a Lego model of the same vehicle.
Before I get to that though, some context. I believe we live in an age of high frequency change. This is distinct from more general accelerated change in that it acknowledges the big technological changes of the last century: the shift from horse and cart to car, the advent of international air travel, and the rise of domestic automation, to name but three. These were massive economic and cultural changes.
The internet may prove to be a change on the same order, but perhaps we don’t yet have the perspective to see it. What we can see is a rapid series of shocks that may not drive change on a global scale but that can individually disrupt whole industries. These generally result from the continuing rise in accessibility of new technologies and their subsequent application to new verticals.
In the context of this age of high frequency change, companies need to play the game of business rather differently. The longevity of a product, service, or operating model may be significantly shortened. Investment in optimising for that operation, beyond a certain point, may be wasted. Worse, it may lock the company into that particular operation. I call this ‘polishing the rut’. You may be able to move within that rut with ever less friction, but it will be damned hard to get out of it.
No excuse for friction
This isn’t to say that companies should be deliberately inefficient. I have had a few chats with web design and build agencies recently about licensing the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit. Many of them are being drawn from traditional design and build projects into digital transformation programmes for their SME clients. And they believe the Toolkit may help them. What’s shocking is that the challenges they uncover inside their clients are exactly the same as those I was coming across when I ran a digital agency a decade ago. There is still a massive deficit in the application of technology across UK business. Addressing this could have a dramatic impact on productivity.
But an excessive focus on efficiency, something we have seen in both public and private sectors over recent years, is antithetical to agility. There is such a thing as being too lean, too specialised.
And so companies and their leaders have a choice. Do you want to be hyper-optimised for today’s environment? Or do you want to build be agile so that you can adapt to tomorrow’s? You can’t be both.
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“It’s the realisation of ideas, the translation of possibility into material value. The old adage about 99% perspiration is true in my experience through a number of start-ups. The idea is the easy bit. Making it real takes sweat, and investment.”
This was my answer when asked by TheBusinessDesk recently what innovation meant to me. But I realised it was one of many possible answers.
Innovation is something that every almost company seems to be chasing at the moment, driven in part by excitement about what is possible, and in equal measure by fear of impending disruption. These are equally valid motivations. No-one wants to be blown away by Schumpeter’s gale, and that weather front seems to be approaching every organisation, if it hasn’t already hit.
It’s easy to be cynical when there is so much buzz around an idea, particularly in business where fads seem to fly past faster than new fashions. But I genuinely believe that high frequency change (as distinct from a more generic argument for accelerated change) justifies renewed focus on innovation, in proposition, process, and culture.
So what is innovation? And what is it not?
For me, what it is not, is exclusively new ideas. Ideas are frankly ten a penny. Great ideas may be rarer, but to be honest, there are plenty floating around out there. What is generally lacking, is application. Whether it’s a new idea, an old one, or often one borrowed from another place, the key to innovation is making it count.
Innovation is not always about success either. ‘Fail fast’ has become another over-used term, often with too much emphasis on the ‘fail’ and not enough on the ‘fast’. Because ‘fast’ in this context also means ‘cheap’.
We are better equipped than ever to experiment and every business should encourage its people to do so, but only within a framework that maximises the chances of success and learns lessons from the natural proportion of failures. Failing fast without learning lessons is just wasting time.
Creating a culture
Innovation may be cheaper now, but it’s not free. That’s why innovation needs support from leadership, and committed expenditure. There is a natural overhead that comes with change, and every company focused on sustainable success should be budgeting for it.
Putting budget aside is a great starting point for a culture of innovation. It says that you are committed. Package this budget in a framework that encourages feedback, speculation, and experimentation, and you are beginning to create the right environment.
Iteration & recombination
Innovation also doesn’t have to be about big steps. Many smaller steps can be just as valuable, if not more so. This is particularly true in organisations that have lacked a culture of innovation, and where assembling financial and political support for major change can be time-consuming and draining.
Smaller steps can start to build up a track record of evidence, demonstrating progress and value. And these small steps particularly don’t need to be about original ideas: small iterations of existing processes and structures can rapidly improve efficiency and customer experience, and eliminate frustration.
One of the cheapest and easiest forms of innovation is the application of other people’s innovations to your organisation. Cloud applications are particularly easy to bolt-on to existing processes, and while uncontrolled, this type of ad-hoc procurement risks a future IT nightmare, it can be a great tool for rapid prototyping.
What does innovation mean to you?
Ultimately, innovation is about survival. As Schumpeter said, “[Capitalism] is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary.”
If you want your organisation to survive and thrive then innovation is critical. Create a culture of innovation by assigning clear budgets to it, by inviting contributions from across the organisation, and by creating a framework within which ideas can be tested, evaluated and applied or discarded as appropriate, rapidly and cheaply.
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Last night I spoke at the Manchester Futurists meetup, sharing my experience as a full-time futurist for now more than five years. I explained my journey and my process, and the type of work I now do for clients around the world.
(If you’re interested in seeing that slide deck, I’ve started releasing all my materials to supporters on Patreon — if you enjoy this blog, I’d love your support).
One of the questions afterwards was about the moral imperative for futurists. Do we have an obligation to promote a positive vision of the future and the actions it will take to achieve that vision?
This is not the first time I’ve had this question. For me it belies a very understandable confusion about the role of a futurist — particularly an applied futurist, as I am.
My brand of futurism is rarely about advocacy of my own opinions. I get to do this on my blog and my podcast, because I am the client. But for the most part, I am being paid by clients not to advocate a particular perspective but to do the opposite. To show them not what I would like to be true, but what I believe to be true based on the available evidence.
The moral company
This difference is most acute when it comes to talking about drivers and motivations, particularly those of companies. People want to believe that morality will, or at least should, overrule profit, when it comes to corporate behaviours.
I would like this to be true. But companies, particularly listed companies, have a legal duty to return value to shareholders. This is their motivation. The only real determinant of whether what they do is ‘good’ or not is whether they are focused on short term returns or long term success. The latter is usually more closely bound to ‘good’ corporate behaviour, since the company recognises the need to sustain good customer relationships.
I can tell my clients about the factors that might affect their success, over the short or long term. But I am not there to advocate for a particular set of behaviours.
The only caveat to this is in the language that I use when talking about the process of Applied Futurism: I talk a lot about a recipe for sustainable success, and hope that the organisations that engage my services are interested in that, not rapid returns at any cost. There may also be organisations in the future that I choose not to work with because I find their behaviour so egregious.
But in any client engagement, my role, and that of any applied futurist, will be to offer a dispassionate analysis of future realities, not to advocate for the future they would like to see.
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The narcissistic culture of Instagram and Snapchat has been cause for much consternation amongst parents and social commentators the world over. The winning formula seems to be polished presentations of lives of travel, luxury goods, expensive meals and flaming cocktails, all enjoyed while somehow maintaining a six pack and perfect thigh gap. These are unrealistic goals, at best, for most of the world’s population.
But I’m not sure this artifice is anything new, or unique to social media. For as long as I can remember, people have driven fast cars on finance packages they can’t really afford. If we hadn’t always had a tendency to present a false reality beyond our means, there would have been nothing for the long-running TV series ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ to lampoon. I’m pretty sure Jane Austen’s novels address some of this pretence 200 years ago.
Nonetheless, in an age of ubiquitous media where everyone is a publisher, the level of investment and effort that we go to in order to present these idealised versions of our lives has increased. And that makes it into a big business. Go to the launch of just about any Chinese brand of phone and they will be blunt about it: our selfie filters will do the best job of making you look younger and prettier.
As we transition from the smartphone into the mixed reality era, the business of lying could jump to whole new levels. Imagine if you can digitally alter the way that people perceive you — at least, as long as they are wearing their augmented reality headset. You can change the way you look, and sound.
What would you pay to create the perfect look? Will you have virtual clothes? People already pay tens of pounds for custom Snapchat filters and social stickers. It’s easy to see a booming industry in digital tattoos, cosmetics, hair styling — even prosthetics.
For all my pessimism about future jobs, this is one area I can see absolutely booming. Yes, some of this content could be procedurally generated — endless iterations of the same t-shirt created from a few seed lines of code. And some could be created from 3D scans of real-world objects — and people. But the real creativity that we value is likely to remain human. Shaping our augmented reality presence could be a future boom in the artisan gig economy.
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One of the major arguments against the threat of automation is the importance of human relationships in business. I don’t deny that these relationships will remain at the heart of business – see posts I’ve written before about the importance of face-to-face communication and the bandwidth advantage it still has over anything more remote. But there are functions of business where the power of this interaction just won’t be sufficient to protect human workers from their robot replacements.
Following my piece about Tomorrow’s Trucker, Ian Mallon of Neon Freight forwarded me a piece on future trends from FedEx. An email conversation ensued and he asked me whether the trust that is today so critical in logistics would be a factor in limiting the introduction of automation. This is an expanded version of my response.
I wish I believed that the relationship model of business was sustainable, but trust is only important when it feels like there is risk involved. The more automated a process becomes, the more data is collected throughout the package’s journey. This data, properly shared, aids transparency, clarifies responsibility, and ultimately diminishes risk.
When 99.999% of all the things you launch blindly into a logistics system, arrive at their destination, in perfect condition, on time, you will stop worrying about who is responsible. Even if you are concerned, liability in the chain will be so well established that recompense will be automatic and largely uncontested.
This reality remains perhaps 10 years away. Even the most sophisticated parcel carriers have huge variance in their performance, in my experience. But the direction of travel is clear. Fewer and fewer human hands are likely to touch any package in transit. Yet more and more eyeballs will potentially be focused on that package’s performance. And with that transparency, and reliability, so the need for trust and the relationships that underpin them, will be eroded.
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