Business cases are works of fiction. Try storytelling instead.

Business cases are works of fiction. Try storytelling instead.

Instead of PowerPoint, use storytelling to paint a picture of what you want to achieve.

A business case is little more than an educated guess. It’s a description of a current state, what you plan to do and what results you expect. It’s a prediction of what might be and will almost certainly be wrong. Framing it in this predictive language makes it unbelievable, and doesn’t allow discourse around what is likely to go wrong. Sure, you’ll have some RAIDS, risks, assumptions, issues, and dependencies, but these are generally lists to be glossed over. The focus of the business case is how are we going to make money.

A business case is a business document that exists to persuade stakeholders to back your idea. It’s a rationale plea to ‘back me” based on backward looking facts for forward thinking fiction.

Two points.

One. Stop the pleading, quit asking for permission. You believe in what you are presenting so assume it is a done deal. Describe it as such. Assume that your case is so great that approval is a given. Tell that story.

Two. Let’s be honest. It’s little more than a work of fiction. So use that admission to your advantage.

It we treat the future-state as a fiction, yet to be written, what’s missing in the business case is a narrative. Narrative is storytelling. Tell your business case, your idea, your pitch as a story. Write it in the past tense as though the product has been delivered. Tell the history, of what happened, who was involved. The pitfalls that were encountered. The problems that were faced. Describe the project in retrospect. Imagine your future self, basking in the glory of the successful delivery of the product (with some bumps along the way – it won’t really come in on time, on budget will it?!) Your future self looks back and recounts in prose the story. Beginning, middle. End.

Go all the way back to the start; what problems did the team want to address? What was the opportunity that was seen at the time. And why was the project commissioned? It was the story that did it. The team bought into the story; the inspiring narrative that painted a picture of what the journey might be like, warts and all.

So ditch the Word document business case template, throw out the PowerPoint slides with their bullets and charts. Imagine the future and craft a story that paints the picture of what you and your team achieved. There’s your business case. That’s why we are passionate and driven to do this. Stories are hard to kill.

When culture kills innovation

When culture kills innovation

Let me retell a story I recently heard about innovation in a retail bank.

Processing standing orders at the bank was an administrative burden. There was no ‘straight through processing’.  Whilst it was acknowledged as a problem, it was not one that was of sufficiently high priority to justify a new project on the IT roadmap.  This didn’t stop an entrepreneurial project manager and a couple of developers take on the challenge as a ‘side of desk’ project. They managed to fit it in between their core work and in six weeks delivered a solution that almost immediately delivered value to the bank in efficiencies and cost saving.  Job (quietly) well done. Until a bank holiday Monday, a scenario that the solution hadn’t been designed for and on the Tuesday it failed. A backlog of standing orders was created, but no more than what would have occurred prior to the solution being implemented. Senior management got wind of the ‘failure’ and demanded answers. The problem was fixed and ‘business as usual’ returned. Until the extra leap-year day in February. Another corner case that the solution was not designed for. This time senior management ramped up the blame. Risk was not tolerated in the bank- a failure to run the project ‘properly’ introduced significant operational risk. The team were placed on a disciplinary process.  Everyone saw how the story ended and no-one wanted to end up being treated this way. That pretty much killed any innovation within the bank. The bank’s culture of ‘zero risk’ and insisting on ‘process over people’ destroyed any internal entrepreneurialism at a stroke.

Now let’s imagine that at a time in the future, the CEO of the bank hears of his competitors successfully incubating new ideas from the grass roots up. There’s a mandate to encourage ‘skunk works’ projects in the bank. Inevitably this will fail. Unless the underlying culture is fixed such projects are doomed to fail. Culture is often bigger than the whim of the CEO. To build internal innovation capability, to enable test and learn, business agility and a can-do mentality, this story tells us a lesson. Do nothing until you understand the culture and ensure that it can provide the oxygen for innovation to flourish, not suffocate it.

Twelve tips for customer development interviews

Twelve tips for customer development interviews

In the past couple of years I’ve had the privilege of mentoring at the Lean Startup Machine in London. Saturday morning is when the teams first ‘get out of the building‘ to do customer development. It is easy to preach that mantra of getting out and talking to customers, but how do you do it?  How do you get the most out of customer development interviews? What do you say? Here are twelve tips that I’ve presented.

1. Go fish where the fishes swim

I recently heard this from an agency pitching social media work (take your proposition to social networks where your customers are, rather than assuming they’ll come to you) but the statement holds true for customer development. It’s not enough to get out of the building and hope to randomly find people that care. You’ve got to go to where your target market hang out, and better still, find them in a place where your questions will be relevant. If your idea is related to movies, go hang out around cinemas. If your idea is focussed on high end retail, there’s little value in talking to people outside a down-market outlet.

2. Have a plan

Be clear who you want to talk to. You may learn interesting stuff from talking to random people on the street, but how relevant is what they say to your proposition? How will it provide useful insight or validate your assumptions?

Once you’ve framed in your mind who you are going to talk to, be clear what you want to learn. This means documenting your hypotheses and crafting an interview checklist to test these against. The checklist may be on paper or in your head; it’s a list of areas you want to address. It’s purpose is to give you a clear and consistent framework to structure your questions around so when you complete the interview you’ll have data that will contribute to validating or refuting your hypotheses. It is not a list of questions, rather prompts to work with and keep you focussed.

For example, probing recent cinema experience may lead you to ask “tell me about the last time you went to the cinema”. Having the cinema experience prompt will help keep you on track and avoid the person deviating on their passion of rom-com movies.

3. Talking to strangers is unnatural

So you’ve got a plan and you are out prowling the streets. The first thing to do choose your target. Know who you want to talk to. Having created a persona may help paint a picture of what they might look like. Seen someone? If they are harried and clearly in rush you are wasting your time. Look for people who are waiting, people who don’t have purpose in their gait.

You’ve now got to do something totally alien to you. Approach a complete stranger, persuade them in a split second that you are friendly, (not interested in their money) and engage them in a conversation.

The opening move is simple. Smile! Have an opening line, for example say who you are, why you’ve stopped them “Hi, my name is John, “I’m building a new widget and would love to ask some questions about what you think about widgets”. Don’t start with “do you have a minute” because you want to be talking to them for more than a minute. Be succinct, practice before you go out and be prepared to be sidestepped. Once you’ve engaged them, have an opening question, maybe something general around the topic you are exploring before focussing into the pain points and problems they face.

4. Ask open ended questions

You don’t want them answering yes or no, you want them to answer questions with dialogue. This is easier said than done. If I ask you “do you brush your teeth twice a day”, there can only be one answer; yes or no. But if I say “Tell me about brushing your teeth” I don’t give you the opportunity to abruptly end the conversation, you have to talk.

Undoubtedly you will find yourself inadvertently asking a closed question and the response is an abrupt yes or no. Don’t worry, follow up by probing for an explanation of this response. For example ‘why do you say that?’ Why is a beautiful word, let it become your friend and ally. So good in fact, it needs expanding upon. Cue Tip Five…

5. Ask Why? (And other ‘W’ words)

Children’s minds are like sponges, they have an insatiable appetitive to learn and discover the world around them. As a parent this becomes obvious when they discover the effectiveness of ‘why’. Go back to your childhood ignorance and learn to love the word why again. It can be used to great effect, and is a core analysis tool for understanding the root cause of a problem. The “Five whys” is one of the techniques championed by the Lean movement. When you ask someone “why” there is an issue, their first answer will rarely be the underlying reason. You’ll get a superficial answer. To get to bottom of the problem you have to ask why repeated times. The Wikipedia entry describes the process well:

Problem: The car won’t start

  1. Why? The battery is dead
  2. Why? The alternator is not functioning
  3. Why? The alternator belt has broken
  4. Why? The alternator belt was beyond its useful service and not replaced
  5. Why? The car was not maintained according to the recommended schedule
  6. Why? Replacement parts are not available because of the extreme age of the vehicle

Solution 1. Start maintaing the vehicle based upon the reccomendeted service scheule (5th Why)
Solution 2. Purchase a different car that is maintainable.

Don’t stop with the why though, there are a few more words that begin with W to introduce into your questioning.

Who… Who does it?
When… When do they do it?
What… What do they do? What is the trigger for them doing it?
Where… Where do they do it?
With… With whom do they do it with?

And How. How do they do it.

For each of these questions probe around their needs, wants and desires (see my post about customer value proposition for more insight into this).

6. Avoid hypotheticals, lengthy or creative descriptions

Imagine you wanted to know more about a brand, and you had your phone to hand and you’ve got our app on it and you take a picture of the brand – the actual item- and overl-layed on the picture is rich information about the brand – do you think that would be a good idea?

You are creating a hypothetical situation that has no relevance to the person, describing a need that they don’t have (as you ask the question), using language they don’t understand (‘ brand’), a description that means nothing to them (put an app on my phone and take a picture to display information… eh?) Ending with a closed question. They will either be polite and say “yeah! sounds great” (the most likely response given your passion and enthusiasm) , or “no, I can’t see myself using it” (and that response speaks volumes. They can’t see them-self using it. If you were to show them…)

7. Show don’t explain

Words are slippery things that are easily misunderstood. I often ask a group of people to, behind their back or under the table) tear a sheet of paper in half. Without fail almost everyone tears it like this.

Paper torn on vertical plane

I’ve torn mine like this.

Paper torn across horizontal plane

Same words, same instructions, totally different result. Without something concrete or tangible to frame the product description against, your description could easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted. This is more likely when you are passionate about your product or service. You’ll find it easy to wax lyrical about it, probably framing its description around your personal experiences and assumptions of what is good (see above). They say a picture tells a thousand words. So use a picture to explore your concept. Build a prototype. A sketch. Use that to frame the questions. I’ve used post-it notes to simulate a mobile phone – screens are scribbled on each page and they are pulled off as the user moves through the experience.

8. Listening is uncomfortable

Listening is hard, especially in an interview when you need to be doing three things:

  1. Receiving information
  2. Making sense of the information you are hearing
  3. Then asking the right follow up question.

Watch people in a conversation in the pub and you won’t see much of the first two of these happening. People hear a soundbite and get fixated on that, preparing to talk on that point rather than listening to all that is said. This is lazy listening. You need to be an active listener. What does that mean?

Listen & show you are listening. Nod your head, gently grunt uh-huh. Repeat what you’ve heard.

You said listening is uncomfortable. What do you mean by that?

9. Love the uncomfortable silence

Normal conversation is often just banter, a statement by one person, a retort by another. That’s easy. But it’s not listening. If you are really listening, it is OK to take time to absorb what you have just heard. Far better than cutting them off mid-sentance. Learn to love uncomfortable silences, it gives you more time to think. In fact, last the person your talking to feel uncomfortable with the silence – Let them break it, not you.

10. Keep them talking

Of course there are some people who are monosyllabic whose responses give little away. “Tell me about your most recent visit to the cinema” “I saw a film. It was OK”. That’s hardly a conversation. These responses can be off-putting and appear that the person is just not interested. Often they just need a little warming up. Luckily there are a bunch of prompts that you can use to probe deeper and open them up to your questioning:

  • What do you mean by that?
  • Can you explain that a little more?
  • What else do you do?
  • Why do you say that?
  • How do you feel about that?
  • What are you thinking

11. Stop them talking

Conversely you’ll find some people are yakerty yak and just don’t stop talking. Worse, they’ll take an initial idea and take it to places you have no interest in going. Ask them about their trip to the cinema and before long they are telling you all about the partner they went with and how they are no longer associated with them. You need to interrupt their flow in a friendly and endearing way. Don’t appear bored or agitated by their narrative, just nod, smile and then take control

That’s really interesting. You said earlier that…
I know what you are saying! [smile & nod]. Can we return to what you were saying about…
Can I please stop you there for a moment and go back to…

12. They (could be) a customer

At the end of the interview thank them for their time. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t ask for their contact details if you can promise to follow up with something. Give them a flyer, provide them with a URL, invite them to try your website. Remember, they could be a future customer, and having seen you (and liked you) they could become a passionate advocate for your product.

Good luck as you get out of the building. And maybe double up the twelve tips to twenty four, looking at Giff Constables twelve.

How the retail banks are addressing customer experience

A few weeks ago I attended the Customer Experience Management for Banking and Financial Services conference, presenting on driving agility into your customer experience.  There were some great presentations, it is great to see the banks taking customer experience seriously. From my notes, what follows are some of the presentations and ideas that resonated with me.

Anthony Thomson, Metrobank

Anthony Thomson, chairman of Metro Bank was inspiring. Everything they do is from the customer perspective.

For everything Metro Bank do, they ask ‘why are we doing this?’ Is it going to make our lives easier, or is it going to give our customers a better experience? The second trumps the first every time.

Metrobank see that they (like all banks) are essentially a money shop who sell the same products as their competitors. The only real differentiator is experience and service. With the Vickers Report recommending “the early introduction” of a system that makes it easier to move accounts and that is “free of risk and cost to customers”, this is going to become increasingly more important.

Retail is detail is the old adage. Think about something as small as the pen on the counter. Chaining it down may suggest security, until you see a chain with no pen attached. Anthony questioned what is the cost of a pen? What is the value of having your branded pen in your customers’ kitchen? Talking of branding he showed a picture of a Metrobank van. Banks use vans all the time to transport the pens and stationary to the branches, but they are never branded. Is this security trumping marketing? A lack of joined up thinking? He commented on the press comments on Metrobank attitude towards dogs. Focussing upon the dog misses the point. Customers love their dogs, why shouldn’t they be allowed in the stores and be positively welcomed! By saying “no dogs” are you saying we care more about our carpets than our customers?

Another detail thing – how often have you waited outside a bank to open in the morning, or be hassled out because it’s the end of the day and is now closed. Metrobank have flexibility, they’ll open a little earlier if people are waiting outside and stay open till the last customer leaves.

A theme through Anthony’s presentation was of empowerment. Empowering staff, removing pedantic rules that get in the way of delivering a compelling customer experience. He told a story of how a customer had to wait longer for assistance than expected and incurred an £8 parking ticket. A member of staff wanted to refund the customer and suggested giving them £4. To which Anthony commented “and only half piss them off?”

Empowerment starts with recruiting good people. Only a fraction of the people who apply get to work for Metrobank. They understand that skills can be trained so they recruit for attitude. If someone whose job is to interact with customers on a daily basis doesn’t smile, they don’t get the job. When it comes to targets, they ‘measure what matters’. They incentivise on service not sales because with good service comes sales.

Rob Hawthorn, Barclays

Empowerment was a theme that ran through the presentation that Rob Hawthorne from Barclays gave. He’s taken a leaf out of the hospitality industry and borrowed from Ritz Carlton with their Credo Card, a single sided card that reminds their staff of the levels of service they should provide. Barclays corporate staff are empowered to fix the problem. Like Metrobank they strive for no stupid rules and put the customer first. For example a customer pays in £230.60 and only £230.20 is credited to the account. They now refund then investigate. By introducing this policy change they say a 65% reduction in customer complaints.

Everyday, in every Ritz Carlton hotel they have The Line-up. This is a fifteen minute meeting to review guest experiences, address issues and identify how they can improve service. It is an opportunity to tell stories, both top down (what’s going on in the company overall) and bottom up (what can we learn from individuals and their interactions with customers). Barclays corporate do this across the organisation. From the top down they have one version of the truth; what is happening in Barclays world, what is important and what are customers saying today?”

The fifteen minute meeting is a familiar concept within agile, known as the standup it’s a brief meeting where the team review what they did yesterday, what they are doing today and any issues or blockers they are facing.

“How often do you see your complaints data?” Asked Rob. What use is seeing it once a month? You should be seeing it every day. Better still (and this is something that I alluded to as well), walk in the shoes of your customer. Get out into the branches, into the call centre and see what is going on for yourself.

Richard Brimble, Veolia Water

Not FS, but Richard gave a view on customer experience from a different viewpoint.  He gave an engaging presentation that started by asking if you are a blue tit or a robin. Blank states from the audience, so he elaborated. After the first world war milk companies started sealing milk bottles with foil tops. Until then the bottles had open tops and both robins and blue tits would drink the cream from the top. With the foil tops the birds had to learn to peck through them. By the 1950s the entire blue tit population had learned this. Robins never did. Robins are territorial and solitary creatures, whilst blue tits are social. They may be scruffy compared to the elegance of the robin, but they are innate communicators. They share their learnings and copy each others successes. As an organisation are you a robin or a blue tit?!

Sean Gilchrist, Barclays

Is Barclays going all Lean Startup? Sean Gilchrist from Barclays told a story of their lean customer development approach to developing their mobile bank The journey started in data; a significant minority of customers were accessing internet banking using mobile devices. A clunky experience at best. Rather than going the Big IT route they went lean and did some customer discovery. “What’s important to you?” they asked customers.  “Checking balance” they were told. “How about paying bills on your mobile?” they asked, “No, we just want to check balances” was the response. “How about a branch location finder?” to be told  “No, we just want to check balances”. In eight weeks and on a shoestring they built and launched their minimum viable product, The product was instantly successful and gave the team leverage to continue development.

Sean told another story about the perils of just pushing something into production without thinking about how people behave on-line. To access account information on on-line banking the customer has to use a security device that displays digits that are then entered into the application. The digits were displayed in two blocks of four:

1234 5678

A decision was taken to replace the single field on the application where this number was entered into two fields that better represented the way the number was presented on the screen, i.e.

|1234| |5678|

The week they made this change they received over thirty thousand complaints about this change. When I’ve recounted this story to Barclays customers they can remember when this happened and what a pain it was. People who don’t touch type look at their keyboard, not the screen. They entered the number as one continuum, not in two blocks. Tabbing between fields is an ‘advanced’ technique. Suddenly the customer was unable to enter the number without having to use their mouse to move to the next field. A change that was suppose to reduce errors ended up causing more. The issue was fixed by have an auto-tab between the fields, but not before customer complaints. Usability testing (oe even having an experienced usability expert on the team) before going live would have picked this issue up.

Trent Fulcher, RBS

Finally Trent Fulcher from RBS presented on the customer experience and innovation work he has been doing at RBS. A key takeaway from his presentation was that at RBS they demonstrated a positive correlation between advocacy and revenue per customer. Not only are advocates more profitable, they also bring new customers to brand. RBS accepted that they will always have detractors to the brand and are happy to take a calculated decision not to focus upon changing their perceptions, rather focus on ‘passives’ and move them to advocates. He demonstrated how RBS modelled their customer journeys, understanding what customers value and expect from every touch point. What they discovered is that for some touchpoints they were overreaching on these expectations, enabling them to understand if they were focussing effort on the parts of the journey that Make A Difference.

The cart before the horse

“We need a digital strategy to map out our roadmap to success”

“We’ve got to use <insert Content Management System / Product> because we’ve paid for licences for it”.

No you don’t.

You need to think about the what, then just get going on the how.

To overuse the metaphor, you need to stop thinking you need a horse and a cart.  Don’t spend your time  designing the cart, or worse still putting it in front of the horse.  You’ll never get anywhere. Your horse will be perfectly good to get you started on the journey.  If it is an old nag you won’t have invested much time and effort on designing a cart that’s not fit for the horse.  And if it’s a thoroughbred you can build a cart that is fit for the journey when you need it.  And that roadmap? What use is it in uncharted territory?

Lean startup machine and the problem with parallel dating

Can you build a business in a weekend?  Can you take an idea, validate it through customer research and launch it to market in forty-eight hours?  Can you pivot in the process- realise that your proposition isn’t as compelling as you thought to your target market and either fail fast or change direction and build something even better?

Eric Reis has written about Lean Startup Machine in a blog that suggests you can.

Inspired, I travelled to NYC over the weekend to experience what Lean Startup machine is all about. I was blown away.

Here’s what happened.

The event kicked off at 6pm with networking then presentations on Lean startup and what it is all about.  Anyone who had an idea was given a minute to pitch to the group.  These were voted on and the best 12 ideas were selected.  People self selected the team they wanted to join – six per team.  The team I wanted to join had seven people, rather jet lagged I agreed to leave and move to an under-resourced team – at the time not my first choice of product to start up, but oh what fun it was to be.

First step was to document our hypothesis and assumptions. Our hypothesis was that men and woman who are active daters have problems with remembering / keeping track of their dates.  The customer value proposition was essentially a dating CRM system.  So I’m happily married so not the most obvious of product choices for me, but this is what the weekend was all about; coming up with a proposition and challenging it.  With a clear hypothesis, at midnight we hit the streets of New York to test it on our target market.  Interviewing people in the lines outside clubs and on the streets around we sought to understand whether there is in fact a problem.  We assumed that people date many partners at the same time and that they would be open to a system to help them manage their relationships.  Our hypothesis was partly proven, there’s clearly problem that is felt more by men than women.  Any solution would be targeted at men.   There are workarounds that men use, for example using fields in their phone address book to capture data such as place met, key features.  And the more ‘advanced’ parallel dater does indeed have a “little black book”.

To back up the qualitative data we built a surveymonkey questionnaire.  This would further validate the concept and capture insights into what data parallel daters need to remember their dates.  To drive traffic to the survey we planned on using Amazon Mechanical Turk to place ads on Craigslist personals through the night.  Unfortunately on Saturday morning both services had rejected us so the survey didn’t get as many responses as we’d have liked.

Our first Minimum Viable Product was a landing page using unbounce. A little more than twelve hours after the initial concept being pitched we had a product, live in the market.  BeBop was born (another variant was datingCRM was also launched to test the URLs and the effectiveness of the calls to action).

Landing page created using unbounce

At this stage the product was a landing page and a call to action “I’m interested”.  Clicking on that took the user to a form that included an email capture address and an option to sign up to the free version and to be notified of the paid-for ‘pro’ version when it comes available.  This way we could judge if the idea would easily generate revenue.  (All the people who completed the form indicated an interest in the $5 a month version).  The idea was to drive traffic to the landing page using Google adwords, but google didn’t like us and this was denied as well.

With our learnings from the previous evening’s customer research we did some design thinking.  The team sketched up ideas of how we could solve the problem.  This exercise was repeated six times – people are precious of their first design, by the sixth they are clutching at straws and this is when left-field ideas can brew up.  And it did.  Why did the product have to be an application?  We’d seen some non-smart phones the night before; an iPhone on Android app would be of little utility to some of target market.  What about an SMS texting service.


The afternoon was spent building a texting service based upon the Twillio platform.  Customers could text their name to a number and they were signed up.  All they they need do is text the contact details of their date to the service and it would be stored.  They could retrieve it by sending a message “info: name” to get that contact texted back to them.  We included some gamification to encourage usage.

The phone texting interface

Saturday night and we hit the clubs and bars again.  This time putting the concept into the hands of potential customers as well as handing out cards with the telephone number.  More customer research.  More often than not our target market was with women, so it was hard to gauge interest.  One guy pretended to throw away the card when the girl he was with expressed shock at the concept – with a slight of hand he tucked it into his shirt pocket as he brought his hand back.

Sunday morning and we reviewed the results.  Some vanity metrics – 150 cards handed out, around 50 meaningful conversations with more customer validation, 15 sign-ups and 7 messages sent.  Was this success?  Hard to tell.  We’d also built a basic MVP android app that we launched Sunday morning and the next step is to test this MVP with customers (the issue we had is that our target market is best found at night so customer testing in the daytime would be hard).  We talked about pivoting again and exploring taking the product to a wider market – do people with non-smart phones have problems managing richer contact details other than just a name and number?  One girl who’d seen the datingCRM product said that she’d use it for that.  But by now time had run out to test this new idea.

Three thirty on Sunday afternoon and each team had six minutes to present with three minutes of questions.  We were first.  It went well.  But how did we do?  We came third overall and joint best MVP.  But it wasn’t the competition it was about, it was more the experience.  It was a real privilege to work with such talented and smart people.  David Young-Chan Kay, Yan Tsirklin, James Washington and Mikhail A. Naumov were an awesome team to work with.  More than that, the whole NYC startup movement is infectious and inspiring.

It didn’t end with our presentation.  There were some other, awesome startups with even better stories that were hatched over the weekend.

One team started with a hypothesis around supporting people hook up with mentors to help them choose the right career path when they were starting out or unsure of the path they are on.  The concept bombed with both the target market and mentors.  In an hour of desperation they realised there was a common theme they were hearing.  People love to bitch and moan.  And thus on Saturday night jobstipation was born, an anonymous place to vent fury and angry about your workplace.  When they presented, ideas of monetisation and tying the concept back to their original ideas were suggested.

Screen shot of jobstipation

The team that won the weekend worked on the hypothesis that teachers spend a lot of time prepping classes, that they spend a lot of time searching for decent materials on the web and that they’d pay for a service that would provide them with quality teaching materials.  Research with teachers validated the assumption that teachers spend a lot of time (thirty hours a week) preparing for lessons.  But the idea that they display economically rationale behaviour was refuted.  Teachers would not pay for the service.  But their principals might.  Pivot.  The team asked the teachers for examples of lessons they have hassle preparing for – geometry was one example.  So they built an MVP that demonstrated searching for quality geometry resources.  They trawled the web to find the information and on sunday morning called the teachers again and showed them the website they’d built.  It may have been ‘smoke and mirrors’ but it worked.  The teachers loved it sufficiently to recommend the concept to their principals – the people with money who would pay for it.  All this in a weekend.

IT innovation can be imitated, great brands can’t. Discuss.

Seen in a marketing presentation “IT innovation can be imitated, great brands can’t“. It’s a great statement that begs to be turned into an exam question with the suffix “discuss”.

What strikes me is this is how a senior marketeer perceives IT; as a commodity with little creative flare and talent. What it ignores is the fact that in truly great brands, IT is oxygen by which they breathe. Facebook, Google, Microsoft.  These are great brands that are IT.

Indeed it is this thinking that that destroys great brands.  Think photography; Kodak (great brand) and Flickr (IT innovation). Think vacuum cleaners; Hoover (great brand) and Dyson (technology innovation).

Enterprise IT has to drag itself out the depths of the organisational cesspool; be recognised not as an enabler, whose customer is the business, but as an innovator and a brand builder. And marketeers need to recognise that without IT, without the ability to execute, their brand will ultimately wither and die.

A tale of two innovation approaches

Last week I attended the kick-off meeting for the UK government’s Technology Strategy Board initiative “Collaboration across digital industries: creating sustainable value chains“.  They have £5.8m (of tax payers money) to award to “Successful collaborators… to demonstrate how their proposed activity improves or creates new value chains and networks, and show where value is to be created from information, content and services.”

In plainer English, they are looking for companies / universities to come together to develop new digital products.  They talked about “pipes” (the ISPs), “Poems” (the content) and “people” (customer demand), with the sweet spot projects being at the interaction of all three.

Last Monday was the kick-off and the competition (document filling) starts on 14th March.  The funding will not be awarded until 19th August.  Five months before any innovation actually starts.  The funding is to support projects that “are expected to last 12 to 24 months”.

During the kick-off, attendees were invited to present their innovation product ideas.  These were then voted upon.  None were particularly earth-shattering (but then I suppose no-one was going to be putting their best ideas forward in a public space).  Moreover, none of them seemed to justify this long and over-engineered process.

Now compare that with this story.  Following the floods in Queensland, Australia, on a Thursday afternoon three ThoughtWorkers  came together to build a product that would support a Government Telethon to collect donations to help the flood victims.

They had “a little over 48 hours to develop, test and deploy an application that was expected to handle thousands of users. Not only that but an application that, should it fail, would prevent millions of dollars from reaching the people in need in Queensland.”

On Sunday the Telethon aired.   “720 requests per minute… with fast response times…  In about two hours [they] had over AUD$2,000,000.00 (two million) donated through [the] website”.

It has gone on to raise over $25m.

Another story.  Another 48 hours.  This time LeanstartupmachineEric Ries has a great write up on it. Teams get together and in 48 hours strive to get a customer validated product to market.  In some cases this meant ‘pivoting’, discarding the original idea to focus on something else it spawned.  (Flickr is the classic example of this, it started out as an online multi-player game, but the photosharing proved to be more feasible and the game was ditched).  Eric writes:

In one notable case, a team was able to conclusively invalidate a business that I have been pitched by venture-backed entrepreneurs many times – with a full day to spare. Compared to entrepreneurs who’ve blown millions of dollars pursuing the same vision, this is a way better outcome. Since they had extra time, they tried a pivot into a much more promising idea. By the time of the judging, they had an MVP in the market with real customers signed up.

The UK government has the best intentions with the Technology Strategy Board.  But do they need all the process?  Why can’t they do what these two case studies did?  Indeed it’s the same with most large organisations, innovation is rarely rapid in the way it could be.    Bring on the entrepreneurial enterprise that nurtures a culture of rapid experimentation, test, learn; confidence to fail and desire to invest in the successes.  Bring on Lean Start Up thinking into the enterprise.

Smart meters. What will happen Vs. what could happen

Smart meters. What will happen Vs. what could happen

Smart meters are the Next Big Thing at the Energy companies.

Over the next 11 years every household in Britain will receive Smart Meters, one for gas and one for electricity. This project will be one of the largest infrastructure projects to have taken place since the Second World War.

So says NPower.

I’m going to get a Smart Meter? Whoppeeedo!

Whilst the idea is compelling to the companies themselves, I don’t see them answering the question “so what” in a particularly compelling way.  They try, talking about “providing you with much more information on your energy consumption allowing you to be more fuel efficient and save money”, but really. So what?

(This calls to mind a quote from Jurassic Park where the Jeff Goldblum character says “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”.)

Just because I can control my boiler from my iPhone when I am away from home…. well why should I? What is the point? What is the customer need that smart meters are fulfilling?

That is not to write off smart meters. But what else could they do? What new business models could they inspire?

How about introducing gamification to the way people monitor their energy consumption.  What if the customer could win recognition as being the most energy efficient in their street?  What if gamification could be used as a reward for more energy efficient behaviour?  What if it enabled people to trade their energy usage within their social network?

Lot’s of big ideas but I don’t hold my breath so see anything innovative coming to market anytime soon. Marketing departments may dream of such things but I don’t see them gaining traction when IT are tasked with rolling out functional requirements for mundane, pedestrian and unimaginative use cases.

Yet might there be a different way?

Dear Energy Provider. What if you carve out a niche within the larger smart meter project to build a test and learn capability? A capability that can rapidly develop ideas and take them to market as experiments, product betas. A place where technology is less of a concern than the idea. Many of the usual non-functional requirements can take a back seat as you take the concept to consumers. a place where the idea has to prove itself cheaply for real, or fail fast.

An interesting aside, the way that Mumsnet have developed a community site that attracts 25k per day:

Essentially, we started with a blank piece of paper, viewing ourselves as a platform provider, with the understanding the site had to be developed in collaboration with mumsnetters at every stage.

The most important factor has been letting the community direct progress and listening to what they want – almost all innovations, new site and product developments at Mumsnet are derived from members suggestions.

This happens on a day-to-day basis: we view the site as an ongoing beta or focus group. Most recently this has led to our ‘Off the Beaten Track’ section, covering sensitive issues which which users’ requested not to be indexed by Google. Their feedback and suggestions have also been instrumental to the design of our soon-to-launch mobile app.

What if, instead of rolling out Smart Meters to customers and extolling the virtues of how good the pedestrian things they do are, what if the energy providers derived new product innovations based on the smart meter technology through their customer suggestions.

And thinking more radically, what if they unlocked their data that the smart meters provide and let the community develop innovations (as with the UK government’s Open Data initiative).  There’s lots of new business models, new ways of working. But again, I don’t hold my breath for anything inspiring anytime soon.

Image credit: Todd Smith

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