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.

Vision, passion and personal investment

Something that is common with the start-ups I’ve been involved with, and stories of entrepreneurialism you can read is the passion of those involved.  They have a drive and desire to succeed, backed by enthusiasm and belief for the product they are building.   More often than not, they are personally invested in the project; maybe it is a problem that they feel needs addressing (Dyson), or an opportunity in an industry they are familiar with. It almost always it goes beyond just a job, it is a hunger to bring change and make a difference.  They have a vision, it what drives them, yet they are willing adapt the original vision and move with agility as circumstances dictate.

FlickR started its life as a tool in a role playing game.  The game was not successful and ultimately shelved (fail fast) with the photo sharing capability being developed; the team realised where the value was rather than sticking to a failed big up front plan.  If you go back in time to 1999 and look at how google described itself:

Google Inc. was founded in 1998 by Sergey Brin and Larry Page to make it easier to find high-quality information on the web.

Nothing there about browsers or phone operating systems or word processors or spreadsheets.  Twelve years to go from a search engine to the Google we know today.  Place that lens over most enterprises and how have they managed to adapt to the changing world?  I know of several enterprise projects that are three plus years in, (that’s a quarter of Google’s life) and have still yet to start delivering value.  You don’t get that with start-ups, or places where vision, passion and personal investment drive the product strategy (thinking Apple and Steve Jobs for example).

I’ll lay the fault at Enterprise Culture.  Silo thinking and career progression through the ranks.  So an individual is personally invested in delivering documentation that specifies the system.  When she delivers these she is done.  What happens next is someone else’s problem.  Reward is rarely for delivering the overall vision, why should it?  How often do all stakeholders involved in a project have a strong grasp of the what’s and why’s of what they are doing?  They are only rewarded on the how they deliver the fragment that they are responsible for.

When IT becomes a supplier rather than a partner, no-one has ultimate responsibility for delivering a coherent holistic vision, it becomes a contractual relationship rather than a passionate obsession.  Funding projects is all to often a charade and a nonsense.  The business submit their funding requests (a line item for a potential project) for the forthcoming financial year in the autumn / winter.  Budgets are finalised in the Spring with the new financial year and months have elapsed due to internal budgetting and accounting formalities rather than the ability to respond to the market.  Contrast that with the start up model with seed funding to get started and if the projects shows viability second round funding follows.  If the project is not viable it is suffocated before wasting cash.  (There are interesting perspectives on this leaner model at Beyond Budgetting).

I wonder if in these lean times we are going to start seeing lean thinking applied to enterprises and a start-up culture being nurtured.  There is certainly a growing interest in agile, beyond the practitioners and from C level executives.  But agility in software development is only the first step.  To be really successful it needs to spread through the whole organisation, not just paying lip-service to the word “agile”, but devolving responsibility to individuals and collaborative, cross-organisation teams who can share the vision, passion and are personally invested in getting the right quality products to market at speed.

Does enterprise IT know what Google is?

Imagine an investment bank, a trader has a requirement for a tool to screen stocks. The requirement is to select stocks based upon different parameters, so for example find companies with a market capitalisation between a selected range, and a P/E ratio, Dividend Yield and Net Profit Margin between other selected ranges. And maybe the ability to add additional parameters.

Typically the process will be for these requirements to be captured by the Business Analyst who acts as the conduit to the development team. Nowhere is the user interface explicitly referenced – it will almost certainly be articulated in the reality of the current systems; what the BA knows and understands. Despite the iterface being delivered through a browser, the developers are not web developers. Inevitably the finished product will be functionally correct, it meets the requirements, but it will be clunky: select parameters > search > results… because it reflects the requirements as the trader put them “I want to do this and this and this, press a button and get a list back“.

So what are the chances of an internally developed investment bank application looking like Google finance’s Stock Screener? And what would your trader rather have?

Will corporate websites remain spotty teenagers or will they grow up to be beautiful?

In the corporate webspace most design is little more than mediocre. Interaction design has changed little since coporations first realised that this is a channel thery should exploit. Web 2.0 is slowly making in-roads with basic use of Ajax functionality, but there is nothing that is really breaking the mould. Despite its infancy (for most organisations ‘e’ is barely 10 years old, Amazon, the granddaddy of eBuisiness is only 13, born in 1995), conservatism rules; the corporate web is just not growing up. It would be easy to blame the technologists for being risk adverse- for having invested in architectures and frameworks that do not allow innovation. REST and all that declarative goodness may be great, but of little interst if you have invested in a propiertary framework that does not support it. But the business is also responsible for tardy innovation.

It doesn’t know what is possible. A miss-understanding of accesibility clobbers rich interactions; “no javascript” becomes the mantra, despite the guidance being “provide alternatives” and progressive enhancements making basic and rich interactions possible with the same code. And maybe as usability testing becomes the norm, and testing concepts with consumers throughout the product lifecycle is baked into the process, this is acutally the final nail in the creative coffin. Let me explain.

When you are developing new features or propositions it is only right that you should conduct market research, talk to your customers and get feedback to refine your ideas. But sometimes you need to ignore what you are being told and challenge the perceived wisdom. Imagine the scenario; you are developing a social networking site. You recruit a bunch of consumers to participate in user testing sessions. They match the socio-demographic profile of your target audience, they use the internet more than five hours a week. You let them loose on your concept boards and prototype. They like what they see, they like the blogs… but commenting? The feedback is that none of them would leave comments. So what do you do? Kill the commenting on the basis that the users who matched your “average” profile would not use this feature.

I’m not saying that if you are building a conventional, transactional experience; a retail shop, a financial services provider, you should not test the proposition with users that match the target profile. But beware that they will steer your thinking into the realm of the ordinary, the expected and the average. Try testing it with trend setters, gamers, teens, mybe even anti-personas to push the boundries and harvest real innovation insights.

And maybe testing the proposition is not needed at all. But don’t leave the design to the comittee or the accountants. Sometimes it is more important to have a real visionary driving the product development. Apple is a great example of this, no more so than with the iPhone bounce. When you scroll down a list, when you come to the end, the last item “bounces”. Where’s the “business value” in this? Isn’t this gold plating in the extreme? The development of this bounce will not have been for free, it will have come at a cost. This could have been a financial (more development effort) it could have been at the expense of another feature, or it could have been time. In most organisations this would not get get through the design by commitee. Apple can do such great things with their UI because they’ve got a visionary at the helm who understands the importance of good design and is passionate about it, and their customers become to expect it.

Enterprise twittering

I’ve been interested in Twitter for a while now – it is probably one of the flagship web 2.0 innovations, (and its Ruby on Rails). But I’ve had a problem with it; I can’t answer the question “what’s in it for me“. What is the point of Twitter? I signed up a while ago and invited a few friends, but the responses were generally along the lines of “what’s wrong with FaceBook status” (one tweet read, “[name] doesnt understand how this is any different from his IM or facebook status). This is a good question. Instant messenger can change the way an enterprise communicates – what’s wrong with IM? Why not put your status alongside your IM ID? Staying with the enterprise theme, you can’t walk into an investment bank without seeing someone scanning their blackberry. Why would an enterprise need Twitter when eyes are glued to the ‘berry?JP Rangaswami has been blogging a series of articles on Twitter – I commented on one post asking these sorts of questions. In a follow up blog, he has answered my questions. I’m beginning to see the point of Twitter – more to the point, when I’m talking to clients about enterprise 2.0, I’ve got a more compelling Twitter story to tell. So (borrowing from JP), why Twitter?

1. Publish – subscribe. Unlike email where an author publishes a note to a group of people she feels will be interested in it, with Twitter people can choose whether to subscribe to what the author writes. If they like what they read they can continue to consume the ‘tweets’. But how is this different to subscribing to a newsgroup? With a newsgroup you can only select to subscribe to the topic, not the author. Unless you use some clever filtering, you can’t choose whose words you read. And filtering takes time and is rarely straight forward; bringing on the second point for Twitter…

2. It is easy.

3. It is multi-device. Not only do I choose who I receive tweets from, I choose how I will receive them – via SMS, email, rss etc.

4. It is succint – 140 characters is not a lot of words to write with

Anyway, an enterprise example…


Jack Fiction knows something – he’s learned a great insight about a potential client. He sends a mail to people he thinks might be interested in this insight. He includes a copy to the Business Development email interest group that was set up by IS
– It is a closed circle. People not on the cc list will never learn of the insight.
– It doesn’t mean anything to them at that time. They delete the mail. It has no history.
– Many interested people are not on the IS email list
– People who are no longer interested still get sent mails to the group.


Jack knows something – he’s learned a great insight about a potential client. He tweets about it.

– It is public
– It has history

Jack doesn’t need to think who will be interested in what he writes; people who value what he does subscribe to his Twitter. They can see an archive of his previous tweets on his Twitter space. If they no longer want to listen to what Jack says they unsubscribe – the UI is elegant and simple.

This model assumes thats people interested in the insight know Jack in the first place, but that is generally the way that social interactions work. Let people communicate between themselves – it is far easier to choose who you want to listen to, to who you want to talk to. And in doing this it is far easier to cut out the noise.