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.

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

Letting go is the hardest thing

Tim Brown from IDEO gave the audience at his TED Talk a simple exercise. He asked the audience to draw a picture of the person sat next to them. He gave them a minute to do so. He then asked them to show their pictures. “Sorry” was the stock reaction as the sketches were revealed. They had an inhibition on showing their work. When it comes to creativity, as we move beyond childhood we take on board inhibitions and feel more uncomfortable sharing our creative efforts unless we perceive them to be ready or any good. Getting a visual designer to share her work in progress is a challenge. We fear what others will think if our “deliverable” is not ready, is not finished or polished. We fear setting expectations, we fear disappointing, we kill our creativity with fear.

So we are uncomfortable at letting others into our personal creative process. Now take this to the organisation, to the enterprise and creative genocide is abound. Like the Head of Digital who had 130 different stakeholders to socialise the Organisation’s new website designs with. Enter the HiPPO. The Highest Paid Person’s Point Of view. And with a few of those on board you get design by committee and design mediocrity. Or the client who refuses to engage with customers or end users in the early stages of the design process in fear of what they might think. A fear of setting expectations, a fear that their competitors might see what they are up to. Killing their creativity with fear.

Letting go is the hardest thing. But it can also pay great rewards.

On 27th October people coming out of arrivals at Heathrow airport were greeted by singers and dancers and general merriment. As an ad campaign for T-Mobile by Saatchi & Saatchi it was inspired, creative but not without risk. All the members of the public filmed had to sign a release form, agreeing to their being used in the ad. What if they didn’t? But they did. Whilst meticulously planned, the success of the ad is in the general public. T-Mobile got over any fear they may have had of the unknown and let go of the product to let the crowd create. It’s an uplifting piece, and successful too; their youTube page has had over 5.5 million views. And to the bottom line? The ad saw a 12% rise in sales the week after airing.

Extraordinary but ordinary

“Two-thirds of HR and IT organizations develop strategic plans that are not linked to the organization’s strategy”. Says the father of the Balanced Scorecard, Robert Kaplan.

“This is extraordinary.” He adds. Too right, but that’s the wrong word, it isn’t extra- ordinary, it is ordinary.

It is ordinary for IT to develop an architectural strategy based upon their understanding of “the business” rather than the strategic ambitions of the organization.

It is ordinary to see “a chronic disconnect in organizations between strategy formulation and strategy execution.”

It is ordinary to see fundamental disconnects between IT and “the business”.

Like the bank who were porting their branch banking applications from one technical stack to another without asking the business to define which were strategically important and which were no longer fit for purpose.  Or the FTSE 100 company whose IT organisation built a new web platform and interactive services, in the knowledge that “the business” were developing a complete refresh of their on-line strategy but kept that at arms length (“because the business can never make decisions and we need to fix the technical issues we’ve got” with the current stack.)

Robert Kaplan proposes the “office of strategy management” to address these issues.  It may sound like organisational overhead, but it is hard to argue with a function whose purpose is to “unlock unrealized value by making strategy execution a distinct and recognized competency in an organization”.

And fundamental to this, and what large organizations so often fail to do is “enabling others—operating units and functions—to do their jobs in a way that supports the organization’s strategy”.

How can I trust you if I don’t understand what you are saying?

Innocent are a great brand.  They’ve got a great product, but they also know how to connect with their customers.  From the packaging and beyond they come across as natural and friendly.  Watching this video by the founders of Innocent is five minutes well spent on how they do this; how they use natural language.

“A lot of businesses don’t speak the way they talk.  They speak the way they think a business should speak.  They start using language that isn’t real language, that isn’t language you’d talk to your friends or your family.  So our thing is don’t use any claptrap that you wouldn’t use to explain to your grandma what Innocent is as a business.  If she doesn’t get it, then why should somebody else get it?  Why should someone else have to wade through your layers of jargon and corporate waffle.  Just use the words that you are comfortable with…”

Friendships exist within companies, they exist outside companies.  Friendships are about speaking a shared language with a simple vocabulary.

Organisations strive to be friendly; they try to be social, open, transparent and service driven with employees and customers (look at your average mission statement to see how companies crave to be those things).  Yet beyond this vaneer they hide behind a language that your friends (who are not part of that corporate vacuum), your family, your granny would be clueless about. Innocent prove that you can build a successful business thinking and acting as friends rather than as the faceless corporate-speak bureaucrat.

Is success best measured by tickboxes or delight?

Product owners get hung up on the features, a shopping list of requirements rather than considering what is actually important to their customers.

Imagine it is 2007, there is no Apple, you are a new entrant developing a product that will go head to head with Nokia’s flagship phone the N95. You are the product manager who is responsible for the success of the product. You are focused upon beating Nokia; you’ve made it your business to intimately know the N95, you can recite the list of features it has from memory. You have a meeting with your design team and they break the news. They tell you the spec they have come up with.

“Let me get this straight” you say. “You are telling me that the phone you are proposing we take to market will have no Card slot, no 3G, no Bluetooth (headset support only), no decent camera, no MMS, no video, no cut and paste, no secondary video camera, no radio, no GPS, no Java…”

“Yup” the team say.

How do you feel?

Ditch the feature list that you’ve fixated upon in your quest to beat your competitors flagship product?

Only the brave would avoid the tick box mentality and strive for feature parity as a minimum requirement. Would you really throw out 3G, GPS and a decent camera; the real innovations in the market place?

The first generation of iPhone was released in June 2007, three months after Nokia’s flagship handset the N95. On paper, when you compare the phone features side by side, it is a sorry looking list. As a product manager would you rather have the iPhone or the N95 on your resume?

Below and here [SlideShare] is the story in pictures.

Follow fast

I’ll pick on a random industry. Let’s say you are an airline. Part of your digital strategy includes a refresh to your website (maybe you were inspired by this presentation I did a while ago on digital for airlines!). You’ve built a business case and secured funding for the project.  First things first, you get a design agency in and set them to work.

Some sort of competitor analysis is performed that proabably includes features and functions that “we like”, (for example ‘the tactile sliders in We like!  And an iPhone-like coverflow, got to have one of those…)

The information architect takes these ideas away and starts building wireframes and the creative team produce designs that bring these wires to life.  The team come up with lots of new, innovative ideas.  This is after all a ‘refresh’, and ‘innovation’ was probably one of the words in the brief.  The creative is fresh and ‘of the moment’, the IA has developed some new interaction models that are unique and compelling.  The business is sold on a new, innovative way of interacting with their customers, something that no one else does and will blow all their competitors away.

I’ve been bouncing ideas around with Luke Barrett (and because he doesn’t blog, I’ll write them down for him) around this approach; specifically the value of innovation against ‘follow fast’.

Luke reminded me of a project we worked on together many years ago. Before we started designing webpages we did usability testing. We did usability testing of the competitors, and of sites that were getting a lot of press as ‘innovative’.  This was at a time that had just started and the client were talking about how cool an avatar would be on their site, just like boo. We put people in front of and watched them suffer. Clearly the avatar was an idea good on paper, terrible on execution.  So we killed it.  Not on our site.

We observed what worked and what didn’t on a multitude of sites with real users. Then, like magpies, we took what was good and worked. Nothing particularly innovative, (let other people do that), we took the best of what existed and delivered on that.

So back to our airline. How about a different approach where they start by usability testing their competitors. Ask participants to book tickets on competitor websites. Understand what interaction elements work, what don’t.

Those kayak sliders, cool for geeks (maybe), but how about the target audience that flies and buys online with you?  It may not be cutting edge design, but Does a drop down work better?

The coverflow may be cool on your iPhone, but how successful is it for people seeking a holiday?  A static list has worked for websites till now (and it wasn’t so long ago that horizontal scrolling was the Great Taboo), just because Apple do something that looks cool for a particular purpose on their products, doesn’t mean you have to follow by scrapping your navigation.

There are no prizies for (design) innovation (other than for some award that the design agency may covet). The only metric that counts is conversion rates and the ability of the website to deliver the business case. Leave others to do the crazy innovation stuff, let others go through the dip when they launch new features, make sure you have got the platform and expertise right and be ready to follow fast.

This much I know

The Observer magazine has a feature titled “This much I know“. It takes an interview with a celebrity who “share the lessons life has taught them” and distills it down into a number of key statements. There is probably some milage in this as an innovation game to play when you are looking for ideas and insights, hopes and fears from a newly formed team.

Ask team members to write statements “this much I know” on post-it notes with Sharpies (because you can’t write many words like that) and see what you get.

For structure you may consider using different coloured post-its to represent PEST themes: Political, Social, Environmental and Technical, or how about CRIT:

  • C: Competitive landscape
  • R: Return on investment
  • I: Internal politics
  • T: Technology.

So for example…

This much I know recently redesigned their website. The  forums and twitter were full of positive comments (C)
People will pay for content. It’s just got to be priced right, relevant and timely to them and easy to pay  (R)
Getting things done here is a nightmare. The process to get approval for any new project is designed to be hard (I)
We’ve got problems with our CMS. Our license is due to expire and the vendor is trying to get us to upgrade. We don’t know what to do (T)

Getting these ideas on the wall will help participants articulate their thoughts and provide a framework for understanding the current reality and mining for new ideas and opportunities.

Pillars of a compelling experience

Pillars of a compelling experience

This is a model I often see in organisations when it comes to their web presence.  A product owner comes up with a commercial proposition, marketing work up the content, IT build the functionality and it is goes live.  With this model, no-one actually owns the customer experience.

Worse, this little temple model is repeated across different commercial propositions so you end up with something that is not very joined up.  I’ve blogged about this lack of joined up thinking before.

Now let’s construct a model where the roof of the temple is a compelling customer experience.

What are the ingredients of this new temple model?  It is still going to be founded upon commercial propositions, but they are going to be overlaid by a culture of test and learn.  That is a willingness and ability to experiment; to realise that what you have developed is never final and is always evolving.  It is about taking the learnings of experiments to inform and improve the experience, or to rapidly refine or kill propositions that just do not work.

Then we have the five pillars.  I describe these in a paper I wrote ages back (pdf here, google books here).

Unfortunately these pillars tend to sit within organisational silos; content and personality are ‘owned’ by  marketing, functionality by IT, and operational excellence (that’s all about fulfilling on the customer promise and beyond) is a mixture of IT and operations.  Usability is a ‘funny one’ in that might sit alone, sit in marketing or sit in IT.  But ultimately it is best placed to direct the horizonal filter of Quality Control.  Quality control is not an additional layer of bureaucracy, rather a cultural component that all the pillars feed into.  It is about ensuring consistency and meaningfulness of the experience.  It is about balancing the commercial needs of the product, with the marketing needs of the message and the delivery capability of IT.

Photo credit: K. Dafalias

Are you managing expectations beyond the team?

There’s this idea called the Disconfirmation of expectations theory that states that having unrealistically high expectations from the adoption of a new IT application will result in lower levels of realised benefits.  Get customers excited about a new product and fail to deliver on it and you will have unsatisfied customers.  And unsatisfied customers are unlikely to use the product to its full advantage.

There is a risk with products developed using agile approaches that they fail to deliver on their initial promise.  The immediate stakeholders know that the product will evolve incrementally, but is this true of the broader audience? Are they aware of the intended regular heartbeat of delivery or are they expecting a fully featured product at the first release.  How are you managing expectations beyond the immediate product team?

Be wary of what you say early on.  Creating a vision is essential but be mindful of how this is communicated. Early demos, proof of concepts, prototypes, wireframes often show a vision of the end goal, several releases into the future.  Words are easily forgotten, explaining that this is an end goal vision is not enough, you must show a vision of what the cut-down product for the first release is and ensure it is appropriately communicated.

Expectations work both ways, it is easy for the business to tell IT their requirements and assume they will be developed in their entireity in one go.  Similarly it is easy for agile developers to expect the business to understand their incremental approach to delivery. The key to success is effective change management; identifying all stakeholders (both core and peripheral) and create a culture of agility that goes beyond the immediate project team.  In a large organisation that maintains more traditional approaches, agile projects must be supported by a well designed communication plan that builds the relationship between both IT and the business. Identify whose life will be touched by the product and develop a strategy for communicating to them.  This doesn’t mean “they can see what is going on on the project Wiki” this means someone taking responsilibity for listening, engaging and evangelising on the product, the project and its goals.

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