Youtopia Solutions is a rapidly growing Accounting firm in Milton Keynes, UK, established in 2017. Throughout the company’s life, Youtopia has faced strong headwinds around profit margins, cash flow, and balancing the acquisition of new clients with staff capacity. The resilience built as a result has helped them successfully navigate the choppy waters of the pandemic.
The two founders, David Adderson and Katherine Robertson, engaged Equal Experts to help them create a strategic plan beyond Covid. Considering Youtopia’s unique challenges and opportunities, the resulting Strategy Day was organised around the ‘Future Backwards’ technique. This article shares both the results, and some tips on how to get the most out of your own ‘Future Backwards’ workshop.
Introducing ‘Future Backwards’
‘Future Backwards’ was created by Dave Snowden and Tony Quinlan – the minds behind Cynefin. The technique foregrounds the idea that ‘Strategy’ isn’t about predicting the future to any degree of accuracy – because that’s impossible. Rather, it’s about leaders imagining, from the safety of their own boardroom, a range of scenarios for their business, whilst acknowledging that decisions made along the way could point their organisation in very different directions. Ultimately, the technique helps leaders create a set of coordinated, effective actions, aimed at seizing the best opportunities, and/or overcoming the worst obstacles.
The ‘Future Backwards’ technique can be effective in a number of ways. For one, when asked to imagine the future, people tend to extrapolate from the present. That means they get bogged down in the assumptions and biases that underpin today’s reality, rather than truly allowing themselves to think freely. Working backwards, whilst unfamiliar, helps break this pattern of thinking. The technique also allows leaders to better comprehend their role in proactively guiding their organisation towards desirable outcomes, and away from undesirable ones.
During the Strategy Day at Youtopia, the leadership team was asked to reflect on their hopes for the business, in order to answer the question: “If we want these good things to happen, what do we need to do now to make them more likely?” (and conversely “if we really don’t want bad things to happen, what can we do now to avoid them?”).
The first part of the workshop involved having the Youtopia leadership team describe the current state of play for their business.
Tip: As this section of the workshop is essentially a team retrospective, I used a modified version of the ‘Sailboat’ technique, asking the participants to build their thinking around three prompts:
- Wind in our sails – What’s helping the business succeed?
- Anchors in the sand – What’s slowing the business down?
- Rocks in the water – What risks and obstacles are ahead?
Next, the team thought backwards from the current state, by mapping out the key events and decisions that had led them to their present situation, in order – starting with the most recent first. This is demanding work, as thinking backwards doesn’t come naturally to any of us, but is an essential part of the process.
Tip: Guiding this section are two ‘Golden Rules’:
- No causality – the sticky notes don’t need to capture cause and effect at this stage
- No storyline – the path to the current state doesn’t have to fit neatly into a linear narrative, because that’s not how time works
Tip: Starting the workshop in this way achieves a number of useful outcomes simultaneously. The participants get used to writing and sticking notes, for one. For another, whilst the first exercise is helpfully anchored in the leaders’ lived reality, it’s also a rehearsal for the next, more imaginative stages of the workshop. That means that by the time you arrive at those parts of the Strategy Day, the participants are both comfortable and familiar with the technique.
The Highway to Hell
The next session involved the team mapping out the first of two distinct futures (with ‘future’ defined as no more than three years hence). This was the ‘Hell’ scenario – or, the worst-case scenario for the business.
Tip: To help start things off, use the ‘Miracle Question’ from Solution-Focused Brief Therapy: “You go to sleep and wake up in three years’ time, in your Hell scenario. What would it look like, sound like, feel like? How would you know you’re in Hell? What traps would you have fallen into?”
Once the ‘Hell’ scenario was outlined, the team worked on mapping various ‘highways to hell’ – the decisions taken and the events endured that would lead them to their most dire scenario.
This part of the process was hugely revealing, as it served to remind the leadership team that, in the vast majority of cases, it was up to them to make (or avoid) decisions that would otherwise hasten their journey into ‘Hell’.
Tip: Watch out for participants being tempted to plan forwards from their Current State to the ‘Hell’ scenario. This is forbidden! Instead, remind the group that they shouldn’t waste their creative juices trying to create a storyline from left to right, or ensuring causal links between sticky notes. The mapping can extend beyond (or before) the current state if that’s what’s required – and they can always move sticky notes around if they get mixed up. There can be more than one highway to hell, organised by theme. The only essential component is that each highway is compiled backwards – this preceded by that, preceded by that.
Stairway to Heaven
Next, the team discussed a heavenly future – or, the best-case scenario for Youtopia – and how they might get there. Their exploration encompassed a variety of dimensions – what ‘Heaven’ would mean to staff and clients; how growing the client base might affect staff numbers; how certain positive outcomes, such as growing the company’s reputation and reach, could be achieved; and more.
Into the Multiverse
From the key themes that emerged during the different parts of the Strategy Day, I created a range of thematic scenarios.
Tip: The perfect number of scenarios is four – two doesn’t represent enough choice, and when there’s three, everyone chooses the one in the middle! And always ensure one scenario represents ‘Hell’ – that is, what to avoid, at all costs.
The different scenarios provided leadership with a clear view of what they were trying to achieve, what they wanted to avoid, and the trade-offs therein. On this understanding, the team were then able to have the right strategic conversation about how they might intentionally build Youtopia’s ‘stairway to heaven’. This anchored the subsequent discussion of next steps, and resulted in the formulation of an ambitious action plan.
At Youtopia, the ‘Future Backwards’ technique helped the leadership team achieve some valuable breakthroughs, including a renewed focus on why they’d established the business in the first place: to create a fun, curious culture for staff who provide expert, personalised advice to clients, augmented by leading-edge digital tools.
At the end of the day the team were able to have a positive yet emotional discussion of burnout – the root cause of many aspects of their ‘Hell’. Many organisations are having crucial conversations with their staff about work/life balance, whilst many others are realising that failing to attend to symptoms of burnout can lead to significant reputational damage, and even a mass exodus of talent.
Many challenges associated with burnout are to be found amongst early-stage companies such as Youtopia, with the co-founders admitting to often working until very late at night and over the weekends since the start of the pandemic to help their clients through stressful and uncertain times. A robust discussion of how to avoid many of the hellish consequences of burnout ensued, including a commitment to try different tactics that would help the team optimise their time at work, whilst continuing to provide high quality, personalised advice to their clients.
To hear more on Equal Experts’ position on burnout, watch this video.
To learn more about how HMRC’s culture continued to thrive during the pandemic, read this article.
In these uncertain times, understanding whether you’re right or wrong, and when to change your mind, have never been more important. If we’re to succeed by making better decisions, we need new ways of answering the ultimate question (according to Whitney Houston): ‘How Will I Know?’
Addressing this question saw me embark on a journey of discovery, informed in part by Organisational Psychologist Adam Grant’s work in ‘re-thinking and unlearning.’ During this blog post, I want to share seven important lessons.
Lesson One: Avoiding the First Instinct Fallacy
According to the research, the vast majority of people who reject their ‘gut instinct’ actually improve their results. This is because intuition is based on pattern recognition, and as Grant reminds us: ‘The patterns we recognise from the past may not be relevant to the problem we’re solving in the present.’
Consider the pain you might have felt during a pub quiz; you have the right answer but change your mind to the wrong one. The psychological truth is that the agony of changing your mind is much greater than sticking with your first answer, even if it turns out to be wrong. This is why many of us find it so hard to change our opinion on something – we prefer the comfort of old ideas to the discomfort of new ones.
Lesson Two: Task Conflict Versus Relationship Conflict
When considering effective decision-making, Grant examines the dynamics of Task Conflict and Relationship Conflict. Most of us would agree that less conflict is better than more conflict – and that if we want success, team members need to get along. But some researchers have argued that
the absence of conflict isn’t harmony, it’s apathy.
The research shows that failed groups have more Relationship Conflicts than Task Conflicts, especially during the early phases of their work. Instead of figuring out how to best work together on the task at hand, the teams are distracted by their dislike of one another. There are two common aspects of Relationship Conflicts that are all-too familiar:
- In the presence of interpersonal tensions, people shut down and stop voicing their concerns, leading to narrow and/or imbalanced discussions
- When Task Conflict concerns are viewed through the lens of Relationship Conflict, team members react by taking things personally. People reject ideas or criticisms because they’re too busy either defending themselves or trying to prove the other person wrong
By contrast, high performing teams experience minimal Relationship Conflict and lots of Task Conflict. My experience working with organisations of various sizes and backgrounds bears this out. For example, successfully deciding which problem to solve relies on a small number of key factors. The most important requires members of a multifunctional team to share their ideas with one another. If the team can constructively (and robustly) debate different perspectives as they arise and listen to each other’s views, then they will make better decisions on the next best steps.
But how do we have that wide-ranging discussion – which inevitably includes disagreeing with one another and asking people to change their position – whilst remaining friendly and open-minded?
Lesson Three: How to Disagree without Being Disagreeable
Many years ago, I was given an elegant piece of advice by a senior colleague, who’d watched me try (and fail) to influence a decision in which I didn’t believe: ‘The trick is to disagree with people and keep them at the table.’
Take a moment to consider how you typically express yourself when you hear an idea with which you don’t agree. You might say nothing (which as we’ve discussed indicates excessive Relationship Conflict and a lack of psychological safety). Alternatively, you might say ‘I don’t agree’, before going on to describe your far better idea. This tends to lead to a tug of war, draining huge amounts of energy to no end.
Recently, during a lively debate, a colleague said ‘I have an alternative viewpoint’. It struck me as a fantastically polite and considered response. Rather than saying ‘You’re wrong’ or ‘I’m right’, my colleague instead said: ‘I too have an idea I’d like to share and discuss.’ Next time you find yourself in a similar situation, give the tactic a try.
This mindset can also help us avoid another potential trap we might fall into when trying to re-think our position: the Totalitarian Ego.
Lesson Four: Confronting your Totalitarian Ego
This is the idea that all of us have an inner dictator policing our thoughts. Their job is to fend off threatening information (for example, ideas that contradict our own) by triggering: (a) confirmation bias (meaning you only see what you expect to see); and (b) desirability bias (meaning you only see what you want to see).
By succumbing to our Totalitarian Ego, and closing ourselves off to counter-arguments, we enhance our pre-existing convictions, and prepare a hostile response to future attacks. In short, we build tall, thick walls around our beliefs that over time can neither be scaled nor breached.
There has to be a better way.
Lesson Five: Draw Four Houses
Grant addresses this conundrum by referring to the work of American Educator Ron Berger. To encourage his students to think differently, Berger first asks them to draw a house. If you’re reading this, please stop and give it a try (it doesn’t matter if you’re Michelangelo or not).
Next, share that drawing with three trusted people, and ask them to provide feedback. Invite them to tell you what they like about your drawing, and ask for any advice on how to improve it.
Now, taking this feedback into consideration, draw three more versions of a house, all of them different.
Berger’s aim is to remind his students (and us) that just as you wouldn’t expect a great band to release their first run-through of a song, your first attempt can evolve and improve over time – especially when informed by constructive feedback. Making this mindset (‘re-thinking is good!’) into a habit is a fantastic way to overcome the First Instinct Fallacy mentioned earlier.
Our first thought should never be our final thought.
Lesson Six: The Perils of Solution Aversion
Re-thinking is hard because we’re hardwired to resist changing our minds. In some cases, the more we hear ideas that oppose our own, the more inclined we are to deny there’s an issue worth talking about in the first place. We can so thoroughly dislike a solution that we utterly reject the existence of a problem. This phenomenon is called Solution Aversion.
The archetypal example of this is the question of whether or not humans are having an impact on the Earth’s climate. The evidence presented in favour of this position has proved so unpalatable to some that they’ve rejected the very idea of climate change. This has led to individuals, groups and even governments adopting an entrenched position, and refusing to engage with alternative views.
This may explain why the biggest challenges faced by companies often receive the least attention. Buried deep in the archaeology of all organisations are unresolved arguments that lead people to say things like ‘we’re not talking about that.’ Perhaps you’ve heard (or said) similar things about your own company. But if we refuse to confront our most pressing concerns, they will eventually overwhelm us.
Lesson Seven: To Stick or Twist?
So far I’ve argued that being able to change your mind as the facts change is a virtue. But on the other hand, so is persistence. The most common question I’m asked by leaders is: when should I be flexible, and when should I stick to my guns? Being resolute in our convictions can exemplify great leadership, whereas ‘flip-flopping’ can appear weak and ineffectual. Surely it is better to be convinced than doubtful?
As with so much else in life, a balance must be struck. My advice is to be fixed in your overall goals, and flexible in the strategies you employ to achieve them. A leading retail organisation may have the goal of increasing conversion through their eCommerce shopping basket. Thinking deeply and differently about how that might be achieved, informed by multiple perspectives, is the key to success. And it might be that the first idea the team chooses to pursue is proven to be wrong, and they are required to pivot and think again. That’s OK – in fact, such flexibility is hugely valuable. As Grant reminds us, ‘being open to re-thinking your position doesn’t mean you always have to change your mind.’
Yet some leaders still fear re-thinking – that by slowing things down, the decision-making process will inevitably become mired in tedious academic debates over the uncertainty of things. The oxygen will be sucked out of innovative ideas and extinguish their spark forever.
My counter is to refer to Daniel Kahneman whose (Nobel Prize-winning) work prompts us all to ask: Do we spend too much of our time listening to people who think fast and shallow, and not enough time paying attention to people who think slow and deep?
And there are always ways to accelerate our re-thinking. There’s no reason why we can’t take a few minutes to think about all the reasons why an idea might be wrong, not just the reasons it might be right. That brings me to my final piece of advice: Whenever you’re not sure, channel Whitney and ask a range of people you trust: Can you see any gaps in my argument? Do I need to re-think?
Thank you, and good luck!
There you have it — an argument in favour of mastering the art of re-thinking, with a little help from Whitney Houston.
If you’d like some advice on how to introduce these ideas into your organisation, get in touch using the form below and we’ll be delighted to help you.
In the documentary The Pixar Story, Steve Jobs posits the “Second Product Syndrome” (or SPS) as the reason why second products tend towards failure.
To cut a long story short, second products fail because organisations do not adequately understand the reasons why the first product was a success.
Jobs mentions SPS in relation to Pixar’s second film, A Bug’s Life. Sandwiched between the groundbreaking Toy Story and its sequel, this film is considered to be an example of how Pixar had triumphantly bucked the trend of failed second products.
This blog post examines the truth of that position in particular (A Bug’s Life defied the SPS) and argues that, in general, the SPS can be explained by the fact that the risks which are inherent in launching new products are the same each time.
The Hippo with a hunch
As a fact, the successful launch of a first product can be used to challenge the need for tediously meticulous processes on the launch of a second. The leadership with deep industry knowledge and a survivorship bias can allow themselves to indulge in “magical thinking” – eschewing scientific rigour in favour of inadequate, unsystematic analysis (what may be termed as “a Hippo with a hunch”). In this context, teams are pressed to spend less time on exploring, testing and verifying assumptions and to trade rigorousness for speed. Research – if performed at all – typically involves a smaller number of potential users from the wrong segments.
Other factors come into play: Since the launching of the first product, the organisation’s cost base will have grown, which, in turn, encourages a cost minimisation mindset. This leads to the pressure to reuse the infrastructure, channels and people who were created and hired, respectively, to launch the first product, regardless of their fit. The overconfidence that comes from success breeds a proliferation of assumptions regarding what the customer actually wants while committing less time and fewer resources to validating this thinking. All in all, it is a powerful, toxic mix.
Between the first and second steps
Unique aspects of first product launches that are too often overlooked include
- the benefits of a singular focus on the same outcome, without distractions
- the free spirit of experimentation which comes from a lack of fixed and sunk costs
- the fact that customers are more forgiving of flaws in first product launches
Following this thread, I’ve found it instructive to list how the key factors change during the move between the first and second product:
Seen in this light, it’s no wonder so many second products tend to fail!
Tell me more about the ants you mentioned
OK, OK. If you remember, when Jobs originated the concept of SPS, Pixar had just released its first film (Toy Story) and was about to release its second (A Bug’s Life). So, how did Pixar actually do when trying to avoid the SPS trap?
Let’s take a look at some statistics relating to the first ten Pixar full-length film releases:
|Year of release||Film||Budget ($m)||World-wide Box Office revenue ($m)||Revenue as multiple of budget||Oscars*||Golden Globes||BAFTA|
|1998||A Bug’s Life||120||363.3||3||0||0||0|
|1999||Toy Story 2||90||497.4||5.5||0||1||0|
* The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature was introduced in 2002
According to my analysis, A Bug’s Life – rather than avoiding SPS – actually epitomises “second product syndrome”. Of the first ten Pixar films, it took the longest to release, grossed the least at the global box office, and won no major awards. Its “revenue as multiple of budget” number is marginally better than the worst performer on the list – WALL-E (by 0.1) – but that fails to take into account the home entertainment and merchandising revenues that Pixar films typically generate.
Although the exact numbers are impossible to come by, it has been estimated that the Toy Story franchise, for example, is worth over $10bn in merchandising (unsurprisingly, toys). The Cars franchise, which looks, at a first glance, like a poor bet for a sequel, is also worth over $10bn in merchandise. However, the stubbornly “untoyetic” ants in A Bug’s Life did not create the same commercial opportunities. Indeed, when the first Home Entertainment and merchandising projections for A Bug’s Life came out, Pixar’s shares decreased by 21%.
How can I avoid the SPS trap?
At this point, you may be thinking, “If the person who coined the phrase ‘Second Product Syndrome’ fell into the same trap as everyone else, what hope have I got of avoiding the same fate?”
Firstly, it’s vital that you maintain a rigorous, scientific mindset – whether releasing your second or 22nd product. Remember: Launching a new product is not an extension but a reinvention. Each idea must be judged on its own merit, from a fresh perspective – meaning those who were responsible for the first success need to be doubly mindful of pattern recognition and biases when working on the second project. The need to test and validate ideas is crucial for any product – be it the tenth or the fiftieth – but as argued above, it’s most important between the first and second products.
Update your Priors
In my experience, the single most useful tool to help you avoid the dangers of SPS is Bayesian analysis. Named after Thomas Bayes, who embodied the unlikely combination of a philosopher, a statistician and a Presbyterian minister from the mid-18th century, the Bayesian analysis, in essence, boils down to a simple phrase: “Update your priors.”
Priors are your pre-existing beliefs and uncertainties – in other words, what you think you know. Whenever individuals or teams gather new evidence through observation, priors need to be updated. At one end of the Bayesian spectrum are those who are impervious to new information and will never change their mind; at the other end are those who are forever changing their position based on the latest thing they hear.
When applied correctly, Bayesian analysis is a reliable, structured way of integrating what you previously thought with the new things you’ve learned. You give each piece of information a weight so that you can draw a conclusion that incorporates all sources appropriately. It is not about fixing numbers or eliminating uncertainty but rather defining parameters and acknowledging assumptions. Over time, running more tests and gathering more evidence will allow you to iterate towards greater (but never complete) certainty. Ultimately, we have to make peace with the fact that we’ll never find a single “truth”, but we can aim to define a reasonable range.
“Think it possible you might be mistaken”
To conclude, I wanted to briefly mention Cromwell’s Law. It refers to a speech made by Oliver Cromwell, the English Civil War leader, to the Church of Scotland in 1650. To that toughest of crowds, he pleaded: “Think it possible you may be mistaken.” I like the quote for a number of reasons – principally for what it says about the power of accepting that we might be wrong. If we can do that, then we’re much more able to accept new evidence, and thereafter update our priors. Keeping an open mind is, in fact, a superpower – and an essential part of creating and launching successful products – be it your first, second or fiftieth.
Are you interested in discussing these ideas further? Do you have something to add, and/or a contrary position you’d like to argue? In any and all cases, it’d be great to hear from you. Start the conversation by dropping us a line at email@example.com. It would be great to hear from you!
Introduction: All the Pieces Matter
Web forms allow users to share information with an organisation in a structured way, be it placing an order, making a request, or even offering an opinion. Good forms create positive relationships between the form maker and those filling it in.
On the flip side, complex and confusing web forms create negative experiences, with significant consequences. Some statistics bear this out:
- It takes 0.05 seconds for web users to form an opinion about what they’re looking at
- 38% of people will disengage from a website if the content is uninteresting
- 88% are unlikely to return to a website after a bad experience
So, when creating a web form, it is vitally important to bear in mind how important it is to get it right.
Over the years, and across hundreds of web forms at different clients, we at UX Forms have noticed certain problems recurring – so in this article, we’re going to share the three most common issues, why they matter, and how they can best be avoided.
First Lesson: The Question
During this post, we’re going to tell the story of how Equal Experts used UX Forms to help build their innovative ‘Strategic Maturity Assessment’ survey, so you can learn from their example, and apply the hard-won lessons to your own web forms in the future.
By way of background, the ‘Strategic Maturity Assessment’ survey helps organisations discover more about their resilience when faced with disruption, and which actions they should take to optimise their chances of success. Across 20 questions, the survey captures the unique characteristics of each organisation, so that the Equal Experts team can create a complimentary, bespoke report for each respondent within 36 hours.
When it comes to questions, good ones are unbiased, simple to understand, and easy to answer. One question the survey makers at Equal Experts wanted to ask was, “How would you describe the pace of change at your organisation?” In the first draft of the questionnaire, the following options were given, to represent the high end of the spectrum:
Relentless – things change so often things never are given time to settle
High-paced – things change frequently, often without warning
When testing their questions with potential respondents, the Equal Experts team gathered feedback, epitomised by the following: “I interpreted the first two choices as negative. In some organisations, relentless change is part of what makes the company successful, whereas I interpreted the choices as what an employee would say if they were struggling to keep up.”
In essence, the question was (deliberately or not), ‘leading the witness’ by associating high speed of change with negative emotions. The advice from the UX Forms team was to change the options, so that they provided respondents with the ability to describe extremely fast and frequent change in a neutral way:
Second Lesson: The UI Elements
Another question in the original draft of the Strategic Maturity Assessment survey was: “What is your typical approach to developing new products and/or services?”, with a free text box left open for the respondent to provide their answer.
This immediately raised a red flag with the UX Forms team, who knew that free text boxes would create a significant challenge at scale. In particular, the accurate and speedy analysis of free text answers within 36 hours would likely prove impossible.
Again, through testing the question with users, the UX Forms team was able to help provide guidance on multiple choice options – radically simplifying the analysis whilst ensuring that respondents had a strong range of options from which to choose:
Third Lesson: Survey Structure
With the Strategic Maturity Assessment survey being a relatively long web form (20 questions), the Equal Experts team came to UX Forms with a question about how best to structure the form: should there be one question per page, or should all the questions be on one page?
Typically, the answer is driven by the context: when UX Forms worked with Caredoc in Ireland, designing a web form to help call handlers capture information from callers with suspected Covid-19 symptoms, it made sense to have the entire form on one page. This was due to the fact that the information was typically shared in a non-linear fashion, and to have to navigate between pages to find the right question that matched the information being presented would have been frustrating and inefficient. In addition, the call handlers are domain experts, using the same form all day, every day. They didn’t need to be guided through an unfamiliar process – they simply needed the most efficient way of capturing all of the information passed to them in a phone conversation.
The question of which approach would maximise the number of completed forms could only be answered through user testing – by building two different versions of the form, randomising which link was sent out, and measuring the impact on response rate and completion. Being guided by evidence from the user is always the best way to go.
As the team at Equal Experts learned, designing effective web forms is hard, and it’s all too easy to trip up over common mistakes. Our best advice is to test, test and test with your users – and note that every form deployed to UX Forms automatically gets its own dashboard which provides real-time analysis on how people are using each form, which is ideal for measuring the effectiveness of changes implemented as a result of user-led research sessions across the service’s entire cohort. Listen to feedback, keep an eye out for areas of spontaneous consensus, and take action. Then test again! And, if possible, seek out the advice of web form experts, who’ve been through this hundreds of times, and can offer you the benefit of their hard-won wisdom.
We’re really pleased with how our Strategic Maturity Assessment form turned out. If you have any questions for us at UX Forms, don’t hesitate to drop us a line – we’d be happy to hear from you!
Recently, I was asked to outline the Equal Experts’ solution to one of the most common problems in strategy: how to optimise the time between having an idea and realising value from that idea.
This blog post is a brief introduction to the process, with each point expanded on in this video.
The good news is that the answer is relatively simple (my talk lasts just over ten minutes) and comprises three steps:
- First, you make sure your idea aligns with the strategic priorities of the business. That way you know you’re working towards an outcome that contributes to something meaningful and valuable.
- Then you place “Bets” — acknowledging that your idea at this stage is still full of assumptions and unknowns that need to be proven out.
- Finally, measure progress by regularly taking leading, attributable metrics and sharing them with others. That way, when making decisions, evidence is your guide.
Step One: Ensure your idea is aligned to the strategic priorities of the business
The best way to ensure alignment is to run an OKR session. Once the key goals and outcomes of the organisation have been gathered, plus the measures of progress, the portfolio can be visualised as a “Roadmap Radar” — an example of which is below.
The “Goals” gathered during the OKR session define the coloured sections of the Radar — typically, there are 4–5 of them. They are the long-lived North Star of the organisation, capturing its purpose and values. “Outcomes” are the strategic priorities that align to the overall Goals (the “pizza slices” of the Roadmap Radar), divided into quarterly time horizons. Lastly, there are the “Bets” — the olives on the pizza. Each one of the “blips”’ on the radar represents a time-bound experiment designed to explore the attributable impacts of an intervention.
Step Two: What do we mean when we say “Place Bets”’?
The word “bet” encourages decision-makers to confront how much they are willing to invest in the desired outcome, in terms of people, time, budget (that could be spent elsewhere). It relies on the design of a structured experiment that creates feedback loops, validates the value of an idea, proves out assumptions, and reports on progress towards specific, leading metrics.
One question stakeholders regularly ask is: how do you decide on how “big”’ to go on a bet? I’ve found this a useful way to guide my thinking – it’s an adaptation of Constable’s Curve and describes the relationship between confidence and fidelity.
Recently, a client wanted to add a new product offering to their online store, but to actually create and sell it at-scale would have meant a huge upfront investment, and therefore risk. Instead, they gathered evidence of demand by offering the customer the ability to buy the item online, with those that clicked through receiving a regretful message saying the item in question was temporarily out of stock, and instead invited to consider some alternatives (which did exist in the real world). In this way, the client was able to use evidence to improve their confidence in the idea, without risking time or money on an idea whose value was essentially unknown.
The challenge is to design experiments that sit on exactly the right spot of the Yellow Brick Road between confidence and fidelity, thereby proving – or disproving – the key assumptions without a disproportionate exposure to risk.
Step 3: Structuring thinking using the Bet Canvas
The best tool for the job of designing effective experiments is the Bet Canvas — illustrated below.
The Bet Canvas will typically become covered in next-best actions — but doing them all at once would make it impossible to reliably attribute cause and effect. Instead, you have to decide who will do what now, who will do what next, and who will do what later. Designating primary responsibility for each action allows everyone to know who to ask about what, at any time.
That requires a last tool: the Bet dashboard.
Each week, the person responsible for an action uses the dashboard to report back to their team (and colleagues in the winder business) on what they’ve discovered. Each new thing that you learn helps define the next step — and you’ll notice that the dashboard explicitly acknowledges the assumptions underpinning the experiment. The point here is to ensure your efforts are aimed at gathering enough evidence to reliably say which of your assumptions have been proven right or wrong. Once you’ve emptied out the “Insufficient Evidence” column, you can say with confidence whether you should continue, pivot or stop.
And there you have it — a simple process designed to help you proceed quickly and reliably from idea to value.
If you have any comments or questions about this process, we’d love to hear from you. The slides are available here, my email address is on the final slide of my talk, and/or you should visit our website. And best of luck!
The world shut down and the pace with which open societies closed for business was so fast and at such scale no strategy plan or model could handle it.
And as entire societies quarantined, billions of people realized they had crossed a dividing line – the transition from their life Pre COVID to Post COVID.
In the many areas where #flattenthecurve and #stayhome are working, a new reality is settling in. Now that business has shut down, how do we start it back up?
The problem space: The shift is subtle and profound
Pre COVID most businesses were on a path to create engaging in store and digital experiences that extended beyond the product to lifestyle. Retailers were entering healthcare, Amazon acquired Whole Foods and even banking opened cafes. All with the goal of providing a space to connect people in a community in the multiple dimensions of their lives. Basically, the trend was reimagining physical spaces so people could connect together en masse. Pre COVID, business roadmaps and product development plans sought to connect seamlessly the physical and digital experiences driving loyalty and brand affinity. Now 10 weeks into the Quarantine, businesses are grappling with the shifting behaviors and patterns that are happening around them. Many are asking themselves the most basic of questions such as:
- Will our customers come back?
- What about our employees?
- Is our business still a business?
The time is NOW to know your purpose
Leading with purpose anchors organizations and their customers in clearly defined ‘reasons to believe’. In 2019 we covered the intrinsic value of this approach in Changing Headwinds, an-in-depth look at the halo associated with companies who place purpose over transactional values. Today, those values are now more important than ever. Businesses that align to a meaningful message that is understood at every level not only reduces uncertainty but they also help stabilize revenue and customer attrition. This generally results in (1) an engaged customer base, (2) a highly motivated and productive employee base and (3) revenue and market share growth (even in uncertain times).
Enter Post COVID where world patterns have shifted. Many growth plans, financial models and Pre COVID product delivery roadmaps aren’t working because of the massive shift the global pandemic is causing. They just weren’t built to handle this ‘once every 100-year event at a global level’. Now is the time to put Purpose back on the frontlines as the starting point Post COVID to successfully steer your organization through the uncertainty and change. Companies that take the time to consciously articulate ‘why they exist’ and show transparency in how they navigate forward exponentially increases their chances of success. Not only do they strengthen their ability for future success but they also improve their ability to evolve into new business models.
The plan: Evolve out of change and Pivot with Purpose.
Companies should use this opportunity to dig deep and hit the reset button. This means starting with purpose. Our proven re-framing techniques help businesses envision deeper possibilities, unlock new business model opportunities, and reprioritize their strategic priorities.
Reorient to your North Star. – The North Star is exceptional. The North Star appears as a fixed point in the sky as other stars encircle and it. It’s almost exactly aligned with the earth’s axis which means as you venture further north, it appears to ascend higher in the sky. These qualities have made the North Star a well-known beacon and navigation tool.
With Purpose as your north star, your company consciously and collaboratively can articulate your businesses plan to evolve and change as the changing world demands. You begin to break down boundaries and barriers to unlock creativity. Now is the time to reorient where you are and where you ought to go.
Replace urgency with calm and confidence – Impatience doesn’t get the job done. It inspires more fear than high performance, overrides the creative flow of ideas and increases the risk of losing your way, both with your customers and employees. The fact is people don’t change unless there’s a reason—and, this is a once-in-a-hundred-year opportunity to not only believe in change, but to drive change. Resist the urge to hunker down inside a cost optimization bubble. Trust your ability to transform. Now is the time to double-down on your future.
Resist the urge to move back to business as usual. – The whiteboard has been wiped clean. There’s no looking back. Forget about talking about the future—the future is now. Post COVID created a global shift requiring new skills, behaviors and patterns of communication. Companies must fight the urge to go back to old ways of working. Anyone who has gone into a skid on black ice understands the instinct to slam on the brakes and turn the wheel in the opposite direction. It takes confidence and a clear head to resist moving in a counterintuitive manner – to steer into the skid to regain control and continue on your journey. This is the time to break free of the anchors of the past. Marshall your best and brightest and array all of your capabilities to create a stronger business. One that thrives in the face of adversity versus just surviving and getting by.
Starting with Us
The stakes are high and we felt the need to quickly pivot with purpose. We did this early on in multiple townhall forums to yield purpose driven, decisive and company-wide alignment. As we are all working from home amidst much uncertainty the EE leadership team reoriented our purpose with the following:
We are a purpose driven company on a mission: We bring experts and clients into a haven; a space of freedom that fosters mutually beneficial and genuine relationships. So that we can make things better while learning from each other. And the executives’ rapid articulation to all to lead with Show Remote Empathy illustrates the heart and soul of purpose; to meet people where they are and understand as a whole we will get to where we need to go.
What will your new purpose be? Will you just survive or will you use this moment to re-anchor the roadmap for your future success? The way that you reopen will set the tone for your employees and your customers. Pivot with purpose. As we all adjust to a new normal it’s the one thing that will give us a ‘reason to believe’.
Want to learn more?
Contact us for a one hour complimentary “Pivot with Purpose” workshop which will give you the insight into potential changes, and the tools and techniques to rapidly reorient your activities and resources to the new strategic direction.
With the global pandemic of 2020 and the depression that followed, came the realisation that our economic system was hugely vulnerable in the face of disruptive events. Companies inevitably rushed to automation more than ever before, and the emerging AI & Robotics business sector played a pivotal role in this transition.
Why the past tense?
Because, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, this is what will happen. This blog post does not look at whether Robotics is the future, but who is best placed to succeed. As a new economy emerges from the other side of this pandemic, businesses will be forced to question the previously unquestioned: are global supply chains optimal? Is ‘Just in Time’ manufacturing robust enough to survive future shocks? Do we need offices any more?
As we adapt to lockdown, industry is struggling to cope with the sudden absence of people from essential processes, and automation is forefront in their minds. Previously, many saw automation as a way to remove human fallibility from well defined, repetitive processes in order to improve quality and productivity. Now it will focus much more on removing people completely from the process in order to remove a point of failure.
Automation of production lines has long been a thing, and although people play an important part in these lines, they are treated more as a cost/benefit equation than as the actual human beings they are. If (and it is a big if) we see a new economy emerging over the coming months – one that incorporates elements such as a more than minimum living wage or a universal basic income – then that cost/benefit equation will swing even more towards automation, adding to the sense of vulnerability businesses are now feeling.
Given the extent of the damage caused to businesses by the lockdown, companies will now look for solutions throughout the supply chain, not just in the factories. They will accelerate the development and introduction of self-driving vehicles; they will roll-out Amazon Go – style self-service retail stores; they will copy Ocado and Amazon and replace people with robots in their warehouses.
This is a dangerous strategy, as it represents a swing of the pendulum to another extreme, and as discussed in Part 3, specialisation leads to fragility in the face of disruption. Imagine, if you will, what happens to this automated world in the face of a virus of the electronic variety.
Back to the Map
Rightly, or wrongly, it will happen, and so the more important question relates to which industries are best placed to capitalise on this trend. And so we return to the Map, and another “sea” waiting to become a landmass (business sector) in its own right. We’ve labelled it AI & Robotics.
As you can see, the Map shows that the neighbouring territories are Computer Consultants, Software Development, Electronics, Electrical & Mechanical Manufacturing, and Motor Vehicle Manufacturing. Companies in each of these sectors are well placed to enter the field of robotics, and some are already doing so. In each case, the entry point is different and so it’s worth looking at a couple of them in more detail by way of explanation.
Step forward Dr. Susan Calvin
In Isaac Asimov’s body of work, there are a significant number of stories that centre around intelligent machines. Many of these stories feature Dr. Susan Calvin, who Asimov refers to as a robopsychologist working at US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. He postulates that this profession would be a combination of advanced mathematics and traditional psychology, but in reality the need is more likely to revolve around the training, utilisation and integration of Robots into the business world.
This is a reasonable role for companies operating in the Computer Consultants business sector to take on and thus start the migration into the AI & Robotics business sector. Following the disruption caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, and the resulting demand for greater automation, there is a clear opportunity for these businesses to promote their skills in this area and start the journey.
The first areas of greatest demand are likely to be in the production line, and in the warehouse element of the supply chain, where “dumb” robots already play a major role. There will now be a push to further automate the more complex activities currently undertaken by people, and this will lead to a demand for consultants with experience in introducing technology to organisations. Computer Consultants are ideally placed to benefit from this demand, especially if they include software development capability in their offering or partner with companies that do.
Management consultants are less well equipped to help as the level of technical expertise required to understand the art of the possible, and design solutions is far outside their skill set. They will, of course, have a go, but the Map confirms that they are not well placed to enter this sector.
Here in my car
The other area of the supply chain that will, no doubt see renewed demand for automation is that of transportation. This will accelerate development of self-driving technologies coupled with increased pressure from business to make changes to the road transport system to make introduction of such technologies less challenging. We can expect to see proposals for “freight only” lanes, and dedicated telemetry systems to lower some of the barriers to entry.
The companies best placed to occupy this part of the robotics landscape are the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers. Much work has already been done into self-driving vehicles, but most of the focus has been on cars. It is likely that attention will now move onto the larger freight vehicles. Despite their size, these vehicles actually present an easier route into this sector as they generally follow more predictable routes, and travel between a smaller set of end points.
Transportation companies such as Uber have also tried to make inroads into this area, but the Map predicts a less successful outcome for them, as they are a significant distance from the new area of AI & Robotics. Remember, on the Map proximity indicates similarity of skills and mindsets – companies located in other areas take much longer to develop the required attributes than organisations on the immediate borders. Uber are making the classic mistake of assuming that being a consumer or seller of a product somehow positions you to become a producer in your own right.
Stuck in the middle
So, that covers the types of business that will benefit from the inevitable demand for automation, but what about the demand itself? At the start of this post, (and in previous posts) we’ve discussed the dangers of specialisation and the increased resilience that comes with diversification. It is for this reason that a headlong rush to “automate all the things” could create as many problems as it might solve. It would also lead to an unmanageable portfolio of change that could cripple an organisation during what will inevitably be an extended recession.
One of the more difficult decisions for most companies is where technologies such as AI and machine learning can and should be effectively deployed. There is much talk of AI as the answer to everything, but there are places where it is most appropriate and places where it is less useful. There is also the confusing matter of machine learning algorithms versus “true” AI in the form of neural networks. The same question arises – which to use and where.
The problem is complex, but as a starting point here is a simple 2×2 grid (because we all love a 2×2 grid):
The horizontal axis represents the sophistication of the problem being solved ranging from highly complex (multiple variables and multiple outcomes), and the vertical axis represents the nature of the decision to be made ranging from fully objective (where there is little or no doubt) to highly subjective (where the outcome is open to interpretation and opinion).
For highly complex problems involving a significant amount of subjective judgement, people are by far the best suited to this type of activity. At the other extreme, simple problems with highly objective outcomes can easily be automated using traditional and well understood hard coded solutions.
As we remove subjectivity from a problem best suited to people, or add complexity to a problem currently solved using traditional code, machine learning algorithms come into their own. These are complex, knowledge based solutions that take broad sets of inputs to make a decision in a predictable and traceable way. The automation of the NHS 111 service is a good example of a problem well suited to machine learning.
Heading in the other direction, if we can take some complexity out of the decisions currently made by people, or there are simple problems that were previously not automatable using traditional coding techniques due to the desired level of subjectivity, we now have AI as a solution. Familiar examples involve identifying the subject matter of documents, interpreting medical scans or identifying people or behaviours in CCTV footage.
The same grid can be applied to physical robotics. In the bottom left square we have the type of machines we’re all familiar with on car assembly lines. In the bottom right, (Complex/Objective) space we have the potential for automating surgical procedures. In the top left AI opens the door for semi-autonomous machines such as exploration vehicles. Self-driving cars sit on the boundary between the top left and right squares, and this is why the problem has proved so difficult to crack. Deliberate simplification of the problem by altering the highway environment (or reducing the scope as described for freight vehicles) could accelerate the introduction of such vehicles faster than advancements in the current level of AI might achieve.
And let’s not forget that automation does not have to mean less people; far from it. History has shown that as machines take over in one area of human endeavour, this opens up areas previously ignored. If social distancing has taught us anything, it has told us that personal contact is essential to our wellbeing and to the success of our businesses. Instead of replacing people with robots, think instead of using technology to do the mechanical things, and free up people to be more human.
And so that brings to a close our quick visit to the new landmass that is the AI and Robotics business sector. In part 5, we’ll look more broadly at the Map and how things might unfold as we move out of lockdown and into a time of financial uncertainty. We’ll look at the challenges, but more importantly we’ll seek out potential green shoots and identify where they could emerge.
The real answer to unpredictable change, if you have the scale to achieve it, is to maintain diversity of offering, and build flexibility into your processes. Diversity means that when change comes, if you lose in one area, you gain in another. Flexibility allows you to adapt quickly to change to capitalise on the gains and minimise the losses.
Survival of the fittest
In part 1 of this series we introduced the Business Evolution Map and explained its origins, and in part 2 we used the map to chart the Nintendo journey, showing how the Map can be used to explain (and therefore predict) success and failure. But that is the past, and it’s the future we’re really interested in when shaping business strategy.
Specialisation can be powerful during times of stability. The hummingbird, for example, has evolved to feed on nectar from plants that only a few species can access. In return, certain plants have evolved to rely specifically on hummingbirds for pollination. This codependency works brilliantly, as long as the environment remains stable, but if you remove one partner from this equation, the other will struggle to survive.
The future is difficult to predict, and the only reliable way to survive the unknown is to remain diverse and flexible. Nature achieves this through evolution for slow change (the hummingbird) and variety for rapid change. The hummingbird may not survive the loss of one food source, but the diverse population of birds as a whole will barely be affected.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Primark was dominating on the high street, but without an online offering they are like the hummingbird without the flower. Overnight, specialisation has turned from a strength to a weakness. Similarly, companies with a predominantly online presence and high degree of automation will have suffered less, and may even have benefitted from the impacts of lockdown. Common Thread Collective provide some interesting raw data on their COVID-19 eCommerce update page.
No doubt, we will see companies rushing even more to be “digital first” and “fully automated”. (In part 4 we will discuss how firms able to exploit the emerging Robotics business sector will benefit from this change). COVID-19 has taught many companies a lesson here, but the lesson is NOT digitalise and automate everything. The lesson is not about specialisation.
There but for the grace of God
Those who embraced digital as an integral part of their offering were certainly right to do so. In fact, if supermarkets had invested more in online and home delivery capability the impacts of lockdown on our daily lives might have been significantly reduced. Instead, we are seeing the system failing to meet the new and unexpected level of demand.
However, if fate’s dice had rolled the other way, things would have been very different. We can expect to see a lot of survivor bias exhibited in articles over the next few months, coupled with a renewed effort to get rid of “bricks and mortar” channels. Those who didn’t go “digital first” will be referred to as dinosaurs.
However, the next change is unlikely to be another once-in-a-century pandemic. The clue is, after all, in the name. Imagine if, instead of a physical virus, the next disruptive change came in the form of a virus of the electronic kind. This time the heavily automated, all-online businesses that would be the ones most affected. High street companies with large human workforces and manual processes would be the survivors in this scenario. Primark might have become even more dominant, and the survivor bias would look very different. The narrative would be less about dinosaurs and more about “look before you leap”.
The real answer to unpredictable change, if you have the scale to achieve it, is to maintain diversity of offering, and build flexibility into your processes. Diversity means that when change comes, if you lose in one area, you gain in another. Flexibility allows you to adapt quickly to change to capitalise on the gains and minimise the losses.
We’ve already covered flexibility in a previous series of blog posts that describe our Continuous Evolution framework. Diversification is what we’re going to cover next.
Luckily, identifying successful diversification is the core purpose of the Map. In Part 2, we used Nintendo as an example, and described a successful early partnership with Disney. If we compare their performances in the face of the current disruption, we see an interesting trend.
Looking first at Disney, we see a not surprising drop in share value as COVID-19 (commonly referred to as coronavirus) impacts economies across the globe. When we look at Nintendo, we see the same drop, but this is followed swiftly by a recovery back to its original position. Disney’s predicament is understandable; even when we take its broad range of assets into account, its business model has a strong (one could say pivotal) dependency on physical presence. Nintendo is not similarly encumbered, but more importantly the rise coincides with the release of the game “Animal Crossing, New Horizons”.
If you haven’t seen it, suffice to say the game allows multiple players to interact and socialise as cute animals on an idyllic island. It is immersive, social, and stress free – the antithesis of present circumstances. In his review in The Telegraph, Jack Rear described New Horizons as “the perfect DIY recipe for the most chilled out, relaxing, and engaging life simulator ever.” The Atlantic also has a good piece about the game by Ian Bogost, entitled The Quiet Revolution of Animal Crossing.
What Nintendo has managed to do, in a very timely manner, is tap into an emerging business sector. A sector predicted by the Map in the form of an “inland sea”.
On spotting this feature of the Map, we tweeted about it, first in October of last year, and then in November:
It was clear from the Map that there was untapped revenue sandwiched between well established business sectors. A clear opportunity awaiting forward thinking companies currently resident in any of those neighbouring sectors.
Entry into this sector has also been eased, rather than hampered, by current events. A far greater number of people have been forced to become “digitally capable”, and opportunities to interact virtually are being sought as a replacement for face-to-face interaction. People may have to be physically distant, but they are looking for ways to remain socially close. As indicated by the map, offerings in this space are limited. This is what an inland sea represents.
Nintendo has managed to take a step into this territory by capitalizing on its games development capability (Software Development). With sufficient foresight (i.e. access to the Map), DIsney could have protected themselves, in part, via a similar move. Exploring ways to offer immersive but virtual experiences, in addition to the very physical experiences that they specialise in.
It’s reasonable to assume that these might have had low adoption rates, and been of low benefit initially in terms of revenue, but having this capability would have made their offering more adaptable to unexpected circumstances. It’s also possible that such an offering, far from detracting from their core business, could have created an adoption path into the physical disney experience. A “try before you buy” option for people who otherwise might not be willing to commit the time and money to fly their family across the Atlantic to visit Disneyland in Orlando.
Interestingly, Disney consider themselves to be early adopters of virtual experiences; ahead of the game. In some ways this is true, but only within their existing sector. Rather than creating virtual experiences, they have incorporated VR into their physical experiences. Although it might at first appear to be diversification, it actually represents even greater specialisation.
And so, we return to Nintendo and the successful launch of Animal Crossing New Horizons. Where one company finds success, others will inevitably follow. Some will just see it as another game, and miss the significance. Others will recognise the situation and attempt to open up in this sector from elsewhere on the map – we predict slow progress and probably failure.
Those moving in from the neighbouring sectors will have a high chance of success. There are already signs. Amongst recent acquisitions, Apple has bought Voysis (a digital voice assistant) and NextVR (a combination of virtual reality and live events), both useful capabilities when entering the world of immersive experiences. What is more, they have the Interaction and Immersive Media sector firmly surrounded and should find it easy and profitable to make this move.
Another neighbour is Facebook who is in the process of launching “Facebook Horizon” on its VR platforms. Facebook Horizon is a virtual reality universe that allows you to build your own environments and games. You can then play and socialize with friends or explore landscapes created by other users. This has, of course, been attempted before, but as with all new ventures, the time has to be right.
To assume Interactive and Immersive Media is all about virtual reality headsets would be a huge failure of imagination. VR is only a small corner of this business sector. We’ve considered how organisations like the BBC might revive the concept of “event TV”. People are already attempting to recreate the group viewing experience online, but it takes real effort. An organisation in the Media Broadcasting space would be well placed to enter the interactive arena by creating a truly joined up virtual experience.
Companies have dabbled with the influencer market, but again, no one has really capitalised on this opportunity. Companies in the Hosting & Search or Advertising & Marketing Sectors could partner with a software development company in a platform play around this space.
Finally, social media platforms are certainly where people interact virtually, but the key purpose for those interactions are to share opinions, garner likes or enter into divisive arguments. They may be called “social” but they often are far from it. There is a clear place in the Immersive and Interactive Media sector for a platform that allows people to gather in a more positive way. To share in a social experience as we might at a club or event.
The list goes on; far too many to mention here. It is, after all, a whole new business sector potentially worth many billions of pounds in the UK alone (the Map indicates a potential initial value of £13bn).
And so, in summary, as you consider what to do next, remember these three points:
- Specialisation leaves you exposed during times of change (the hummingbird)
- Diversity coupled with flexibility are the best traits for survival (Nintendo vs Disney)
- Knowing where and how to diversify is paramount for success (the Map)
Interactive and Immersive Media is an interesting route for diversification but if that’s not your area of the Map, then it’s not the right option for you. That’s why we intend to cover the other “continents” in this series. In part 4, we’ll explore another emerging business sector predicted by the Map – Robotics. We will show where it is positioned relative to other business sectors and who is best placed to exploit it.
The best way to understand something is by example, so to explain the Map we’d like to share a journey with you; a journey that explores diverse regions of the Map, charting where troubles were encountered, but ultimately great success was found.
Play your cards right
As our first foray into the use of the Map to chart organisational exploration, let’s talk about a company that’s been on a long and interesting transformation journey – Nintendo. Founded in 1889, the company began by selling handmade playing cards used for gambling (their official history skirts carefully around this issue).
We can therefore place Nintendo’s origins firmly in the Home and Office region of the Map, which includes toy making. The fact that the cards could be used for gambling does not place Nintendo in that sector – it is the users of the cards who operate in that space. This is an important rule when using the map. The trade of those who consume a company’s products or services should not be conflated with that of the producer.
In 1959, some 70 years later, after Japan was opened up to the world following the end of the Second World War, Nintendo struck a licensing deal with Disney. This allowed them to include some of the latter’s characters on playing cards. Nintendo were very much playing to their strengths, staying within the same sector and leveraging a partnership with a different type of business to increase their own dominance in their area of expertise. The move was a game-changer, and the subsequent boost in revenue allowed the company to go public three years later.
Exploring uncharted territory
During this time, ownership of the company passed down through various sons, cousins and nephews, and at the time of flotation was in the hands of a rather dissolute young fellow. With all this new money burning a hole in his pocket, he decided to ‘transform’ Nintendo.
He invested in taxis, instant rice, vacuum cleaners and even – dare I say it – love hotels. If we look at these journeys on the Map, each one involves a foray into an disconnected region. This is a situation for which our hypothesis predicts failure, unless treated as a genuine start up and given time to mature and grow (of the order of ten years or more). Despite significant resources at his disposal, the new owner failed to make a success of each of these ventures.
Feeling the way, step-by-step
Only one idea stuck – making toys, born out of the company’s knowledge and expertise in making card games. As electronic games turned out to have the highest margin, the 1960s and 1970s saw Nintendo experiment in this field, with many hits and misses. We examined these individually, and found that the progress of successes across the map was a logical one. The first real success came in the form of a mechanical arm known as the “Ultra Hand” which took Nintendo from Home & Office into the neighbouring territory, Mechanical & Electrical.
Another of the hits was a “light gun”, and in 1972 the first video game console was released (the Magnavox Odyssey), with Nintendo’s gun as an accessory for a shooting game. This established Nintendo in Electrical & Mechanical and started their move into Electronics as they became the exclusive supplier of the console in Japan, allowing them to build up their understanding of that market through partnership.
From the mid-70s to 1981, Nintendo used their knowledge of (a) video game consoles, and (b) the dynamics of card games to start making their own video games, culminating in Donkey Kong. At the same time, they launched their own gaming device – the “Game & Watch”; this handheld console has an impressive legacy that can be traced via the Gameboy to the 3DS. With the company now well established in Electronics, the move into Software Development was strategically sound. The highlights of the journey look like this:
Familiar ground in tough times
In 1983 came the great video game crash, which saw the US video game market shrink almost overnight by some 97%. To maximise short-term revenues, Atari dropped their standards and aimed for quantity over quality by allowing bad games onto their console. This culminated in the disaster of the ET movie tie-in game.
Nintendo watched the debacle with interest, learned from the mistakes of others, and as a result, applied a strong focus on quality. Only the very best games would get their seal of approval from now on. The company, in hard times, had shifted focus back to their foundation in games. This allowed them to succeed where other companies with a predominantly electronics background were less well equipped.
In 1985, nearly 100 years into their journey, Nintendo launched the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. Again, you can trace a direct line from that through the SNES to the Wii and now the Switch (which also relates to Nintendo’s first console in 1981, by being designed to be portable).
A journey of some 131 years, and where actually have Nintendo gone in that time? The journey from card games to video games is not a very long or complicated one – indeed, it’s an easily understood evolution, with failures learned from, and successes pursued.
In part 3, we will look more broadly at the territory Nintendo shares with many others, and demonstrate how they’ve managed to keep their share price rising whilst others in the same area are suffering. In doing so we’ll introduce an interesting bonus feature of the Map – the “inland seas” that predict emerging industry sectors, and show who might be best placed to move into them.
This is the story behind the Business Evolution Map, a unique tool developed by the Equal Experts Strategic Advisory Practice to bring predictability to the apparently unpredictable. If you’re looking to diversify, or wondering where the next threat is really coming from, this is the tool for you. Tested, and logical, it provides insight and guidance, free from human bias and hidden agenda.
What is it?
Simply put, the Business Evolution Map is a pictorial representation of the economy, laid out in such a way that helps show which journeys into new sectors are likely to succeed, and which are destined for failure. You may already have seen some examples of its use via twitter; if not and in the interests of “show not tell” here they are:
Each one of these examples shows a small portion of the Map and traces the diversification journeys of three very different companies. In each case, the success or failure of the endeavour correlates with the predictions of the Map. The first explains where Carrillion went wrong, the second predicts success for Amazon (not surprisingly), and the third predicts failure for Ineos.
The regions of the Map represent business sectors, and the countries within each region represent the sub-sectors. The countries are then laid out in such a way that the boundaries represent the points at which these sectors merge.
These boundaries are dictated by the people involved in the related businesses, and more specifically their skills, mindsets and networks. Take, for example, the Transportation & Storage sector; at the heart of this is the Freight sub-sector, and the other sub-sectors then cluster around it.
By structuring the Map in this way, we have created a tool which predicts that diversification into neighbouring “countries” will be successful (typically within 3 years), whilst attempts to jump across the Map to disconnected business sectors will be no more successful than a brand new start-up (taking up to 10 years or more to achieve the same level of success).
In other words, if you want to leverage the people and capabilities of your existing business and you want success within a three year window, then you need to focus your attention on your nearest neighbours. This doesn’t mean you can’t augment your organisation with capabilities elsewhere on the map, but it does guide you towards a partnership arrangement, or potentially an “acquire and run at arms length” approach.
In the beginning
We created the Map because we believed there was a lack of true understanding or insight into why attempts to diversify either failed or succeeded. There are, of course, many convincing stories told about how companies moved into fundamentally different business sectors, always with a claimed reason for that success, but it appeared to us that those stories started with a conclusion, and then cherry-picked the stories that could be fitted to that conclusion. As we looked across those stories it was clear that each one proposed a different reason, and not surprisingly, the reason was often related to the product or offered by the author.
It was also clear that consultants were advising companies to diversify into sectors that seemed to be connected at first glance, but on closer inspection, these connections were being inferred from the similar words used to describe them. Wellness and Pharmaceuticals were a good example; both made frequent use of language such as “health” and “wellbeing”, but it was our opinion that, although these businesses were involved in a similar outcome, the fundamental nature of what they did was very different; one provided care, whilst the other manufactured medicinal products.
Therefore, the Map started where most innovations do, with a problem to be solved, and also from our personal need to bring an idea to life visually so that it could be clearly communicated, discussed and challenged. What we needed was a solution to this problem, and as is the Equal Experts way, we started with a ‘Bet’ and a hypothesis.
The Bet was that it would be possible to create something akin to a geographical map onto which company journeys could be plotted, and chances of success judged using the physical distances travelled. The hypothesis was that success or failure of diversification (judged relative to a complete start-up venture) was fundamentally driven by the capabilities of the people within the existing company. We envisaged something like this early concept drawing, but much larger:
It’s all about me!
We started, much as the early European explorers did; from familiar territory. Much of what Equal Experts does involves software development, and so it was easy to chart our immediate surroundings, but beyond that was uncharted territory. Our Map, useful though it was in its own way, was much like this very limited picture of the “known world”. Some bits were likely to be reasonably accurate, and others complete conjecture, not to mention the greater parts that didn’t even appear at all.
The next bit took time and some significant working and reworking. Let’s just say that whiteboards were involved and coffee was drunk. Along with the coffee, a huge amount of data was consumed covering the entirety of the UK economy, although the Map works as well in its final form for any of the world’s economies, as it has people as its main driver.
The most important data to us were the relative sizes (by revenue) of each of the sectors, and the core activities undertaken by businesses in those sectors. The former gave us the relative sizes of each country (we used one hexagon per £1bn revenue), whilst the latter allowed us to position each of the countries so that their edges matched, much like assembling a jigsaw without the guiding picture. There is, of course, a lot more detail in the final version of the Map, but here is a bird’s eye view to give you an idea of scale:
Testing the hypothesis
As the Map had been formed from a hypothesis, it needed to be proven, and to be properly tested we needed to use information it was intended to predict, not information from which it was created. For this we turned to those original stories of diversification, and for each one we mapped out the journey in chronological order, making note of successes and failures.
Our intent was to further “tweak” the Map based on our findings, but we were surprised to find far greater correlation than we ever expected. Clearly those long hours trawling for data and arguing in front of a whiteboard had been worth it after all. There are many examples of companies that got it wrong, but to save their blushes, here is an example of one that got it spectacularly right:
As you can see, every move made is between two neighbouring countries. It’s difficult to comprehend how a company that started out making clothes ended up making just about everything, and played a key role in the building of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. There’s a lengthy story to tell here, but for the purposes of this blog post, suffice to say, the map makes it much clearer how a textile company comes to dominate so many apparently diverse business sectors, without the need to fundamentally “reinvent” itself, as some might have you believe.
Putting the Map to use
As well as using the Map to gain insights for Equal Experts and guide our own investments and decisions, we also use it to help our clients understand where they truly are as a business (semantics aside), where they might choose to go next, and who might be coming their way. Helping clients find innovative answers to important strategic questions is what we do, and the Map is an essential tool in our arsenal to help us do that logically and effectively.
The best way to describe how we use it is probably to quote some of our clients’ questions that it helps to answer:
“We’ve grown rapidly, and now we’re too complicated. In what should we invest further and of what should we divest?”
“Having exhausted growth in our market, we want to diversify – but how?”
“Everyone is telling me that my business is about to be disrupted – is this true, and if so, by whom, and what can I do about it?”
“Disruption is so unpredictable; new business sectors spring out of nowhere and cause chaos. Is there a way to anticipate what might come next, and who is best placed to exploit those opportunities?”
Not only does the Map take the guesswork out of the strategy process; it also strips away unconscious biases and misleading semantic connections that otherwise can cloud thinking.
In part 2, we will take the journey of that well-known company, Nintendo, and illustrate, using the Map, what worked, what didn’t, and why that might be.
I’m sure, at some point in our careers, we’ve all embarked on a project with a clear outcome in mind, but found that somewhere along the way we’ve either lost sight of the goal, or worse still, delivered that goal only to find out things didn’t work out the way we’d planned. Reshaping activities as Bets keeps the mind focused on that uncertainty and breaks things down into meaningful wins.
You won’t know until you try
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” – Seneca
In part 1 of this series, we introduced our Continuous Evolution approach, in part 2 we explained how we use a purified form of OKRs to turn your vision into concrete objectives, and in part 3 we described how to condense all of this into a Roadmap Radar. You may already have read these preceding parts, and you may even have experimented with using what you’ve learned so far to shape a portfolio of work around your organisation’s strategic goals.
However, before you proceed any further, there’s one more step and it’s probably the most important of all if you want to bring true agility to your ways of working. We call it the Bet Canvas, and it’s an easy-to-use tool that helps structure your delivery activities in a way that encourages experimentation, innovation and pragmatism. Placing bets allows your organisation to test which interventions will improve business outcomes, at minimum risk.
The word “bet” is intentional language that confronts how much we are willing to stake on the stated outcome, in terms of people, time and investment. It relies on the effective design of a structured experiment, that creates feedback loops, validates the business value of an idea, and reports on progress towards specific, leading metrics.
What makes a good bet?
“If you must play, decide upon three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time.” – Chinese Proverb
To work well, each bet must be:
- Aligned to a single objective of the organisation (as depicted by the Roadmap Radar)
- Specific enough to be (dis)proven within 90 days
- Based around experiments with carefully controlled variables
A bet is used to test one hypothesis for how an objective might be achieved, and so it is pursued by a small, autonomous, cross-functional team that contains all the skills required to prove out any assumptions. Each experiment builds the organisation’s capability, enabling the pursuit of future bets with a higher degree of confidence.
To explain the construction of a bet in more detail, let’s consider the following example:
1: The Bet Statement
The first section is a simple headline, capturing the essence of the bet. Keep it short and ensure the statement feels familiar, by using the language of your organisation. Avoid specific solutions at this stage – this is supposed to be both general and memorable
2: The Hypothesis
The hypothesis should follow this simple formulation:
“We believe that [doing x] will result in [y happening] and we will know we’ve been successful when [we measure z]”
In this example:
X = making our takeaway pizza boxes recyclable
Y = improved brand image
Z = brand sentiment improves without diluting the current profit margin
Each part of the hypothesis statement is a choice,and should be carefully considered and debated by the team. Be specific – each hypothesis refers to a single potential solution to a problem. Never include “and” statements as this indicates you’re attempting to pursue two bets at the same time.
3: The Problem
At this point, the team should outline, as briefly as possible, the problem they’re trying to solve. Details, such as existing metrics, should be included, to indicate the size of the problem. If the problem cannot be concisely and precisely described, it means that you should either spend time developing a shared understanding, or place an alternative bet.
Any problem that is too large to claim, and/or is beyond your organisation’s influence should be considered a ‘fact of life’, and removed from the bet. For example, in this case, the pizza company cannot control the limitations of global recycling protocols.
Be ruthless – each problem must be substantial enough to justify committing time and resources otherwise it should be de-prioritised, and do not proceed beyond this point until everyone agrees on the problem being solved and the potential value therein.
4: Measures of Success
Using the measures articulated in your hypothesis, this list itemises how you will measure progress towards the goal & objective to which your Bet is aligned. Use measures that are easy to capture, and be creative – the right measure may not exist now, but can be created. Don’t try and boil the ocean – measuring the number of boxes sent to landfill would be a potential measure, but it is impossible to accurately capture.
In this example, the organisation is measuring success in two main ways: (1) improvements to brand image, and (2) maintenance of margin. Whilst margin is easy to measure, the brand image is more challenging, but might be measured using mechanisms such as Net Promoter Score, sentiment on social media, headlines in the Press, and customer feedback. Recycled pizza boxes would be an “announceable”, and result in such events as the CEO being invited onto Radio 4’s Today programme, whilst customer feedback might come in the form of answers to the question: “Why did you choose us today?”
5: Challenges & Risks
This is an opportunity for the team to identify any difficulties they might face when pursuing the Bet, therefore prompting the right conversations, at the right time, about how to mitigate risk and/or drive out assumptions.
In this example, the organisation needs to confirm the cost and supply implications of inserting biodegradable greaseproof paper into their pizza boxes. Thinking creatively about challenges and risks allows the team to anticipate problems that can be mitigated now – in this case, training requirements that could, depending on results, be rolled out nationally.
If risks cannot be removed or substantially mitigated by the core team, it may mean you need to invite more/different people. If the risks are too large and/or numerous, this means you need to pivot or abandon the bet. Don’t panic – all bets worth pursuing have challenges & risks.
6: Desired outcome
This stage involves a brief description of the optimal future state. It is the “why of the Bet Canvas, and its purpose is to help concentrate the mind. If the desired outcome can’t be easily expressed, or seems underwhelming, that is a signal that the team should pursue an alternative bet.
In this example, the bet is that the desired outcome (improved brand status) is made possible through making an intervention (in this case, including biodegradable greaseproof inserts) that changes behaviour (allowing customers to recycle their pizza boxes) with no adverse financial effects (such as reduced profit margins).
Outcomes should be ambitious, such that every bet feels like a stretch goal. Always think in terms of ‘interventions’ and ‘changed behaviours’, and avoid vagueness. Measuring progress towards the desired outcome should be easy, or at least, uncomplicated to capture.
Each bet must align to an objective which in turn aligns to a goal, as confirmed through the OKR process. That is to say, the successful pursuit of a bet delivers progress towards the realisation of prioritised business value. A bet should never align to more than one objective and should be checked regularly for relevance, as objectives can change. If the Bet doesn’t clearly align to an objective, it should be rejected and reformulated (or dropped).
The last section is the most demanding, and the most valuable. Time should be spent designing a robust, repeatable experiment that sensibly controls variables, and produces leading measures of progress that can be captured and reported weekly.
In this example, there are three cohorts – a control group, a group for whom the additional cost is optional, and a last group, who have the price of the insert included in their order by default. Certain variables are controlled – firstly, the experiment only applies to one city, each group is defined by the boundaries of certain postcodes, and will only run for 90 days. This limits the organisation’s exposure to risk, whilst maximising the number of lessons learned from placing the bet.
When devising an experiment, limit as many variables as possible as this reduces exposure to risk. Ensure that you have rapid feedback loops to help guide progress, and remember that this is not a ‘to do’ list, but a rigorous test of the assumptions that underpin the bet.
Survival of the fittest
“I told her once I wasn’t good at anything. She told me survival is a talent.” – Susanna Kaysen
This concludes our series of posts on our Continuous Evolution framework, and now is a good time to re-emphasise that the approach is iterative. It is not enough to create a roadmap, pursue some bets and then use that to create a long term delivery plan. This framework provides an alternative way of working, rather than a temporary fix to a short term problem. In part 1 we explained the overall cycle as three phases, Shape, Plan and Execute, and to get the most benefit from it, we would recommend that you repeat this cycle quarterly. This may seem challenging – it may even seem overwhelming, but that is the nature of change. It is relentless and inevitable, but it is not, as some would claim, highly variable.
There are not long periods of stability punctuated by sudden periods of change. It only seems like that to organisations that fail to notice the change around them until it becomes so great that it cannot be ignored – and then it is often too late.
We have introduced, what might be, to many of you, a very different approach to managing change and planning for the future, and it is fair to say it only touches on what is a fundamentally wide reaching transformation for most traditionally structured organisations. However, We would encourage you to give it a try; it has worked well for those we’ve introduced it to, and it is based on experience gained in those same large traditional organisations.
Start small, explore, test and learn, and remember the world is not predictable. Success lies in the ability to adapt quickly – we’re here to help if you need us. If nature teaches us anything, it teaches us that to survive and thrive demands Continuous Evolution.
For more information, or to engage our services, you can contact the Equal Experts Strategic Advisory Practice at StrategicAdvisory@equalexperts.com. We’re also on twitter @EqualAdvisory if you want to follow us.
Part 1 – An agile strategy for an unpredictable world
Part 2 – Shaping the vision
Part 3 – The Roadmap Radar – When is a plan not a plan?
Part 4 – The Bet Canvas – Nothing ventured, nothing gained – (you’re here!)
Traditional roadmaps can become so granular that they turn into long to-do lists, or drift so far into vagueness that they mean different things to different people. Teams can’t see how their work relates to business priorities, and become demoralised and demotivated. The Roadmap Radar addresses these anti-patterns by ensuring that all efforts are clearly aligned to your strategic goals and objectives.
What is the Roadmap Radar?
“Sometimes I feel a lot of things but I keep it in. I’m sure we all have this built-in radar of what we predict and when it happens, we feel ‘I knew it’”. – Muhammad Ali
The Roadmap Radar is a tool unique to Equal Experts. We are not averse to reusing the tools already available, but in this instance we found the market lacking. Planning tools rarely cater well for agility and change, and do a poor job of connecting delivery teams with the organisational goals – the essential “why” of their work. It is for this reason that we developed the Radar to align the goals and objectives captured during an OKR session (as described previously in Part 2), and bridge the gap between the objectives and the tactical ‘Bets’ placed by the organisation in pursuit of business value (in Part 4).
In essence, the model provides an intuitive visualisation of the organisation’s priorities. By plotting initiatives against specific objectives within agreed time horizons, the Radar also confirms clusters and/or gaps in effort. In this way, activities are directly aligned to the organisation’s strategic goals, thereby providing teams with a greater sense of purpose and meaning. Any misaligned activities are placed into the backlog, ensuring resources are effectively allocated.
A common symptom of granular roadmaps is a tendency towards a ‘Project’ culture, with a count of outputs (items ticked off a list of tasks) distracting from the realisation of real business value. And you know when the Roadmap has become too vague when you notice people – with all the right intentions – doing their best to interpret an obscure and ever-changing plan. The most obvious example of this is when teams build things “just in case”, that either overlap with other efforts, or are in themselves pointless.
The Roadmap Radar ensures that everyone purposefully works on proving the business value of ideas that align to the strategy of the organisation. It removes dependencies, simplifies decision making, and empowers teams.
Why a Radar?
“I train myself mentally with visualization.” – Camille Duvall
We chose the visual metaphor of a Radar for a few reasons. One is that a Radar is by nature dynamic; by using it, we challenge the idea that Roadmaps, once drawn up, are static and unchanging. Another is that the ‘Bets’ appear on the Radar as blips, which can move towards the centre (therefore indicating that they are more urgent and important), or move out to later quarters, according to an organisation’s evolving understanding of the challenges and opportunities.
The “single big picture” nature of the model allows anyone to see imbalances in the plan. Too many Bets against a single objective in a single quarter will most likely overextend the teams, and lead to diminished outcomes; too few plotted against a Goal typically indicates that the portfolio isn’t quite as balanced as the organisation may claim. It is always clear where further work is required.
The radar format also limits space in the current quarter, whilst providing more space in the outer rings. This naturally guides teams to commit to fewer things this quarter, but encourages conjecture in future quarters. As time progresses, and items move inward, discoveries and new information remove that conjecture and the reduced space encourages pruning and prioritisation.
A final advantage is that beyond four quarters, the Radar format becomes unwieldy. This is deliberate and should not be worked around. It is okay to use that space around the edge of the Radar for possible futures, but anything more than that ignores the original point of the Continuous Evolution – the future is unstable and unpredictable.
What outcomes should I expect?
“Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure.” – George Carlin
Across a variety of engagements in different sectors, the Radar has been instrumental in creating a balanced portfolio of Bets, that helps organisations decide where to go next, with confidence. It has allowed companies to rapidly reorganise, shedding siloed approaches in favour of multidisciplinary teams, and it has worked within organisations to improve transparency and collaboration.
In a major mobile provider, we created a Radar that helped make a complex portfolio of innovative ideas manageable and focused effort on the first few bets prioritised by business value, speed to market, and level of experience gained.
Working alongside a major professional service provider, we tackled a traditional and static three year transformation programme with multiple critical paths and interdependencies. Using OKRs and the Roadmap Radar we turned it into an agile driver of change designed to deliver real value at least every quarter.
We helped an eCommerce function within a large retail company get to grips with an overwhelming internal demand pipeline. Here, the Roadmap Radar helped not only with alignment of activities, but also with prioritisation, removal of duplicated effort, and stakeholder engagement.
In all these cases, use of the Radar significantly reduced risk, improved agility and improved team morale and motivation.
How is a Roadmap Radar structured?
“Order is the shape upon which beauty depends.” – Pearl S. Buck
Drawing on the language of OKRs, the Goals create the main coloured regions of the Radar, and reflect the long-lived ‘North Stars’ of the organisation, capturing its purpose and values. Radars tend to comprise 4-5 Goals, and this part of the model changes infrequently, unless the organisation decides to radically diversify.
Objectives are the “pizza slices” of the Roadmap Radar, and are divided into concentric rings covering quarterly time horizons; they represent strategic priorities, and are always aligned to the Goals. Objectives are aspirational, and outcome-based, e.g. “Acquire new customers” or “Be number one for customer satisfaction”and each objective is aligned to one, and only one goal. In working to achieve an objective, a team must prioritise the aligned goal in all its decisions, but is not allowed to undermine any of the other goals. This is another advantage of the radar format – it allows everyone to see the whole picture at once, and thus avoid any such conflict.
Whilst the number of Objectives per Goal varies, our advice is that one is too few and five is too many. If you only have one, and you fail against that Objective, you automatically fail against the Goal, which is a big risk, and this entire process is about maximising business value whilst minimising risk. Conversely, having five or more will dilute efforts across the 90 day cycle.
‘Bets’ are shown on the Radar as triangles, with each one representing a time-bound experiment, designed to explore the impacts of an intervention. Each Bet includes carefully controlled variables, and progress is measured by the Key Results captured during the OKR process. The optimal approach is one bet per squad per 90 day cycle.
Using the Roadmap Radar
The most important thing to remember when using the Roadmap Radar is that it isn’t a plan; in other words, it is not laid out in stone to be followed blindly. Everything about the Radar is volatile, within its own cadence. Goals are relatively stable, but even these may change after a year or two. Objectives should at least evolve every quarter as Bets are won or lost, even if they are not completely replaced by new ones. And the Bets that populate the Radar should be the most volatile – we’ll cover Bets in Part 4.
It is not enough to simply use the Radar without adapting your organisation structure to it; this would defeat the original object of the exercise – to become a flexible company able to continuously evolve. But the Radar does make it easier to reorganise, as you already have the structure around which to do that.
Transformation requires you to create self-contained multi-disciplinary teams dedicated to the delivery of specific Objectives. One team per Objective is ideal, but it is okay to have a team pursuing two or three neighbouring objectives at once, provided these objectives all align to the same goal. Each team should contain all of the individuals and skills necessary to achieve the objective, and so as the Bets evolve, it might be necessary to tweak the team make-up as you go.
The other thing that needs to change, if you are to get the full benefit of Continuous Evolution, is your performance and reward approach. If collaboration, empowerment and motivation are to be maximised, performance should be measured at the Objective (and therefore the team) level, and reward should be at least at this level and no lower. Individual performance management and reward, ubiquitous though it is, is not the only way to run a business, and it is not part of the Continuous Evolution approach.
In the fourth and final part of this series, we explain in more detail the concept of “Bets” and introduce the Bet Canvas – a tool for shaping activities in a way that gets you to doing fast, whilst reducing risk and resolving assumptions.
Part 1 – An agile strategy for an unpredictable world
Part 2 – Shaping the vision
Part 3 – The Roadmap Radar – When is a plan not a plan? – (you’re here!)
Part 4 – The Bet Canvas – Nothing ventured, nothing gained
Traditional businesses use KPIs that compare year-on-year performance, and “SMART” objectives that commit people to an inflexible 12 month journey. Reaction times are slow, and feedback loops bring insight far too late. It may seem counter-intuitive, but success with long term goals can only be achieved using short term objectives.
An alternative to KPIs
“Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti
Organisations emerging from the industrial revolution were traditionally organised into hierarchies, made efficient through the separation of concerns, and measured using well recognised KPIs (key performance indicators – such as cost and time). This approach proved very effective for stable business sectors that had reached a high level of maturity and was recognised as the standard way of running a business.
The internet, however, has created significant market disruption, and the rate of change across many businesses is still rapid and promises to remain so for the foreseeable future. To respond to this ever-changing environment, a new way of setting targets and prioritising work has emerged that removes the need to micromanage every task and function. Made popular by Google, this technique is generally referred to as OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) and, unlike the more static KPI approach, it adopts a rapid review cycle and a focus on group responsibility.
This is why we chose OKRs as our method of choice for linking strategic goals to delivery activities. At Equal Experts, we are experienced at bringing about change and OKRs are about delivering that change, not about maintaining the status quo.
Essentially, the OKR approach aims to achieve three outcomes:
- Align task execution directly to company strategy
When the tasks being performed by a team or individual are far removed from the strategy that gave rise to those tasks, the reason is lost. All too often, teams successfully complete these tasks but somehow manage to completely miss the strategic point. By linking tasks directly to core company goals, OKRs help to ensure that the “doers” understand the purpose and value of their efforts.
- Create transparency
Where teams and departments operate in isolation from one another, and when their work is hidden from the rest of the organisation, duplication of effort proliferates and waste is high. The OKR approach endeavours to create transparency so that unintended duplication can be avoided.
- Encourage collaboration
There is little incentive to collaborate when overall goals are divided and cascaded down to teams, and then divided further to individuals. By creating objectives at the team level, rather than measuring the success of each individual, collaboration can be encouraged rather than discouraged.
Goals: Setting the strategic direction
“The best way to predict your future is to create it.” – Abraham Lincoln
The starting point for our stripped down version of the OKR approach is to establish the core goals for the organisation. These goals typically manifest as a handful of statements that embody the overall purpose and intent of the organisation; they are high level, direction setting, and likely to create an element of conflict when taken as a set.
For example, a company might have as two of its goals, ‘be profitable’ and ‘be ethical’. There are many ways to be unprofitably ethical and many ways to be unethically profitable. Taken together, however, the number of options available to the company is reduced. Thus, through a small number of well-defined goals, a company can create a clear strategic direction.
Constraints may, at first glance, seem to limit innovation and progress; in practice, they help to focus attention on the changes that best align with the strategic direction of the company, thus facilitating faster and more effective decision making.
Goals are long-lasting (at least a year, and generally longer), and they form the first layer in the OKR hierarchy; there is only one more layer.
Objectives: A call to action
“Nothing will work unless you do.” -Maya Angelou
The real driving force behind the OKR approach are the objectives themselves. Objectives are the things you are going to achieve; they are time-based (typically to be concluded within one or two quarters), qualitative in nature and aspirational.
An objective should clearly state an outcome, rather than an action or deliverable. “Build an application” is not an objective, but “Ensure our customers are engaging more regularly with our service” might be. This may seem like a small distinction, but it has a big effect; by focusing on outcomes you empower teams to use their skill and judgement to deliver success, rather than just complete tasks.
Each objective must link back to one of your goals, whilst conflicting with none of the others. If an objective seems to link to more than one goal, it is likely that you have combined more than one outcome into a single objective. This is not advisable as there will be a conflict of focus when attempting to deliver the objective.
Objectives form the second and final layer in the OKR hierarchy. Objectives should not have sub-objectives, nor should they be cascaded to sub-teams to create further related objectives. It should, therefore, be clear that objectives need to be assigned to multidisciplinary, empowered teams and not distributed to individuals. Anyone who is needed to make the objective successful should consider themselves part of that team.
Key Results: Measuring success
“In many spheres of human endeavor, from science to business to education to economic policy, good decisions depend on good measurement.” – Ben Bernanke
If the intent is to deliver successful outcomes, then there needs to be a way of measuring that success. All too often, progress is measured in terms of tasks completed or widgets delivered; this is not the purpose of key results. Each objective should have at least one key result by which its success is measured.
A well defined key result is numerical in nature, defines a specific target (either relative to a current baseline or absolute), and measures an outcome rather than the tasks undertaken to achieve that outcome. Additionally, care should be taken to select key results for which you can “move the needle” within the timescale of the objective. If you’re not going to see any movement in the measurement over the next quarter or two, then it is not going to be an effective way of guiding your actions and refining your approach.
Examples of key results might include “50% of new users return within 2 weeks” or “Churn rate < 2% this quarter”. An example of a poorly defined key result might be “20% more prospects contacted” as it measures the level of activity and not its success.
Establishing a cadence
“Nothing is ever so good that it can’t stand a little revision, and nothing is ever so impossible and broken down that a try at fixing it is out of the question.” – Rebecca Solnit
Establishing, monitoring and renewing OKRs is an iterative process, and once you have defined and assigned your objectives you need to establish a cadence for reviewing them. A typical cadence is as follows:
- Plan quarterly
Review all your current objectives, remove those that are no longer relevant or that have been completed, and create new ones for the next quarter. Some of these new objectives are likely to evolve out of previous objectives allowing you to take your success to the next level, or change tack in response to unexpected results.
- Amend monthly
The whole point of OKRs is to continuously improve based on your findings. It is therefore worth revisiting your objectives on a monthly basis to see if any are flawed and need to be adjusted to improve your chances of success.
- Report weekly
Measuring your key results on a weekly basis and reporting on progress improves transparency across teams, and also allows you to test-and-learn as you progress. It is easier to know which actions produced which results if you measure at a granular level, rather than only on completion of the objective.
It is then up to the assigned teams how they deliver, and the tasks they perform to achieve that delivery, but as objectives are short lived, explorative and iterative in nature, agile techniques are usually well suited to their delivery. This is because OKRs are about change and improvement – for existing processes where change is not needed or prioritised, existing techniques should still be used to measure their success and efficiency.
The art of introspection
“You will only fail to learn if you do not learn from failing.” – Stella Adler
OKRs are simple in nature, but any change, no matter how small, is always hard to embed in a lasting way. This is because old habits are hard to break, and so it is essential that during the early stages of introduction, you revisit the rules for objectives and key results in this document and make sure you are applying them consistently. Otherwise, it is highly likely that you will drift back towards an existing KPI based approach. Three of the common mistakes made are:
- Cascading objectives so that teams can create “subordinate” objectives of their own.
- Measuring tasks completed rather than outcomes achieved.
- Giving every objective to everyone, rather than assigning them to responsible and empowered teams.
Don’t expect to get this right the first time; no-one does. But don’t forget to learn and improve either; that’s the point of iteration. We have a tried and tested approach to putting OKRs into practice, so if you’re interested in doing this either experimentally, or at scale, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll see what we can do to help
In Part 3, we will introduce our Roadmap Radar tool, which allows you to visualise your entire portfolio of work in a way that creates clarity, agility and collaboration.
Part 1 – An agile strategy for an unpredictable world
Part 2 – Shaping the vision – (you’re here!)
Part 3 – The Roadmap Radar – When is a plan not a plan?
Part 4 – The Bet Canvas – Nothing ventured, nothing gained
To evolve is to survive, and to plan is to succeed, but all too often, plans are static whilst the world is ever changing. In this four part series, we propose a tried and tested approach that introduces quarterly agility into your organisation without losing sight of your long term goals.
Iceberg! Right ahead!
“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” – Helmuth von Moltke the Elder
Here at the Equal Experts Strategic Advisory Practice, we recognise that stability is an illusion, and steady state is a temporary luxury. Any attempts to create and stick to long term plans are inevitably doomed as they fail to adapt to the world around them, or take account of the discoveries made once the journey has begun.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have long term goals; quite the opposite, but to assume you can decide today all the actions necessary to get there is folly. It is no more realistic than standing in Liverpool, pointing a ship at New York, setting its course, and hoping it will arrive at its destination unharmed with no intervention from the captain. Decisions have to be made, events adapted to, and courses changed.
Instead, you might think of strategy as being a sailing boat in high winds, crewed by a group of people with different but complementary skills, who have the autonomy to make adjustments quickly, in coordination with others, according to the conditions.
After all, sometimes there are icebergs.
Seasons come, seasons go
“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus
Of course, we acknowledge that businesses need a plan, but the duration of such plans is shorter than you might think. Consider those 2020 vision documents produced by most organisations, some as long ago as 2015. We have seen very few of those plans that made it past the first year without becoming irrelevant, and not surprisingly, none included the impacts of a global pandemic followed by a recession.
In our experience, the most effective cadence for planning is quarterly. It fits well with company funding cycles, and is short enough to allow course corrections within the financial year. It also fits well with a more fundamental cycle that affects human motivation in a way that few people recognise. There are, of course, the recognised impacts of season – the January blues, flu season, holiday seasons and so on – but there is something more fundamental.
We humans work in seasons, measuring the end of one and the start of another. Traditionally, we had to align tasks to these seasons to ensure our crops were properly planted, tended and harvested, and our hunting behaviours adapted to the migratory patterns of animals. Even now, in our sanitised world, we see the seasons as natural start and end points, and yet at work our projects often continue on unbroken throughout the year. As the weeks turn into months, and the end seems far away, it can be hard for us to remain motivated, and productivity starts to fall. People lose focus.
We have found that moving to a quarterly cadence, where outcomes are achieved and teams move on to the next challenge every three months, can avoid this slump. A clear break every three months give teams a fresh boost and renewed focus. This doesn’t mean you have to abandon what you’re doing; just create a clear “cake and candles” moment to celebrate success. Then you can reset direction and go again based on what you’ve learned and what has changed in your business landscape.
Switching to a quarterly cadence means you are discovering all the time and are giving yourself the space to continuously adapt your plans. That’s why we follow an approach we call Continuous Evolution.
Ninety days to done
“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.” – Abigail Adams
Breaking out of a tightly planned and predictable way of working can be very challenging. Our Continuous Evolution framework helps guide an organisation through the unknown, no matter what factors are driving the need to change, or the kind of transformation required. The aim is to build an agile and iterative strategy, in pursuit of the surest and quickest path to business value. Making well-planned interventions and measuring their impact is the key to creating the right mindset and high performance culture capable of rapidly delivering sustainable change.
Working in 90 day cycles, this three stage framework exists to:
- Shape – Establish the goals & objectives of the organisation, as well as the best ways to measure progress towards them (Objectives & Key Results)
- Plan – Visualise how time-bound activities are aligned to the strategic priorities of the organisation, indicating clusters and gaps (Roadmap Radar)
- Execute – Gather, prioritise and place ‘bets’ that are designed to realise business value through experimentation, maximising returns whilst minimising the exposure to risk (Bet Canvas)
At the end of each 90 day cycle, leadership should reflect on the progress achieved, and lessons learned. That allows the organisation to revise to their OKRs and Roadmap Radar as required, before deciding (a) which bets to evolve or stop; and (b) which new bets should be placed during the next cycle.
Stage 1: Shaping the vision
“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
There’s a lot more to strategy than simply feeling your way through experimentation, and we have discussed this in previous blog posts. However, there’s also a lot more to strategy than thinking and talking – effective strategy arises from situational awareness and insight, and these can best be discovered through hands-on experience.
Not great fans of reinventing the wheel, we use OKRs (objective and key results) as the first step in the Continuous Delivery framework. However, we did strip that particular wheel back to its basics so that it could be easier for organisations to adopt and adapt it to their own needs. We find that OKRs provide a flexible, collaborative method that ensures activities are aligned to the strategy, across the organisation, whilst optimising the time spent on this activity.
The advantages of the OKR method are:
- Strategic priorities are discussed and agreed by leadership, including the establishment of long-term goals
- It provides assurance that the various aims of the organisation do not conflict with or contradict one another
- It ensures the goals and objectives of the organisation are clearly understood at all levels, through regular communication
This transparent and non-hierarchical approach to strategy helps deliver change, by creating a shared understanding of the organisation’s long-term goals, before aligning a set of measurable objectives. Progress towards each objective (and therefore goal) is measured by Key Results, with outcomes reported to the whole business in a regular cadence.
Stage 2: The Roadmap Radar
“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” – Anonymous
Literally translated, “Man plans, and God laughs”. It’s an old Yiddish adage and it carries a lot of hard learnt wisdom in its brevity. It sums up the fragility of detailed plans in the face of uncertainty, unpredictability and the unknown. But any venture involving more than a handful of people needs some form of plan if it is to avoid descending into chaos and conflict, and that’s why we’ve created a unique tool that carefully balances the need for direction with the importance of agility and empowerment.
The Equal Experts Roadmap Radar provides an intuitive view of the goals and objectives of the organisation, with initiatives plotted on the radar to indicate clusters and gaps in effort. It’s simplicity allows everything to be shown on a single picture, and the ease with which it can be changed encourages flexibility to changing circumstances.
The advantages of the Roadmap Radar are:
- It creates a portfolio of prioritised bets, to help the organisation decide where to go next, with confidence
- It aligns effort directly to the organisation’s strategic goals, providing teams with a greater sense of purpose and meaning
- Once misaligned activities are placed into the backlog, multi-disciplinary teams can be more effectively formed by bringing together the right, motivated people.
Once the goals and objectives of the organisation have been affirmed through the OKR process, efforts can be plotted as ‘bets’ against each objective, laid out to indicate a timeline for delivery (in this quarter, in the next quarter, etc). By visualising the balance of effort, any prioritisation decisions are radically simplified.
Although the Roadmap Radar shows four quarters, the only certainty is in the first of these. Everything beyond that is conjecture; sound conjecture based hopefully on best available knowledge, but conjecture nonetheless. Each sector represents an objective that can be pursued by a team, independently of the others. This reduces cross-team dependencies, allowing greater empowerment and increasing motivation.
Stage 3: The Bet Canvas
“You will have to experiment and try things out for yourself and you will not be sure of what you are doing. That’s all right, you are feeling your way into the thing.” – Emily Carr
The way we approach the “doing” part of the Continuous Evolution cycle is through the use of highly structured “bets”. These outline how experiments will be designed, how success will be measured, and the challenges and risks that will be faced. Bets are delivery focused, and are guided by continuous feedback loops.
The benefit of the “bet” approach:
- A bet is a specific idea whose value is tested methodically through experimentation, optimising the return of business value whilst minimising exposure to risk
- Each Bet Canvas includes a time-bound experiment, with a plan for how evidence of the impact will be gathered and analysed
- The progress of each bet can be reported regularly (at least weekly) and allows the riskiest assumptions or least well understood things to be tested quickly
The purpose of each bet is to (dis)prove a hypothesis through experimentation, which in turn links to an objective, which aligns to a strategic goal. The language of ‘bets’ is intentional – how much time, effort and resource – that could be spent elsewhere – are you willing to commit to the exploration of this idea? Some ideas require more investment to prove than others, and some are better understood and therefore require less validation. As a result, not all bets are equal.
The Bet Canvas ensures that each bet has a clear and rigorous structure, and can be displayed for all teams to see and add suggestions, comments, and questions. It also guarantees a consistency of approach, whilst also highlighting unknowns, which allows for easy and regular reporting of progress.
Rinse and Repeat
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” – Rumi
As bets conclude value is generated and lessons are learnt. With that increased knowledge and released value, the organisation can enter the next discovery cycle better informed and focused. How many times should an organisation repeat this process until it reaches steady state, and when does business as usual resume? The answer is, when the world stops changing, you can stop discovering, and until then, discovery IS the steady state.
In Part 2 we will discuss the OKR approach in more detail and give you a taste of how we facilitate OKR sessions to get the most out of them.
Part 1 – An agile strategy for an unpredictable world – (you’re here!)
Part 2 – Shaping the vision
Part 3 – The Roadmap Radar – When is a plan not a plan?
Part 4 – The Bet Canvas – Nothing ventured, nothing gained
‘How should we become agile?’ is the wrong question. The real question is: how do we learn to incubate (and in doing so, become familiar with agile as a suitable technique to achieve it)?
This post follows on from part one, logically enough! I’d recommend reading that article first, if you haven’t already, to understand the wider context.
Minimise overlap to nurture Incubation
As I mentioned in my earlier post, most established organisations already have well-formed Industrialise and Improve capabilities (even if they’re not aware that they do). The skill in becoming agile is to ring-fence these capabilities – both to avoid unnecessary disruption during the learning process, and to ensure that the value of these areas is properly recognised:
The next step is to find a small, but valuable, idea that the business would like to deliver. It’s important that the work is real and adds meaningful value if you are to test and demonstrate the effectiveness of the approach when used within your domain.
As this is not something you’ve done before, it’s also important to find a trusted delivery partner to work alongside you in delivering the outcome (nudge nudge). These are the people you are going to learn from, so they must be experienced agile practitioners who will work on the delivery with you. You don’t need agile coaches or advisors – they won’t help you learn practical skills. You need to have doers, committed to working side-by-side with your own people, mentoring, supporting and sharing knowledge throughout. There is no room for lone wolves.
A team of many talents
Finally, incubation is a multi-disciplinary exercise; it cannot operate independently of the core supporting functions like legal, finance and procurement, nor can it operate through the existing incarnations of these functions.
Trying to run an agile delivery whilst complying with Industrialise or Improve styles of governance and administration is like trying to ride a motorbike whilst towing a car. And trying to run an agile delivery with no governance at all is like trying to ride the same motorbike without roads, or a helmet; extremely ill-advised!
The art is to find willing participants from each of these central functions to be the trailblazers, and bring them into your emerging agile team. Their job is to find agile-friendly ways to achieve the same outcomes that they achieve in other areas of the business. Their destiny is to become your advocates across the broader community of stakeholders, and also to create the equivalents of their functions within the Incubate capability.
When will we know we’re done?
Another question I’m often asked by people considering introducing agile into their organisations is how long it will take. This emerges from the idea that agile is something you do to an organisation in the form of a transformation.
As I’ve hopefully explained, this is not the case – you are adding a capability to your organisation, and once created, this capability will continue to grow and evolve. You can honestly say that you are introducing agile from the first day you begin a concrete piece of incubation work, but people won’t sit up and truly listen until you deliver your first working thing. Only then can you demonstrate what worked and what didn’t, and move from theory into practice. Only then can you take on the next piece of work, using what you’ve learned to improve and grow the capability.
Of course, ‘done’ is a misnomer; this is only the start. You’ll still have to work out how to maintain long-running product teams to own the things you create while they’re still emerging and very much an incubation issue; you’ll also have to find a collaborative way to transfer products from incubators to industrialisers when the time comes.
But that, as they say, is a whole different story.
It’s a provocative headline, so firstly, an important disclaimer – I love transformation. It’s what I do.
I’ve spent my life changing things – for me, ‘change’ is just another way of spelling ‘opportunity’. So, when I caution against pursuing transformation for the sake of it, you can be sure I mean it.
Transformation is the new black; everyone’s doing it, and most organisations have a Programme to deliver it. Chances are you’re going through a transformation right now, and I’d be willing to put money on the fact that it’s a digital one.
But why are you doing it?
Transformation is not something you should do for fun. It affects everything you do, and change is upsetting and unsettling for your people – no matter how carefully it’s handled. Hence transformation should only be embarked upon for very sound, quantifiable reasons. Without those reasons it is at best meme following and at worst, wasteful procrastination.
If you don’t have a solid reason for your transformation, the wisest thing to do is stop it immediately. And the easiest way to stop it is to make it a programme.
This may seem counterintuitive to many people, but it’s important to note that ‘Transformation Programme’ is by definition an oxymoron. A programme embodies everything about your current culture and approach and formalises it as a set of processes coupled with governance; a transformation sets out to change these things.
A decision to deliver transformation using your existing ‘tried and tested’ techniques is the first sign that you do not actually believe in transformation as a concept. It’s a bit like deciding it’s quicker to get to London by plane, and then attempting to prove this by following a governance process that only allows train travel.
Transformation is not a programme; it’s not even a project. Transformation is something you do to programmes for a reason, and that reason is your strategy. It is your strategy that tells you whether to transform or not, and so to properly understand why you need to transform, first you need a strategy.
When is a strategy not a strategy?
When it’s a transformation strategy, or a digital strategy, or an innovation strategy, or an AI strategy, or… you get the picture. A strategy is not simply a decision to do a given thing; it is “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim”.
It follows that you cannot have a strategy to transform without knowing what you are transforming into, and why you’re doing it. And for that you need a purpose or aim.
Consider the following diagram; this is how I approach strategy. It has five phases, and is cyclic in nature. It’s not new; it’s just my take on a well understood planning cycle articulated by many people in similar ways (the most famous being Sun Tzu’s five elements, or more recently, John Boyd with his OODA loop).
When you consider this cycle, it becomes clear where transformation lives and from where the reasoning for it comes. It is also clear that it has three defining characteristics, namely that transformation:
- Is one of the many actions that form your approach to fulfilling your purpose, and it should be aligned to that purpose.
- Must be shaped to fit the environment in which you are operating, and may well be designed to change that environment.
- Is not a thing you set in motion and pursue to the bitter end; it is part of a broader strategic cycle and will change as you iterate.
What is not as clear but is equally (if not more) important to understand is that transformation is not a thing in itself. It’s a feature of the actions that make up your strategy. Some of these actions will result in transformation, others will not.
For example, if your first move is to test the market with a new digital offering, you might (rightly) decide to approach it in an agile manner. If agile is new to your organisation you will have to address this whilst delivering the outcome, and as a result agile will become part of your organisation DNA – but only where appropriate and proven. You will also start to transform into a digital organisation, but not everywhere.
If a job’s worth doing…
Some might perceive this piecemeal approach to be half-hearted and be tempted to take such success and apply it to everything they do. I would contend that this opinion arises from a one-size-fits-all mentality that is the bane of transformation. It results in unstable pendulum swings from one extreme to another; back and forth between agile and waterfall, centralised or federated, outsourced or insourced.
Well, one size doesn’t fit all. You can no more tighten a screw with a hammer than you can force a nail in with a screwdriver.
By following a purposeful strategy you will apply the right changes in the right places at the right time; the changes will be associated with delivery and you will learn as you go.
More importantly, the people who are affected by the change will be able to challenge, observe and adapt at their own pace. They will be able to see more clearly what’s in it for them as well as the organisation, and will be recognised and rewarded for the outcomes delivered during that transformation. They will be able to learn from others and from their own experiences, and recognise the essential part they are playing in the overall strategic goals of the organisation.
In conclusion: always ask why
By definition, transformation is new to your organisation, so the learning process is essential to identify what works where and why. And this brings us back to that most important of questions – “Why?”
In essence, there is no ‘why’ in ‘transformation’ – but there definitely is in ‘strategy’.
Creating an Intentional Experience
- Balance customer insight with analytics – to reveal those key interactions, the “Moments of Truth” when you should focus on meeting and exceed key customer needs.
- Provide differentiated service experiences to your most important customer segments;
- Drive channel migration via intentional actions (to shift high volume, low value transactions away from expensive contact points);
- Provide clarity on sales and service expectations to your entire organisation, via clearly defined channel migration targets.
A strategy that pays off
Intentional Experiences benefit customers
- A more tailored experience – in segmenting customers by their intention and/or value, you can serve them with more appropriate, relevant responses;
- A clearer, quicker, easier experience – by taking customers straight to the best place to achieve their desired outcome;
- New, better ways of engaging – by introducing and embedding new services and features that continuously improve the experience over time;
- Reduced frustration – by removing opportunities for failure and subsequent reasons to complain
Obstacles to effective digital channel migration
- Increasing complexity – Product and service complexity is increasing as technology becomes more advanced. This results in increasingly complex customer issues to solve, in turn making successful resolution via self-service more challenging.
- Failure to predict new call types – Business cases are based on the reduction of existing call types. New digital self-service implementations will drive new types of call (e.g. password and PIN resets, web services support) which may increase use of voice-to-voice channels if not anticipated.
- Sustainability of the self-service model – Increasing usage of digital channels is usually consistent if your digital implementation is stable. However, achieving a consistent reduction in call volume rarely appears to follow, because taking out the calls altogether is difficult. The percentage of active customers with active online accounts is typically less than 50%; providing digital options may lead to more contact, unless services like credential reminders to recover your username and password are simple and effective.
- Demanding customers – Customers want more personalisation and the ability to tailor their experience. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach to digital self-service may work only for the most simple queries.
It’s not easy – but it can be done
Digital disruption has fundamentally changed the dynamics of business, increasing the risk to current business models and forcing companies to diversify, reinvent or face extinction.
In the book iDisrupted, the authors point out that 48 of the top 100 companies in 1912 had disappeared by 1995. And it’s claimed that in 25 years’ time, half of the world’s top companies will no longer exist – a consequence of failing to address disruption in their markets and embrace the opportunities that digital transformation brings.
It’s not difficult to see how these predictions could come true. Over the past 20 years we’ve watched as Napster, Amazon and iTunes have decimated high street music retailers; digital photography has made film almost redundant; and video on demand, delivered through the pay TV platforms and more recently from Amazon and Netflix have killed off Blockbuster and your local video rental store.
In almost every industry, established businesses see their margins decreasing against new competitors that aren’t interested in making a profit (yet) or not yet required to.
Preparation is key
Recent history is full of examples of how technology disruption has transformed the landscape, and continues to do so.
Take Encyclopedia Britannica, which ceased publication after 244 years in 2012. Each set of hardbound volumes cost over $1000 and contained 120,000 articles. But it took over a year to update. It simply couldn’t compete with Wikipedia’s model, which is updated every day by anyone, free of charge, and available on any device
Even when you’re the new kid on the block, you won’t be for long. Mobile telecoms is a disrupter itself, having eroded the revenues from landline calls (and in many cases, removed the need to have a fixed line at home at all).
Yet mobile faced its own disruption with the growth of 3G and 4G, and the corresponding rise of all you can eat data. Customer loyalty started to pivot away from the mobile brands to ‘over the top’ services (OTT), making it largely irrelevant who provides the access – you can take your OTT services with you irrespective of your provider. Think WhatsApp instead of texts, for example, or Skype, Hangouts and Facetime as alternatives to voice calls. This is eroding the big mobile revenues and margins of fairly recent history.
Disintermediation is the name given to this process of cutting out the middleman. As a consequence, customer relationships are changing – aggregators and OTT services now own the customer experience. This is threatening the relevance of traditional brands to their customers, who could potentially lose their existing insight and influence over customers’ spending decisions.
Here’s what disintermediation looks like in practice:
- eBay has no products or inventory of its own. Instead, it provides a simple to use platform that facilitates basic and secure transactions between buyers and sellers anywhere in the world.
- Airbnb doesn’t own any properties, yet through its platform, London bookings increased by 130% to 4.62 million nights last year – more than doubling its share of the market.
- Uber doesn’t own any taxis; it connects customers to drivers and takes a cut of the fare. There are now more Uber cars active in New York at any given time than Yellow Cabs. Whilst controversial, Uber’s model has started to change how drivers and customers think about taxi travel, as both groups are genuinely concerned about their ratings and quality of service.
- Just Eat and Deliveroo are disrupting the takeaway and delivery food market. Whereas previously customers would pick up a leaflet from their doormat and call the restaurant directly to place an order, there is now vast choice available via these aggregated experiences. The customer experience is owned by Just Eat and Deliveroo, who have access to vast insight and can start to personalise the experience, potentially shifting customers away from restaurants they may have traditionally used. It remains a hard-fought market; Deliveroo has disrupted Just Eat by opening up access to premium restaurant brands (which typically would never have provided a home delivery service), while Uber is starting to utilise spare capacity in its driver network to challenge in this space via UberEats.
- Apple Pay and Android Pay are still quite slow in uptake, but where these services are used as an alternative to contactless card payments, they now own the customer experience. As the proposition develops and behaviour starts to change, customer loyalty will pivot towards the Apple and Android Pay experience, at which point it becomes largely irrelevant who provides the payment rails in the background. In other words, payments are heading in the same direction as mobile providers, as customers happily switch in search of the best value and/or experience.
Your guide in a changing landscape
I’m fascinated by this cycle of disruption.
I’ve spent the last 16 years leading large scale change and transformation across Internet, Mobile Telecoms, Media and Financial Services for some of the biggest brands in the UK, such as AOL, T-Mobile, Vodafone, O2, Sky and Barclays. Irrespective of industry, these brands are facing disruptive challenges and the drivers for transforming around digital are consistent.
As such, it’s critical that organisations develop the ability to re-invent themselves, to create a sustainable advantage over others through agility. New competitors will attack your revenues and market share from totally new angles. You must hit back hard; reinvent your industry, substitute products and services, create new digital businesses, transform your delivery model, rethink your value propositions. Disruption isn’t about growth – it’s about competitive response.
Having been an Equal Experts client myself for a number of years, I’ve joined the business as Transformation Director because I’ve yet to come across an organisation more uniquely placed to help organisations understand their challenges, plan how to proactively disrupt and deliver business value rapidly and frequently. I look forward to exploring the topic in more detail – both here, and with our clients.
As a DevOps Lead for Equal Experts, I split my time between working hands-on within a team on a specific delivery and visiting our other teams on various engagements.
That means I have a broad view of how DevOps can help – or hinder – our ability to deliver valuable software for our clients.
At a recent review of our DevOps work, our co-founder Thomas summarised the current state of DevOps in the industry:
“Not everyone agrees on what DevOps means, who does it, or how it’s done. There are many ways to do it depending on the context. People sometimes forget that DevOps is part of something bigger called Continuous Delivery”
My own recent experience showed this to be the case, when at the end of 2016 I signed up to work on an engagement abroad. The client had specifically asked for a DevOps Lead to work on the project as part of the original bidding process.
I was soon on a plane heading for the engagement, and duly started work. But as I became more familiar with the project, I didn’t feel a DevOps Lead was the right fit for the challenges we faced. I thought that a developer experienced in release engineering would be a better fit, and suggested as much. However, the client firmly believed DevOps was necessary to the project’s success.
Over the next few days we talked with the client about their delivery needs, and we identified a DevOps consultant who could coach a developer in release engineering. This was a positive outcome, and the team soon began to deliver new features on a regular basis.
Nevertheless, the episode identified three problems that tie into Thomas’ comments above:
- Clients have been led to believe they must “do DevOps”
- It’s hard to find good DevOps practitioners
- There are different views on what DevOps actually is
So, how did we get here?
A brief history of DevOps
I started out in IT as a developer, but I’ve always been interested in operations and was super-excited when Patrick Debois announced the first DevOpsDays conference and coined the term #devops in 2009. I bought into the idea of a cultural movement that emphasised collaboration between development and operations teams.
By the time The Phoenix Project (Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, George Spafford, 2013) was published , I was working in operations and pairing with developers on different clients. When The DevOps Handbook (Gene Kim, Jez Humble, Patrick Debois, John Willis) was published in 2016 I was in my current role with Equal Experts, and encouraging the DevOps principles and practices mentioned in The DevOps Handbook.
The DevOps Handbook is an awesome book, and I highly recommend it… but the seven years between the start of the practise and the arrival of the DevOps Handbook is an awfully long time. Unfortunately the IT industry is now full of roles such as “DevOps Engineer” and “DevOps Team”; it’s gone in a completely different direction to the recommendations made in the book.
DevOps is a constraint
At Equal Experts we’ve come to realise that DevOps has become a constraint on our ability to deliver software to our clients, due to the problems I mentioned above. A quick reminder:
- Clients have been led to believe they must “do DevOps”
- It’s hard to find good DevOps practitioners
- There are different views on what DevOps actually is
Together, these problems form a constraint on our Sales team, our People team, and our delivery teams.
While a Request For Proposal (RFP) from a prospective client may ask for DevOps upfront, as the example I’ve mentioned shows, a preoccupation with a particular role can slow the team down once we’re onsite.
To battle this constraint we try to recruit DevOps consultants as a specialist position (though it can be a challenge to find people with the necessary skills, experience and focus on client delivery). We also encourage a shared understanding of DevOps across all our client engagements. But it’s all too easy to get caught up in wasteful debates on what DevOps is and how to do it. This is not a sustainable situation.
So where next for DevOps?
At Equal Experts we’ve always taken pride in thinking differently about how to deliver the best possible solutions for our clients. Now it’s time for us to think differently about DevOps.
We want to go beyond the DevOps buzzword, and use the best parts of the DevOps philosophy to improve how we work with our clients. In other words we want to turn our DevOps constraint into an opportunity – for Equal Experts and our clients.
This is the first article in a new multi-author series “Beyond DevOps”, which aims to explore DevOps and Continuous Delivery – and how they affect our culture and work. In the next part, we’ll be looking into Operability – the aspect of the DevOps philosophy we see as a vital enabler of Continuous Delivery. Keep an eye on the blog or follow us on Twitter for the latest updates.
- DevOps as a Constraint (you are here!)
- The value of Operability
- DevOps is just a conversation starter
- Looking for DevOps/Operability Engineers
- Operability for a Platform-as-a-Service
More and more organisations are seeking to transform themselves into an “agile organisation”. But what does this actually mean?
In my experience, what this widely sought-after goal actually means and entails can generate a lot of confusion, right from the outset.
With that in mind, I’d like to share some of my first-hand experience, drawn from all kinds of organisations. I hope it’s useful to consider before your own organisation embarks on such a journey.
Firstly – is your belief system compatible with agile?
A lot of agile thinking revolves around quality – quality that yields genuine value, not gold plating. The quality of the people doing the work, the quality of the code they produce – and most importantly the quality of the products that end up in the hands of users.
I have a fundamental belief that quality is the most important thing you can possibly focus on. Letting go of this focus is the root of most evil, and putting quality back at the forefront is the solution to most problems that plague IT.
This might sound obvious, but it’s not actually a belief that’s encountered everywhere in enterprise IT. More often than not, IT is seen as a cost centre – where the focus is more on efficiency, economies of scale, consistency, and predictability than it is on quality.
So what does this mean for your organisation’s agile ambitions? Well, the further away your set of beliefs is from this quality-first mantra, the harder it will be for you to embrace an agile approach.
If your organisation does not believe that improving IT can significantly increase revenue, then the kind of investment in quality that is required is unlikely to be approved by the executive board. This brings me to my second point.
Agile on its own is not enough
Agile practices will not, and can not, turn mediocre developers into good developers – and they certainly won’t remove the legacy architecture constraints that are slowing you down.
This is true for any process or ways of working – whether it’s Scrum, SAFe or Prince2. It does sound obvious but it’s worth repeating, over and over!
So, back to my point above – if you are not ready to invest significantly into your engineering capabilities and transform your architecture across your entire enterprise, you can’t really expect to get any significant improvement from agile methodology alone.
‘Agile at depth’ before ‘agile at scale’
Agile at scale is a hot topic right now, but you shouldn’t focus on trying to scale from day one. It’s far better to concentrate on tackling the really hard constraints early on, while the scale is still manageable.
Many organisations are in a rush to implement agile across their entire organisation, and try to approach it in a top-down, prescriptive way. But agile at scale is not easily solved by an off-the-shelf framework.
One approach we have seen work well is to start with a small number of small teams, focusing on manageable scope, and running thin threads across your entire organisation. I’ve noticed that agile ‘transformations’ can sometimes just scratch the surface, focusing on somewhat superficial practices that are easy to implement (like workspaces and ceremonies). However, the key to real transformation is to go as deep as possible.
By doing this, you’re not shying away from the problems that are hard to solve – things like breaking down organisational silos, removing dependencies, evolving architectures and improving automation. Your initial aim should be to build a repeatable end-to-end delivery process in one business area, which will require you to:
- modify your legacy architecture as appropriate;
- deploy automatically in the cloud;
- use best-of-breed open source technologies;
- evolve your product based on thorough user research.
If you are stopped from doing this along the way, there will be limited benefits in trying to scale the approach to the rest of your organisation (at this stage).
However – if you can establish what good looks like early on, build the basis of a self-reinforcing culture, maybe organically grow a digital platform with services that can be shared by many teams, and keep eliminating dependencies between each team as they emerge, you will find that you can scale without losing most of your agility – and without the need to implement a pre-defined framework.
The best agile coaching comes from hands-on delivery
Those leading the charge are naturally keen to show that agile transformation is having a big impact across the entire organisation. To do that, they will sometimes unleash Agile Coaches across a large number of teams.
At a superficial level, this does give the impression that things are moving. People get enthused about the possibilities, and they start changing their processes. But too often, I have seen these initiatives lose steam after the initial few months. That’s when people start to realise that agile is not going to magically make things easier – if anything, it forces them to face their hardest problems, but with little practical help to overcome them.
To avoid agile fatigue overcoming your organisation, Equal Experts takes a different approach. We favour enlisting the help of seasoned agile practitioners that join your delivery team and provide hands-on coaching day-to-day – while actually delivering software, side-by-side with the rest of the team.
This way, we are able to share the pain and address the tough problems together. If you do this, the appropriate culture and practices are much more likely to “stick” for the longer term. This is what will enable your organisation to eventually become truly self-sufficient from an agile perspective, and not revert to old habits when things get challenging.
Agile transformation is achievable
With all the pitfalls I’ve described above, are there actually some organisations that get it right? Of course, answer is yes. Some. We have seen organisations achieving genuinely great results by doing the following:
- Building a strong engineering-centric culture – with an emphasis on code quality, automation and working “smart”.
- Establishing long-lived cross-functional teams, which own a product or service throughout the lifecycle (including operations and support)
- Setting up an organisational structure that provides autonomy and purpose – where teams have control over their destiny and are given autonomy in how to solve their problems, with a relentless focus on breaking dependencies at every level of the organisation, and every step of the software lifecycle.
- Evolving organically common platforms that encourage re-use, reinforce positive behaviour and scale multiple teams – without creating rigidity that reduces efficiency and innovation.
- Deploying new versions of the product multiple times a day, and improving the service based on genuine user feedback and research
- Evolving a bespoke build over many years, scaling it to larger and larger teams and more and more business features, while keeping the codebase easily extensible and keeping the defect count to a minimum.
So yes, it can be done. But as we’ve seen, successfully achieving agile transformation is not simply a case of choosing an agile framework and rolling it out across the organisation.
If you take just two points away from this, make it these:
- Ascertain first what an improved capability around bespoke solutions would really mean to your organisation. If the expected benefits can justify significant investment – not only in processes and tools, but also in people, architecture evolution and into the business beyond IT – then you can begin to learn what agile at depth looks like for your organisation.
- Avoid getting a false sense of progress by taking the easy way out. Start addressing the most severe constraints straight away – proving your success through deliveries that are meaningful (but at a manageable scale). Over time, evolve common platforms to encourage good practices, rather than dictate them.
Once you have established a strong culture in pockets, you can scale it organically to the rest of the organisation.
If your experience is similar or different from mine, I would be very interested to hear from you!