In search of a purpose

I’m an early adopter for these sorts of things. I have mis-spent many hours tinkering and tweaking the early incarnations of this software and that hardware. I own stuff from this brand. And yet I’m still left dumbfounded when I see advertising like this:

What on earth were they thinking?

I’ve been on holiday a few times. I’m sure we all have. When is the last time you thought – whilst sat by a beach or a pool, or scaling the Empire State Building or shopping on 5th Avenue – I wish I could switch those lights on at home. From a product perspective this is a ‘problem’ that precisely no one has.

‘Ah’, I hear you thinking. Turning the lights on and off can deter intruders, as if before the Internet of Things, we were all constantly fretting about this need. Get a burglar alarm and some beware the dog stickers first. Perhaps a better lock.

A visit to the Apple store finds a vast array of such pointlessness. A cup that can tell you the heat of its contents. A device to tell you if you’re stood up straight. I’m not joking. No one has figured it out.

There is a minor frisson when a button on the phone turns on the telly and turns down the lights. But I don’t think technology has invented this luxury – they used to have that sort of thing in the Bond movies – just made it a bit cheaper and, frankly, crankier.

Of course I’ll keep fiddling with IoT because I like messing around with new stuff but we are still a long way off a mass market application.

Good health

I had a great time speaking at the Adaptive Lab event Enhancing Innovation in Health Care alongside Adaptive Lab’s Mark Priestly (who was presenting the research behind the event) and Ollie Smith from Guys and St Thomas Charity.

The theme of the presentation was “Mythical Problems”. The idea is the to sum up the absence of product/market fit which lies behind so many failed innovations.

The team at Adaptive has done a great job editing the video. Have a look!

 

Too much transparency

Hungary: sorry about our prime minister - billboard

This week, this month, we are living through incredibly interesting times. That such a large chunk of the world population has been forced to move is monumentous. Our reaction to it has been perhaps the biggest test of our values (that much overused word) for several generations.

Some have come out looking better than others. Perhaps an interesting twist in stereotypes and history, the Germans and their leader in particular have inspired by compassion today.

And I assume they will continue to do so. Of course, the situation is much more nuanced than just right or wrong, but it has exposed so many base instincts in so many, so many attitudes, so much of cultural dynamics, and of course so much that never changes – our underlying human instincts.

Transparency, in companies, governments and the press is so often given as a universal positive. But in today’s world do we always have to accept that. An MP who was on the right side of the public opinion (and the evil press, personified by the Daily Mail) could be a pariah today.

Is this really the most effective form of government, formenting as it does a preference for point scoring over genuinely solving problems? Here and in the States, we see these structures causing paralysis, not action amongst those charged with leading.

How about this. Every year, rather than four, we hold a vote in the UK (via Facebook, or something) on whether the government is doing a good job overall. And if they’re not, we hold an election. And then we make debates in Parliament subject to Chatham House rules.

I suspect this is more or less the situation we had before round the clock media and a million lobbies on our leaders.

Might it make a difference?

10 years

Over lunch at Dots, Antony and I were reminicising about how we first met. 

Back then, I was the MD of a small digital agency and Antony was something senior in PR. We both worked for the same holding company. We were asked to form a group, along with various others, to figure out what impact the Internet would have on the holding group.

Antony joked yesterday that we were in the group because we knew what a website was. This wasn’t far from the truth. The whole industry was really struggling to adapt to digital. 

But going on from the themes of the conference yesterday: difficulty of change, how we move towards the future and so on, here’s the interesting thought… If we could have told the group back then exactly what was about to happen: from social media to Uber, to hacktivism, to Egyptian revolutions, to how young people are interacting, would we even have been believed?  And would the companies involved managed to cease the opportunity?

Why’s this interesting (to me at least)? Because it underlines that thinking about what is going to happen is not always the problem. Often, it’s reacting to those ideas that is.

One day, at a time

Ciara Judge - big screen at Dots

Yesterday was the Dots conference, part of the Brighton Digital Festival. I was there to do a little bit on Unthinkable but mostly just to sit and enjoy the conferences with the 200 or so other attendees.

In terms of content, this was the conference’s difficult second album, after a blinding debut last year including Russell Davies, Mark Earls, John Wilshire and many others.

Antony and the team at Brilliant Noise ensured a low-pomposity affair at the Duke’s cinema. Light-hearted but packed full of short, impactful presentations (oh, and very nice food).

My key take-aways:

Adam Morgan, inventor of the phrase ‘challenger brands’ opened (obvious headliner!) with an interesting piece on how constraints drive creativity. Some of the examples may suffer a little bit from the ‘selection bias’ of picking winners out of history that fit a particular thesis. However, the concept that an entrepreneur is someone who doesn’t assume that the available resources are only those which are under their direct control would prove to be a theme that ran throughout the rest of the day, and forces us to look quite differently at many of the challenges we face.

Continuing his naming flair, Morgan came up with the “Uber Generation” to describe our currently emerging ‘unreasonable’ consumer who expects more for less and presented in a prettier box. Whether we like generation Uber or not is left to the reader. However, they are presented as the target market for the Next Big Thing.

Next up was Tess MacLeod Smith from Net a Porter. She’s behind the brand’s Porter magazine (a bi-monthly global fashion magazine to rival vogue but with built-in shopping off the page) and various other apps and social media components.

For me, the most interesting thing was to see the huge change that an ostensibly traditional media person (MacLeod Smith) had experienced in leaving Hearst and Harper’s Bazaar to go to a tech startup which was basically doing the same thing. Perhaps it’s equally interesting that once she had learned the new ways (agile and all that), that she had little intention of going back.

The idea of starting a magazine today is also so counter to traditional wisdom that is causes us to look once again at all of those “x is dead” statements.

Last before the break was a wonderfully irreverent insider look at the transformation of FT.com from its CIO Christina Scott. Unlike the standard case study (and it should be said, Net a Porter), Christina offered a peak at the real challenges faced when trying to get innovation and transformation away inside a big firm. If I had to pick one thing, it would undoubtedly be the rule that execs at FT (including Scott herself) are no longer allowed to attend governance meetings because of the impact they have on projects. Sound familiar?

I remain convinced that real life stories such as Scott’s are the most valuable inspirations for all of us trying to affect some kind of change (which is probably most of us), even if they are not shiny, simplistic or have the best outcomes.

Next up was Antony himself with a great talk about organisations, leadership, transformation and possible futures, a topic he had unapologetically half-inched from Nick Price, a late addition to the afternoon line up.

Again a theme which would be echoed several times over the day, Antony talked about businesses as organisms not mechanisms. Good line. And about the concepts of ‘possible futures’. For example, will we end up with centralised or ‘stacked’ web that Facebook, Google, Amazon and others are pushing us towards, or the radical decentralisation which blockchain promises and has historically been the hallmark of the web?

Either way, we should think of the future not as a 10-tonne truck which is hurtling towards us, but a range of possible outcomes over which we have influence and where there is tremendous opportunity.

Contrary to earlier promises, however, Antony did hold a metaphorical large melon (in the style of TED):

Antony-Mayfield

Before lunch we had the treat of Steve Chapman. Steve made a compelling case that we spend most of our lives deliberately avoiding the creative zone and presenting lots of ideas for getting out of our comfort zones, including some toe-curling conference experiments. Plus great, hand-drawn, pseudo science charts making good points:

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 08.46.45

A panel discussion after lunch covered how companies are working with start-ups. Although it quickly became obvious that the answer lies somewhere between ‘they aren’t’ and ‘unsuccessfully’, although we hope in the future things might improve.

Nick Price followed, standing in for Eva Applebaum, and talking about future thinking. I’ve personally never come across this before, beyond the somewhat pointless ‘futureology’ of generic trends forecasting. It was a great introduction to the art form, and reassuring to hear that Neal Stephenson (who has incredible form in predicting the future) is part of the US chapter of the several organisations trying to turn future thinking into a discipline. Simplistic take. Don’t start with the end in mind. Start with the possible ends in mind.

After that it was me. Slightly too sardonic as usual and I think the only person to actually be profane but people were very nice about it and luckily only one person knew who Steve Sasson was.

I’m very glad the lady following me wasn’t on before instead as I think she probably captured the conference’s imagination most. Ciara Judge (pic at top) is the winner of the Google Science Fair, an entrepreneur, and a very compelling speaker. She talked about the fact that people chose to focus instead on the fact that she is 17 and a girl. She made the case that social constraints and expectations are largely imagined restrictions, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing her on a TED stage very soon. Whether she’s young or not, I think a lot of us were humbled that she’s done more in 17 years than we have done in twice as many.

She didn’t mention One Direction. Not even once.

Actually, however, I think Ciara was upstaged. The next presenter was Stuart Turner. Stuart joined by Skype, not least because he is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. He told an extremely inspirational story of more or less dragging himself out of his ‘prison’ of disability using modern technology: first wheelchairs and assistive devices, and then robots and drones which allow him to travel, run and experience more of the world once again. Even doing the presentation was clearly highly tiring for him, again humbling us with the ‘constraints’ we feel in our lives.

Steven Ramage introduced What three words – a new approach to mapping based on the idea that combinations of three words (out of the 40,000 available), creates enough variants to uniquely identify any 3x3m square on earth. It’s a tantalising promise of creating addresses for millions worldwide who do not currently have them.

Wrapping up the day was Sam Conniff, Co-founder of Livity, a fascinating social enterprise. Facing statistical obsolesce as Livity approaches its 15th birthday, Conniff took a philosophical and wide-ranging look at characteristics of businesses which last 100s, not 10s of years, concluding that we need to replace today’s profit-focussed and self-centred business leaders (under which he invoked Kim Kardashian and – phrase of the day – ‘Jack Welsh’s disgraceful face’ ) with leaders who care about society and sustainability – modelled on the Rowntrees and Rockerfellers  of the past.

To do this Conniff has appointed himself the world’s first Chief Purpose Officer.

In a twenty-minute presentation that covered about 40 topics, Conniff was an energising end to a brilliant conference.

For those of us exhausted with traditional conference formats, speakers and, frankly, pricing, Dots has now twice proven to be the perfect pick-me-up.

Joining the dots

 
Did I mention I was speaking at Dots in Brighton? Neil (who is curating) has a look at the whole line up here. Even better, I can offer a few time-limited reduced price tickets if you are one of the first five to use the discount code ‘Tom’ when booking online. See you you there for a lovely, lively and interesting day by the sea.

Linkened In

JUN15_23_Linkin-Park_The-Hunting-Party-Tour_Hamburg-Germany

We constantly hear about how innovative musicians have become. The labels are wankers, dinosaurs, out of touch, unable to adapt their business model: their days are numbered.

Well now it seems that the artists are wankers too. In this article from HBR, we find that the very darlings of the MySpace revolution, Linkin Park – a band which launched its own innovation business in 1999 and managed to build direct relationships with millions of fans etc etc – are once again turning the innovation knob (up to 11).

But this time it’s all in management doublespeak. in 2014, we learn, the band decided they needed a ‘paradigm shift’. Its executive vice president decided that there was plenty of “blue ocean” for them to explore.

Let’s hear from the band themselves:

As co-lead vocalist and founder Mike Shinoda puts it, “Our goal was to build an internal team of diverse talent to support the non-traditional endeavors the band plans to pursue in the coming years.” The move allowed us to venture freely into diversified revenue models to complement our music sales. Our business now operates like a tech startup, with less hierarchy and far more agility.

I don’t know about you but when I was a kid I really wanted to be in a rock group… With a diversified revenue model – so cool!

As the article goes on, I personally had to cough back a little vomit as I found out about the need to build a ‘differentiated brand ecosystem’ and, even better, to ‘dissected the Linkin Park ecosystem and architecte a framework to execute our new long-term vision’.

Possibly the best bit of innovation non-sense is when it is decided that the band should use ‘creative content to communicate our brand’s point-of-view.’ Perhaps they could play some songs and dance?

As you read on, you occasionally check to see that the URL hasn’t switched to The Onion. Rock musicians talking like management consultants is not on the list of things that makes the world a better place. But don’t worry,

To be clear, we are still in the music business, but creating and selling music now plays more of a supporting role in our overall business mix.