Friday, June 24

Think Small

There’s lot of money to be made by solving the big problems that consumers face, right?

So how do we find that next breakthrough product (like the motor car, microwave or dishwasher) which revolutionises an existing market and sells in its millions, for hundreds of pounds a time?

In the western world, we’re still very passionate about consuming products.  Our default world-view is that any problem in our out-of-work lives can be overcome by spending money on products, whether our panacea of choice is an wireless printer, a 7MP camera to replace our 6MP one, an iPad, or just a huge tub of ice cream to cry into!   

But it’s surprising just how much revenue and kudos can be gained from an idea which seems “small”.  Just think how popular the following have been:
1.        Packs of diced vegetables, which save the busy parent those all important 30 seconds in the kitchen
2.       The mobile phone “sock”, which solves the frightful problem of traditional phone cases looking too corporate
3.       The plastic bag dispenser, which saves you having to think where to keep bags you wish to reuse, or worrying about how on earth you’ll extricate them from that place

As the east becomes more westernised, so the demand for these kinds of products will grow.  China’s emissions and energy consumption have already overtaken those of the US, and their economy is projected to overtake soon, so the future seems bright for small products solving small problems.

Meanwhile in lesser-developed economies like sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, creative people are finding fascinating ways to solve problems which we’d consider more basic.   The financial model is similar (low prices, but large volumes) even if the products are more serious in nature:
1.        M-PESA, which allows mobile-to-mobile money transfer in East Africa.
2.       Kiva, the US solution for worldwide micro-loans
3.       The concept of a $300 house, with designs at
4.      The XO-1 $100 laptop

So there’s a lot to be said for innovations which solve a mass problem, even if unit profits are very low.  The way to break into these “small” markets is by truly understanding the point problems which affect the various segments of the world population.  Anyone’s life can be made easier, and almost anyone will be willing to pay something for that – however little.  Watch the world closely, and expect to spot more of these small problems in return …

… why did the hot tap initially run cold?
… why did I have to wait for the kettle to boil?
… why did my shirt button pop-off after only a couple of wears?
… why can’t I rent a micro-scooter in London, only a bike?
… why didn’t the taxi firm just know when my meeting finished, and which train I was planning to catch?

Whose going to fix all that?   Any answers much appreciated.

Friday, June 17

It's Not All Monkey Business

I do try to keep this blog varied, and with that in mind I'm going to write about something called "social styles" this week.

After attending a course recently I was inspired to read a book by Nigel Rosner called "It's a Zoo Around Here: The New Rules for Better Communication".   Well worth reading -- if only because you can polish-off the entire thing in about 40 minutes!

Although I'm a sucker for psychometric tests and categorisation of personality types, I've become a little jaded over the years by incessant references to Myers-Briggs, Belbin, and more recently the Strengths Finder test.

One of my difficulties has been that my brain simply isn't big enough to switch between a conversation I'm actively involved in and a parallel assessment of which personality type my interlocutor is exhibiting, turns of phrase, body language and other NLP signals, and more importantly, what all that might mean!

So I listened with some trepidation as I was introduced to yet another model which sought to pigeon-hole us all.

Where Rosner's model scores over the others is that it's simpler, and much more useful on a day-to-day basis. 

From what little experimentation I've done since learning about it, I've found that I can just about grapple with four distinct "social styles" alongside a conversation.  I'll express them here as personal ads ...
  • "Dolphin - Friendly and Affable - Low assertiveness, low emotional control - Keen for people to like me"
  • "Elephant - Systematical and analytical - Low assertivess, but high emotional control - Want to do right thing, at all costs"
  • "Lion - Direct and controlling - High assertiveness and emotional control - Success for me is swift adherence to process"
  • "Monkey - Creative and animated - High assertiveness, but low emotional control - Ideas are what's important"
You can all think of a few people who fit neatly into these camps, as well as few people who seem to span more than one of them.  You suspect you know your place, but perhaps you're not entirely sure.

In my course, all this stuff was put to a purpose.  In the same way that rapport results from matching body language, if we match people's social styles perhaps we can have much better conversations.  (That's already started working for me.)

The reason all this is interesting to me is because of its direct contribution to creativity at work.  If we play to people's preferred styles, we ought to get better results.  I would hazard that we should:
  1. Produce hard evidence to persuade Lions that creativity is important, and that it can be procedurised, then ask them to sponsor that view in the organisation,
  2. Encourage Monkeys to launch ideas (they won't need asking twice),
  3. Invite Elephants to vet and refine ideas, and
  4. Rely on Dolphins to keep the peace, especially between the Monkeys and the Elephants
I'm not trying to say that Person X can only play one of these four parts.   Apparently 95% of us have at least one backup style, so we should expect to play naturally in two of them.

(There's huge overlap between these stages and de Bono's Six Thinking Hats, but I won't bore you with that right now.  Some other time maybe.)

Friday, June 10

Coaching for Creators

Professional coaching is a much-overlooked creative thinking technique. 
If we accept the basic premise that many of the best ideas come from the subconscious mind of the already-immersed practitioner (rather than, say, the lay onlooker) then the major challenge in generating ideas is to disentangle traditional, embedded thought pathways, to reveal more direct routes to the outcomes we’re striving for. 
Call it the creativity of simplification:  A professional coach can use pretty straightforward technique (albeit with a great degree of skill) to have us answer to the very questions we brought into the room with us, and may already have been wrestling with for months!
Here’s one recipe for the coach …
Restraint, patience, logic and compassion.
1.       Ask the coachee some questions about the objective
2.       Ask questions about the current state
3.       Ask questions about the possible routes from 2 to 1
4.       Ask questions about the preferred route, and the immediate intention of the coachee
This doesn’t sound too smart does it?  So why does it invariably work?  Because we find it hard to be disciplined in applying a logical process to our own thinking.  Far too easily we make emotionally-charged leaps at (or away from) the most obvious ways of tackling a problem, without giving due consideration to the pros and cons.  Having to expose these erratic responses to an outside audience keeps us in check, and makes it much easier to pursue the best course of action.
Good coaching vastly improves our options when seeking to solve a problem.   It helps us access candidate solutions both analytically and creatively, and also supports us in picking the winner.
Let’s consider a brief example:  I spent weeks recently working out how best to open-up conversations with target customers on a particular theme.  I was convinced that the two or three most obvious routes were barred, but had failed to ask myself whether that apparent constraint was real.  Once I realised I’d limited my options by presuming, I suddenly found I had a much more direct solution to my problem.
And in case it’s not obvious, yes you can self-coach.  That’s what I did in the example above.  Perhaps best to experiment with a partner first though, to get a feel for the process before you try wearing both hats simultaneously.

Friday, June 3

Creativity and Cloud Economics

For reasons which I won't go into here, I often find myself rabbiting on about the relationship between "innovation" and "cloud". 

This isn't just some pun on "Blue-Sky Thinking", but rather a serious point about the impact that cloud computing could have on the prospects for new business ideas.

So what's the link?

Cloud computing is the provision of IT and business services as a utility:  That's to say, under arrangements where the consumer pays per unit, and can consume as much or as little as is needed in any given period.   The more the consumer "turns the tap", the higher the monthly bill.

This all sounds terribly simple, and of course it is simple at a conceptual level.   Making a successful transition to that model though is a venture not to be undertaken lightly - or at least not without careful planning and thorough modelling of the projected benefits.

But perhaps it's worth the time and trouble, especially for organisations in competitive sectors ...

Picture the scene:  Your team has just conceived the most promising new business idea in years.  It centres on a new product, but is likely to bring at least a million new customers in the UK, and might allow you to move into new markets too.  Your company is uniquely well-placed to launch the product so hopes to get first-mover advantage, but others are sure to be close behind.

The design is simple, as with all great ideas, so the prototypes are ready in days, and your marketing team have rallied round magnificently.

But hang on ... your web server platforms are at capacity, and you don't have the CRM system which is critical to the sales strategy.  You're also struggling with business case approval because there's a sunk Capex cost in excess of £5M before you can kick-off, and your worst-case revenue estimates are only £4M.  Ooops.

This is where "cloud" comes in:  If you're in the cloud (or ready to move there) then you'll only have to wait a few hours to get the IT you need.  If not, we'll be talking weeks or months.

Better still, because of the per-pay-use billing model, you only need to pay for what you need.  Your business case now shows less than £1M of up-front investment.   All the other costs are only incurred if you actually make the sales you're hoping for.

So Cloud has the potential to shake-up our industries, wherever they're constrained by traditional IT.  Just buy units of "compute" immediately, when you need them, and focus on what differentiates your business instead.