Tag Archives: future

The art of envisioning, trade secrets and ideas to make it work

I can imagine the advert now … with the soft soothing voice over the gently fading corporate images …

“Worried about all this new technology?

Wondering how social media and enterprise mobility can help your business?

Want to understand how to use the iPad to reinvent your business?

Then what you need is someone to make sense of all of this, 

someone to help you understand the ‘Art of the Possible’

What you need is an Envisioning Workshop.”

Available from all good design/technology/service companies NOW. 

And so the sale continues.

Yes, the sale. It is all about the sale. Not the art of the possible or anything like it, but the sale.

The harsh reality is that most envisioning workshops are thinly disguised sales tools, delivered by someone whose view of the future only extends as far as their next bonus (that will come from selling you loads of hardware or software you probably don’t need) and will probably not deploy even if you buy it.

At first it may be hard to spot, as the facilitator, envisioneer, or futurologist (if they use that last term, throw them out) focuses on identifying relevant industry and technology trends, but before you realise this you will be focusing on solutions … and guess where these come from?

Yes! The people delivering the envisioning session. It is their technology which provides the answers and solutions to these trends.

You think they understand your company … they are using a tried and tested process to reel you in. Most of what you are being told will be told to every customer, regardless of industry. And those trends that they talk about?

It is their technology that helps you benefit from these.

What a lost opportunity though. What a missed chance to actually spend some time thinking about how to really improve your business. I am not saying that Envisioning Workshops have no value. In fact I am a big fan of them – when done properly – but not when used as a sales tool to simply sell more technology regardless of whether it is really needed or not. When done like this, it is little more than a tech-bandaid to a bleeding organisation.

Perhaps the problem is with the name … Envisioning Workshops.

Maybe they should be renamed to be more accurate of what they are:

  • Workshop to better understand how our technology can help your business, but only if you buy our products
     
  • Workshop to look at how your business environment is being affected by changing technology trends that we can help you solve if you buy our products
  • Workshop to talk about cool new stuff and scare you into thinking everyone else is using this and you are being left behind, so you buy our products

Do you see the common thread???  … technology, and the technology from the supplier who did the workshop

The underlying assumption behind most envisioning workshops is that new technology is the answer before you even start. This risk with this is that it becomes limited by what we know technology can do today, ideas become framed within what we know is achievable (and for technology companies what is predictably deliverable and available). You cannot sell what doesn’t exist, so you sell what you have and promise what you don’t. Whilst this may be more advanced than the company has today, it may not be the best option or strategy. More importantly though, it is likely to exclude non-technology changes.

Cisco tells you the answer is Cisco

Oracle tells you the answer is Oracle

Microsoft tells you the answer is Microsoft (although unlike the other two, Microsoft does have the technology breadth to actually delivery on their visions).

… and so on.

What did you expect though … Microsoft to tell you that iPads are the answer? Oracle to recommend SAP?

So, if technology is not the correct focus what should be?

Simple answer: People.

Instead of focusing on technology problems and technology opportunities, focus on people.

Look to the problems and opportunities facing people (that may, or may not include their interfaces with technology), but is never about the technology on its own devoid of a human problem.

Examples:

  • The reasons that people cannot do what they want
  • The processes and practices that stop people doing what they want
  • The things that customer want to do, but cannot do today
  • The pain that people experience using technology
  • The fear that people have with new technology
  • The things that users, customers or sales people would love to do, but cannot today
  • The things that people dream of doing

When you do this, you will quickly see that there are plenty of problems and opportunities with existing processes and services that we could address. We don’t need to look to the future because we have enough now. We don’t need to guess what is coming next to be successful, because if we fix these issues we will be well placed to embrace the future rather than fear it. Whilst technology may be a part of the solution, it also may not – in fact the best answer may be to eliminate technology that isn’t working, or to simplify overly complex technology. This approach – human centric envisioning – is in stark contrast to the technology dominated norms that we have today.

So how does human centric envisioning differ?

human centric envisioning …

  • focuses on people, their interactions and human values
  • emphasises the value of collaboration and shared understanding and working
  • looks to holistic understanding of problems, seeing them as they impact people, not as abstract concepts
  • sees the role of technology as enabling people
  • recognises that elimination or simplification is preferable to increasing complexity
  • knows that low tech can be more effective as high tech
  • embraces service design tools and design thinking to understand processes from a human viewpoint
  • recognises that the future is a progression of what we have today, anchored in human values not an abstract concept or utopia
  • understands that technology can be a major enabler to people, but recognises that it brings risks and that there are downsides too
  • sees human values (the value of personal relationships, importance of family, importance of trust etc) being broadly constant over time
  • doesn’t care who makes the technology, so long as it does what it needs to do
  • embraces privacy and respects the rights of individuals

This list could go on, but you hopefully get the idea.

The purpose of human centric envisioning is not to develop a roadmap for technology (that will undoubtedly be wrong – they are always too optimistic and assume everything works first time), but an understanding of how we want to evolve and improve how we work and potential areas that technology may be able to play a role – both now and the future. Because it is founded upon human values not technology releases, it has greater longevity and can be used to not just plan our future, but rethink our today.

The outcome is not a business case for shiny new things, but a shared understanding of what we need to address, why this matters, and who cares.

A manifesto of what we want to be and how we want to work, a definition of our aspirations and goals.

Technology may play a part in this understanding and the solution, but it equally may not.

The outcome may be a set of actions that do not involve technology, that eliminate broken processes, simplify inefficient tasks or introduce more people into an organisation.

Helping people work better, reducing problems, improving collaboration and ultimately making life better … that is something worth spending time on. That should be the goal for your envisioning workshops. Not to mention that many actions will not involve a big technology price tag.

So the next time you are invited to an envisioning workshop, before you attend – ask what the workshop is trying to achieve and what the measure of success is. If it is clearly a thinly veiled technology sales process, decide whether you want to support this, or politely decline and spend your time helping your organisation and your colleagues, not those hoping to generate revenue from it.

If you do attend, challenge technology determinism when you see it. Challenge assumptions. Stay true to what you know from your experiences today, and keep the discussion grounded in the real world. A good facilitator will embrace this and use your energy to keep the discussion valuable to your company. A thinly veiled sales guy will wish you would be quiet and want the day to end as quickly as possible, and wish he hadn’t promised something he couldn’t deliver.

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Freedom, education and the failure of politicians

Part 2 of a two part series on debt and freedom.

Part 1 is Freedom vs. debt and the dangers of financial heroin.

Is all debt bad? Should you never buy things?

I’m not arguing that you don’t buy things, but flip this around.

Instead of saying,’how can I borrow to buy this now?’ instead ask, ‘how can I increase my income to buy this sooner’.

If you can’t increase income, then wait.

Are there exceptions to this?

Yes. If you follow business school logic, then you should borrow money to finance asset purchases to increase income. I’d agree to a point. For me, it is about the level of the investment vs. the loss of freedom. Prudent borrowing for significant increases in income make sense. Large unproven investments don’t. This is common sense. Betting a company using borrowed money  (we often call these mergers) is dumb. Most mergers fail, most don’t deliver promised value, so again, minimise risk and buy smaller assets at a pace you can assimilate them. This worked for Cisco, and hundreds of other leading companies. Big takeovers are painful, risky and divert attention from being a great company.

Personal finance writers say that mortgage debt is good debt. I agree to a point. It is debt, but you need somewhere to live, but the basic rules of evaluating debt vs. freedom still apply. Be prudent. Big debt reduces freedom. Very big debt is stupid. House prices may rise, but not for a while. You may see the price rise, but we are more likely to see inflation rise and you lose the house. Better have a smaller house and be confident you can keep it, then a large one that you risk losing (big houses cost more to run, so the total cost of ownership is much higher).

For me though, there is one other type of debt that is OK. One type that individuals, companies and countries should borrow for:

EDUCATION.

It doesn’t matter whether you are an individual or a country, investing in your capability to be better at what you do, to raise the level of what you do is a great thing. The benefits for you personally, for society and ultimately for humanity are all positive. The challenge here is not the absolute value (education is rarely a wasted investment), it is the timescale of the payback period. Longer is better, it gives you time to earn and pay back without risking freedom. Shorter payback periods risk freedom (which is bad), so the right decision can be to not invest. This means that the decision needs to favour the decision to invest, but at a level where the loss of freedom is managable.

When I see application levels in 2012 for Universities in the UK falling, then we have the mechanism wrong. People are making the decision that the debt is not worth the loss of freedom (in many cases they are correct). What we should see in times of economic austerity (and by the way, this is here for a generation), is the foresight from politicians in particular to take the long view and change this equation so that investing in yourself, in raising the bar for the individual, for society is a good thing. The introduce mechanisms and payment models (business models in the commercial world that incentivise this). Today, they don’t.

Why does this matter?

Because this is how you increase income and total value. Whether as an individual, a company or a country. If we want to fix the finance problems personally and as a country, we need to be able to increase our income. This requires investment. For people this means education. We still need to cut expenditure, so most of the cuts are right, but NOT in education. It is education which raises our ability to generate income. There are a host of other factors too such as removing red tape, reducing the cost of running businesses, and these are also correct, but they are essentially the same thing – increasing freedom. Don’t focus on micro-policies, look to bigger ideas which shift the equation.

Reducing costs for businesses, reducing red tape all increases freedom. This is good. If debt and freedom are linked, then changing one side impacts the other.

Should we prioritise education over health spending, over defence, over social security, over any other demand on government?

My view is simple, yes.

All of the others are costs. Costs should be cut, the only thing you should invest in is assets, that is things that grow in value – and people are the ultimate asset.

Investing in education is the best way to grow personal and national income. Cutting spending reduces outgoing (debt), but has a number of other consequences, namely a reduction in demand and a reduction in confidence. Not just consumer confidence, but ambition. It is the loss of ambition and confidence that is the problem. People can live with cuts and austerity and falling service if they can see the long term end goal is better, and worth it. We put up with house renovations, painful exams, visits to gym, diets and all other personal sacrifices because we focus on the end goal.

Once we lose ambition, we don’t seek to grow, we seek to minimise our losses. We accept where we are and we make this best of it.

This is the complete opposite of what is needed.

The same principles apply to people as they do to a country.

The problem this time is that if we don’t have the long term positive vision, it is hard to see the benefit of the cuts, and this is why cutting without a vision of a long term positive goal is wrong. Reducing debt is good, no doubt about it, but this should be to meet a long term benefit. Simply cutting without defining the benefits, or making any investment will make our problems much worse. It should have balance in this. We are not saying cut this to protect that. We cut everything, we cut across the board. The result as I said is a loss in confidence and opposition to the cuts. This  worsens the effect of the cuts as the loss of confidence at a consumer and business level amplifies the impact.  At a human level, for the poorest and least educated in society (the most vulnerable) the impact is crushing. Not painful, not challenging, but crushing.

It destroys people. It destroys their ambition; it destroys their confidence in themselves and it destroys their health.

And this is where politicians are failing us.

Cutting is easy. You see where the expenditure is going and cut it. Simple as that.

It really is that simple. Start with the big numbers, cut these.

Find lots of smaller ones that are less visible and cut these harder.

For contentious cuts, simply promote those as policy changes over the longer term. They are still cuts.

The skill is not cutting, but reducing expenditure whilst not harming our future, and in this we are failing. Falling growth rates (second recession is predicted), plummeting consumer and business confidence and a loss in applications to University (and a host of other indicators) show this.

Cutting is one side of the equation. The other side is being completely missed.

We are not defining our end goal, we are not defining what we are cutting for. We are not investing in our ability to grow income and get out of this position.

If confidence remains low, then continued cuts will not only reduce expenditure, but will impact our ability to generate revenue. This decreases income – the very opposite of what is needed. For companies, it commits them to a slow and painful decline. For people it locks them into poverty and low-wage incomes.

Take any job, any field and think about this:

Doctor, mechanic, designer, teacher, driver, builder, telephone sales, writer, engineer …

  • Don’t invest, don’t learn, don’t grow = static income, then falling income. Ultimate end goal can be unemployability.
  • Invest in yourself, be better at what you do, produce better goods, deliver better services, increase quality = sustained, then growing income

This is the same for businesses.

It is the same for countries.

So don’t simply argue against the cuts. They are needed, but challenge politicians to do their job and lead. To show how we will prosper over the long term, how we will increase personal and national income and attain a sustainable, then secure position. Cuts alone will not work.

If the politician is  devoid of ideas, then share yours. Contribute. Share ideas at online forums, policy groups, consultations, surgeries, anywhere your voice can be heard. Challenge them not to cut, but to grow. Challenge the logic and challenge the vision.

And if none of this works, stand against them. Nothing is as effective in getting the attention of a politician than the prospect of an informed candidate with ideas and popular support standing against them.