The Digital Disruptor

The Digital Disruptor - Innovation, Minimalism, and Embracing Imperfection.

As I stepped off the plane at Beijing Capital International Airport the freezing air gripped my bones. It was January 2003 and Northern China can be brutally cold, only 7 hours earlier I had been soaking up the heat in Kuala Lumpur. I exited the airport in search of a taxi and was instantly mobbed by men, cigarettes seemingly glued to their lips, as they shouted in Mandarin and tried to drag me into their taxis.

I quickly put my 10 weeks of Mandarin lessons to the test but no one seemed to understand me. It was an intense moment; I was in uncharted waters and could feel panic washing over me. I wanted to get back on the plane and return to KL. I stopped, pulled my arm free from the guy currently dragging me towards a car and thanked him in my awful Mandarin. Closing my eyes I counted to 10 and slowed my breathing, “what was I doing here?”, ah yes, the address in my pocket.

I found the piece of paper with my friend’s Beijing address and instructions on where to find the official taxi rank. “Don’t exit the airport, turn left before the doors and follow the signs for tourist information.” I rapidly about-faced and re-entered the airport, found the official taxi rank and joined an orderly queue. The relief of the familiar!

A month later I was still in Beijing, I quit an amazing career in London with JP Morgan Chase & Co to take the biggest risk of my life. At that time China was entering the market in full force, the entrepreneurial energy was amazing, and despite the initial shock I quickly adapted.

There were opportunities everywhere once you allowed yourself to see them. Sure, it was unfamiliar, even uncomfortable at times, I frequently felt lost and confused and had to think on my feet, ask for help, and embrace the vulnerability. However, necessity is the mother of more than invention, it is also a great motivator. I learned the language quickly, made friends, found my way around, and embraced the accelerating momentum of change. Within a year Beijing had changed before my very eyes, and it wasn’t long before the rest of the world was trying to catch up.

Relentless evolution

Today’s businesses find themselves in a perpetual race against time. The digital era is one of relentless evolution, and it’s not just technology that is changing at an unprecedented pace. Our financial systems, political perspectives, environmental conditions, and social structures are also undergoing rapid transformation. At the intersection of these developmental pathways emerges new consumer demands and expectations.

And it is why digital transformation can be so frightening: Companies must shift their focus from what they know works and invest instead in alternatives they view as risky and unproven. Many companies simply refuse to believe they are facing a life-or-death situation. This is Clayton Christensen’s aptly named “Innovator’s Dilemma”: Companies fail to innovate, because it means changing the focus from what’s working to something unproven and risky.” - Thomas M. Siebel

For many businesses, they face pressure to innovate rapidly or crumble! Abandon what works and pursue what might fail. All of this in an environment of rapid change. Yet, we haven’t even begun to feel the true impact of elastic cloud computing, big data, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things (IoT). How do we navigate these unchartered waters?

It is clear innovation must become part of the DNA of any business that is serious about having a future. Innovative must embrace learning at its core, and learning always involves failure, especially in unmapped territories. So, what strategies can lead to success whilst embracing failure?

Well one counterintuitive strategy stands out. You may know it as the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

Rik Vera wrote a beautiful article about MVP where he refers to Antoni Gaudí's approach to building the Sagrada Família, a cathedral in Barcelona.

“Gaudí's genius lies in seeing the cathedral not as a finished product but as an evolving masterpiece.” - Rik Vera

As Vera explains, Gaudí created a visionary prototype. Instead of attempting to design a masterpiece before construction began, he took an novel approach to the design-build cycle. Gaudí built iterative refinement and allowance of imperfection into the design-build process itself. In other words, he made it possible to learn from failure without undermining the chances of eventual success.

In the digital age, businesses wrestle with what can appear to be overwhelming challenges. Where crafting a perfect blueprint or product is impractical in a frenetically changing world. The artistry of Gaudí’s approach afforded agility, resilience, ongoing innovative, and spontaneous learning in response to new challenges and changing demands. The result is spectacular!

Let that sink in, new challenges and changing demands have to be met by learning and innovation. Eric Ries author of The Lean Startup puts it wonderfully,

“…let this simple rule suffice: remove any feature, process, or effort that does not contribute directly to the learning you seek.” - Eric Ries, The Lean Startup.

So what can we learn from the brilliance of Gaudí, the insight of Siebel, and the experience of Ries?

MVPs and Iteration: The MVP approach emphasizes beginning with a viable foundation and iterating for refinement. Businesses must recognize their initial models as imperfect but essential launchpads for continuous improvement.

The Tao of MVP: Innovative companies find ways to leverage external dynamics rather than resist them, turning challenges into advantages. Attempting to resist market forces during times of sweeping change is like trying to withstand a tsunami. Your best bet is to get in front of it and ride the wave. Businesses need to become responsive to trends by listening to customers and tracking user behaviour such as click-through-rates, repeat purchases, social shares, and reviews.

Validated Learning and Expansion: Scaling a business, product, or service in an evolving market means ensuring that iterative refinement is responsive to changing market forces. This requires what Eric Ries calls ‘validated learning’. In other words, businesses need the right measurements to demonstrate that they have discovered valuable truths about current and future business prospects.

“The lesson of the MVP is that any additional work beyond what was required to start learning is waste, no matter how important it might have seemed at the time.” – Eric Ries, The Lean Startup.

MVPs should not be restricted to one off models for launching new services. In fact, maintaining a version of key products and services for the purpose of learning, responding to market forces, and maintaining relevance to the needs of customers is an excellent strategy in the digital age.

What else can we do?

Siebel explores various technological solutions that can help organizations navigate digital transformation successfully. This includes leveraging emerging technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT), and blockchain to streamline operations, enhance customer experiences, and drive growth.

All of these technologies enhance the usefulness of data to track trends, gain insights, and generate measurements that demonstrate valuable truths have been discovered. When harnessed properly they can feed the iterative validated learning and market responsive of businesses.

When the game is new the playing ground is somewhat levelled, there are no seasoned experts in the digital age. This presents a fabulous opportunity to create, play, test, and learn. Let’s think about this for a moment. Multiple changes in multiple domains, no real experts, and lots of uncertainty.

How has humanity taken advantage of novel opportunities and overcome new obstacles since the dawn of time? By working together. The saying “collaboration drives innovation” has never been more appropriate than now. When you bring together diverse perspectives, minds, experiences, and fields of expertise you maximise the potential for insight and innovation. With a structured approach you don’t need experts, you just need to be looking at the opportunity or challenge from as many different angles as possible.

Combine collaboration with enhanced data capabilities and you have the agility, resilience, and spontaneous learning to stay ahead of the curve.


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The Future of Business

Futurology - Marty McFly, Megatrends, and the V.U.C.A world.

I was 11 years old, and it was a Saturday afternoon, I was so excited that I could barely sit still as my dad drove us into town. We were going to the cinema to see the original release of Back to The Future!

It was a big deal back then, waiting for a movie to come to video could take years, if you wanted to see the latest film you had to go to the cinema. If you were lucky, you might also get ice-cream and popcorn, the suspense made the experience so much better.

For context, back in the 80’s Blockbuster Video had 1 store in Dallas, Texas and I lived in a small town in Hertfordshire, England. We used to rent VHS video cassettes from a guy with a van that drove around residential streets like he was selling ice-cream. There were no local rental shops, DVDs wouldn’t be invented for another 10 years, and the concept of streaming services didn’t even exist.

By the end of that Saturday afternoon, I was hooked on the idea of time travel, and I fell in love with Sci-Fi, watching and reading everything I could. When Back to the Future 2 was released 4 years later I queued up for an hour to see it on the first day.

Why am I telling you this? Well, there is a key part to the plot of Back to the Future 2 where Marty McFly, the protagonist, buys a sports almanac with all the sports outcomes from 1950 to 2000. His plan, to go back to 1985 and use the results to make a fortune betting on known results.

As a 15-year-old boy I thought this was genius, the smartest thing I had ever heard of. Imagine being able to predict the future of sports, stocks, the lottery numbers! As I got older, I gave up on my time travelling dreams of getting rich quick, but I didn’t lose my fascination with trying to understand the future.

Back to the present

Imagine being able to predict the future of business. What decisions would you make now? How would you change the way you work to secure your place in the years to come?

The future has always been unknown to some degree, and people have always searched for answers and ways to settle their anxieties. The value we place on insight into the future is very high, and there are entire careers built around guessing at the future.

For example, what would you trade for next year’s sports results, stock prices, or winning lottery numbers? What about the next trend in fashion, or the genre that desperately needs a certain novel?

Of course, these types of precise outcomes have never been predictable, and beware anyone that makes such claims with certainty. That said, there are forces, drivers, and trends whose impacts are more predictable. Let’s take a look at some of these in a minute.

In the past we may have turned to the Oracle at Delphi, the I Ching, or Nostradamus. Today, big data and technology have become the new oracles. Predictive data sets, internet memes, and AI have replaced mystics and divination. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are viewed as modern-day prophets for profit.

Modern day futurists go beyond attempting to foresee change by trying to exert control over the future. Through their actions and narratives, they seek to nudge events one way or another, often through insightful interventions. From driverless cars to metaverse economies, entrepreneurs, influencers, and thought leaders influence our perception of what is to come. In doing so they act as essential navigators for founders and businesses facing global uncertainty and complexity.

Forces, drivers, and trends

Let’s take a quick dive into different causes of change and how these might improve our ability to predict the future.

Forces are things that operate over very long timescales; think evolution, means of production, socio-political systems, global population growth, advances in technology.

Hunting and gathering was the main means of production for more than 300,000 years, then agriculture for at least 10,000 more. Several centuries ago, it became industry and now we are moving into an era of digital productivity. These forces are stable, and therefore predictable. This means they can easily be built into our strategic processes – and often are.

Drivers are the next “layer” of forces. They operate over decades; not only are they shorter lived, but different drivers may ‘compete’ with each other in terms of their impact. Drivers might include, rapid urbanisation, the explosion of information communication technology, globalisation, advances in healthcare, and environmental awareness. Movements in international trade or the rise of a nation’s manufacturing sector may also count as drivers.

These drivers are usually more salient due to their contemporary nature. We can see the changes they bring during our lifetimes and tend to focus on them. However, it is important to recognise they are emergent properties of underlying forces. The very fact that ICT has largely ‘arrived’ as a driver of change in the last few decades tells us that it may well be replaced by something else in the years to come, perhaps by AI for example.

Lastly, we have trends. These tend to happen over much shorter periods; we see this in fashion, diet, music, art, and exercise. They are often impulses emanating from hype, novelty, or celebrity influence. Although these offer great opportunities to capitalise on in the short-term, they rarely play important roles in futurology unless they are part of the larger puzzle.

What can we learn from today’s futurists?

Today’s futurists are concerned with drivers that emerge from the deeper historical forces of change. It is these irresistible forces and drivers which shape the landscape of the future. They need to be understood and adapted to, as resisting larger societal or economic forces is a fast path to irrelevancy.

“Resilience, agility, and creativity will replace efficiency as the key objective” - Gerd Leonard

Leonard, a German futurist, emphasizes the shift from "business as usual" to a new era marked by permanent VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity).

In response to this he sees a growing need for resilience, agility, and creativity along with a change in how we measure success. Gerd believes a transition from traditional Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to Key Human Indicators (KHIs) will help shift capitalism into a healthier model. A new quadruple bottom-line: People, Planet, Purpose, and Prosperity.

"General-purpose technologies shape societies in tremendous ways... as they intersect, they create many, many new opportunities." - Azeem Azhar

Azeem Azhar, an influential entrepreneur and creator of Exponential View underscores the profound impact of general-purpose technologies on society.

Our own society is built on technologies like electricity and the car, which lead to factories, 9 - 5 jobs, town planning for vehicles, and even further down the path social welfare, agribusiness, and processed foods.

Now we have the internet, mobile communications, cloud computing, AI, and blockchain. Understanding the long-term impacts of these technologies will allow us to better plan for and respond to the inevitable changes that will occur.

Demographic futurist Bradley Schurman highlights the global shift towards an aging population, predicting its profound impact on social, economic, and business norms. His focus is the intersection of megatrends, or drivers, like increased longevity and decreasing birth rates.

In less than a decade, at least 35 countries will have more than one out of five people over the age of 65 – a first in the history of the world.

He emphasizes the urgency for organizations to adapt to this change, as it alters the way business is conducted and affects the bottom line.

They provide scenarios for evolving customer and industry landscapes, emphasizing the need for resilience, innovation, and adaptability.

How can you put these insights into action?

It’s easy to make plans that never leave your desk. It’s much harder to be decisive and act, even under the pressure of challenges. Strategic foresight or ‘futures thinking’ is a collaborative and iterative process. It’s about shared, participatory decision making and planning, bringing together insights and perspectives like those from Leonard, Azhar, and Schurman. Megatrends and VUCA environments are not to be navigated alone.

Working with others may feel risky, but ultimately, as a leader you need to leverage the creativity, and diversity of perspective of those around you. If you are to be successful in the face of the complex challenges ahead you need to be able to identify the forces, drivers, and trends that are relevant and then collaborate with others to plot potential pathways forward.

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