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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