The Wile E Coyote moment

I was very taken with Benedict Evans’ description of the way that companies like Nokia and RIM (BlackBerry) responded to the advent of the iPhone in 2007:

You might call this the ‘Wille E Coyote effect’ – you’ve run off the cliff, but you’re not falling, and everything seems fine. But by the time you start falling, it’s too late.

(Full article here: http://ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2016/2/19/mobile-smartphones-and-hindsight)

Ten years later, the way that the smartphone has become such an intrinsic part of our everyday lives seems perfectly natural, but it’s fascinating to reflect on how much has changed in a such a relatively short period of time. * The first iPhone’s specs (http://m.gsmarena.com/apple_iphone-1827.php) were incredibly basic when compared with devices now. ** It didn’t have 3G, there was no video camera, it had a screen that was tiny and very low resolution by contemporary standards, and you couldn’t even copy and paste! I think it’s well worth taking a moment to consider what nascent and ‘not quite there yet’ technologies around today are going to have this sort of impact in the next decade…

And the implications of this aren’t limited to gadgets.

My first job after graduating was working for a specialist wine company at a time when their business was being challenged by the big supermarkets, who had realised there was good money to be made providing shoppers with the opportunity to pick up their regular tipple along with their groceries. Despite our best efforts we couldn’t stop the ground shifting beneath our feet and ultimately the company folded. Meanwhile one of our competitors seemed to be breaking all the rules (no town centre shops, case sales only etc) and yet they managed to turn in year on year profit and growth. ***

What I learned from that was that the answers to the challenges we face often aren’t just pushing harder to make our ‘proven strategies’ work.

This is a lesson which seems very relevant to the challenges of working in local government and technology today. The dramatic reductions in council funding (cut by something like 50% from 2010 levels) and the astonishing pace of change in technology mean that we need to challenge all our preconceptions and ask hard questions about what we do and how we do it.

But as well as being very challenging for us and our colleagues, I think this also presents a real opportunity for creativity. Exploring new techniques and technologies, combined with different ways of working and closer partnerships, can help us focus on the citizens we serve and gives us the opportunity to make a real difference. And that matters. A lot.

* I realise that this isn’t unique in the history of technology. For example Microsoft’s success in achieving the audacious (at the time) goal that Bill Gates articulated in 1980 of having ‘a computer on every desk, and in every home’ is equally impressive and transformational.

** I held off getting an iPhone or other smartphone for several years because I couldn’t find one I wanted that included an FM radio like my Nokia N96. Seems bizarre in retrospect!

*** The happy ending is that later on former colleagues managed to resurrect the company, and are now doing a great job of doing what we did best – selling great wine from amazing producers, but with fewer shops and less emphasis on big brands and big ‘discounts’.

Designing the future of work

A new year and a new commitment to updating this blog a bit more frequently than once every year… I’ve decided that little (ie more than I can fit into a tweet) and often(ish) might be the way to go. Let’s see…

A theme that’s popped up in quite a few of my conversations recently has been how to design a work environment that’s fit for the modern age and which will help our organisations attract our next generation of superstars. It’s a tricky and fascinating topic, full of competing tensions:

  • how do we shift our management cultures from managing activity to delivery of outcomes?
  • if trust is key to this (I think it is), how do we shift our attitudes to risk, especially if the consequences of something going awry could lead to reputational or financial damage?
  • when we design our services, processes and technology how do we get the right balance between the needs of our more experienced staff and those of the newer generations, who are likely to be more familiar with Snapchat than the tools we thought were cutting edge in the 1990s but which often still prevail today?
  • and how can we make sure that work is meaningful, harnessing our people’s motivations to deliver the best results?

I suspect that there isn’t a template answer to this (and I don’t think it’s a sector specific challenge — this applies to public and private sector organisations) and that the key is to tune into the organisation and find the right stepping stones to get moving in the right direction. But I’m sure that the answer is not to simply maintain existing paradigms and try to squeeze those into new technologies and ways of working (which will probably get you to this sort of thing: http://www.theverge.com/circuitbreaker/2016/4/29/11541614/apple-watch-running-windows-95-video).

Here are a few of the links which I’ve found thought provoking:

  • this video on the future of work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G11t6XAIce0&t=6s (I thought this was a great explanation of the idea that ‘work is a thing you do, not a place’)
  • Matt’s #noPC challenge: https://mmitii.mattballantine.com/2017/01/05/nopc/ (my take on this is that it’s about more than just not restricting people to using PCs to get their work done, there’s a real need for purposeful focus on designing services and tools that enable the widest possible choice and flexibility)
  • Ben Thompson’s analysis of the impact that Amazon’s Alexa might have on the future of computing: https://stratechery.com/2017/amazons-operating-system/ (‘normal’ / ‘what I’m used to’ is not the same as ‘eternal’, and be mindful of the potential for shiny things to lure you into a vortex you weren’t expecting…)
  • and I also found Simon Sinek’s thoughts on the Millennial generation really interesting: https://youtu.be/hER0Qp6QJNU (15 mins, watch it through)