Posts filed under ‘innovation’

Learning to win

Andrew Curry and Andy Stubbings write: When British Cycling’s Performance Director Dave Brailsford launched the Sky road racing team in 2009 and announced that it would produce a British winner of the Tour de France within five years, most long-standing cycling fans were disbelieving. For all of Brailsford’s success in track cycling, le Tour was a very different proposition.

Britain had never got a rider into the top three, and the last British trade team to compete in the Tour had run out of money before it got to Paris. Winning the General Classification is an unforgiving business measured in seconds and minutes over three weeks of racing; the winner has to be able to excel at time trialling and cope with climbing (or vice versa) and hope they don’t have a bad day. Bradley Wiggins had finished 4th in 2009, but the consensus was that he was close to his limits.

But British Cycling, on track and road, is an interesting type of learning organisation that combines an obsession with incremental improvement (shades of Clive Woodward’s approach to rugby union) while also searching for disruptive innovation opportunities as well. On the track, which is a controlled environment, especially in disciplines such as the pursuit, the one percents here and there add up, eventually, to a winning margin, helped by the smart use of psychology.

On the road, something more was required. Two or three innovations come to mind. The first was Chris Boardman’s ‘Secret Squirrel’ project, which experimented with technical improvements to equipment. The second involved looking outside of cycling’s traditional approaches to training and fitness, in this case to swimming and the coach Tim Kerrison, who brought different approaches to managing form and intensity. His first year wasn’t successful, while he learned about the new sport; Wiggins followed his 4th place in 2009 (with the Garmin team) with a 24th place with Sky. The coaching team put it down to learning and carried on. Most companies would have been less patient.

The third was breaking with the conventional wisdom that the only way to train for racing was to race. Part of winning at cycling is psychological, of the whole team knowing what it feels like to control a race when it holds the lead, and Sky shifted the balance, reducing the number of racing days and competing in those races to win. Wiggins’ record this year in the stage races he has entered is impressive by any historical standards.

In the process perhaps British Cycling has invented a new type of “brand Britain” when it comes to sporting achievement, one that marries the best of British ingenuity, bloody-minded determination and humility in understanding that being good takes graft. In the place of the plucky underdog (Tim Henman), the glorious one-hit wonder (Rugby World Cup) or the technically undistinguished cloggers of our football teams, British Cycling is producing – on track and road – people who expect to win, who take winning in their stride, and who remember that there’s more to life than sport.

Tom Ding wrote a post on this blog about listening to David Brailsford after the Beijing Olympics. The image at the top of this post is the Wiggo III jersey from Milltag, via Headset Press, and is used with thanks.

24 July 2012 at 8:37 pm Leave a comment

Surface tension


Microsoft’s whizzy new Surface slates — unveiled June 18 at a high-profile Apple-style announcement event in Hollywood — have triggered wildly disparate reactions across the technology world, with some pundits calling them a revolutionary bridge between full-fledged PCs and tablets, and others declaring their hybrid format an evolutionary dead-end.

Our own take falls in the latter category. We believe Surface may sell well out of the gate to Apple refuseniks and users who believe a keyboard can make large-scale text entry on a tablet more viable. But ultimately, we don’t believe this is a serious competitor to the iPad — or, longer term, a rival for Android-based tablets. The future of Surface is likely as a niche player for enterprise environments; if it has any sustained life in the consumer space, it will be due primarily to massive investment on Microsoft’s part.

The problem is not that Surface is not innovative. It’s that it’s innovative in the wrong direction. Surface’s keyboard is beautiful, sleek and smart — and anchored in the 1980s. Microsoft’s stubborn addition of stylus input to the Surface reinforces this point. The primary thing that Surface offers is compatibility with legacy interfaces.

Only disruptive innovation can create new revenue streams. Innovation that’s focused on preserving the past can only cannibalize the existing installed base. Even in the enterprise, Surface adoption won’t come at the expense of the iPad — it’ll be purchased as a lightweight substitute for Windows laptops.

Meanwhile, over in Cupertino, Apple has asserted that it is “doubling down” on its voice-based, natural-language Siri intelligent agent. Voice recognition opens up a range of alternative use cases for iPads — e.g., hands-free or multitasking control. That’s the kind of disruptive interface that Microsoft proved it could deliver with Kinect, for big screens and large areas.

The jury is still out on the future of interfaces for small screens and enclosed spaces — that is, the mobile computing interface. But we know one thing it’s not going to spring from: Better versions of old and increasingly outmoded technology.

Below the fold, we’ve taken a look at the spectrum of reactions from analysts across the web.

The picture of the Surface at the top of this post is from dotTech, and is used with thanks.


26 June 2012 at 7:01 pm Leave a comment

The case against austerity

J. Walker Smith writes:

We’ve been having something of an economics-themed month at The Futures Company, with client presentations about recession hit consumers in the UK and the US, and Future Perspectives reports on doing business in slow-growth economies and the business opportunities in Europe after the eurozone crisis.

So it was useful when I was in London recently to catch Will Hutton, recently installed as Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, give his take on the economic prospects for the UK in 2012 at an event hosted by the HMRC.

It’s hard to summarize quite a rich talk, but some points shone through:

  • The UK is living through a once-in-80-year economic event, but this isn’t reflected in the scale or urgency of the political or policy response.
  • UK GDP is still 4% below where it was in 2008, and won’t regain that until 2014, on government figures. But this is a problem of demand deficiency, not a systemic market problem. (The importance of this idea is all about political narrative. If demand is the problem, the wisdom of austerity is in doubt.)
  • The level of private debt is enormous (320% of GDP), but debt service levels are low, by any historic standards. But cutting the debt aggressively (the current policy preoccupation) risks creating a Japan-style lost decade and a half.

If that’s the bad news, what should be done?

Hutton has quite a long list of suggestions, but two caught my particular attention. The first is the reinvention of fairness. This involves bringing down the ratio of top pay to median pay, and making sure that bonuses aren’t a one-way bet, as they are present. He’s proposed an ‘earnback’ scheme, under which executives put some of their salary at risk in case of under-performance. Unsurprisingly, not one single FTSE-100 is in favor. Hutton had an earnback clause written into his contract when he joined Hertford College.

The other big story is about innovation. Governments can’t pick winners, but they can create ecologies that help particular sectors to evolve. The catch is that these innovation ecologies need public investment – especially in research institutes and skills development. The German network of Fraunhofer Institutes is the benchmark, and, of course, they’ve spent billions developing them over decades. But that doesn’t mean that it’s too late to start. The wide range of emerging ‘general purpose technologies‘ means that there is quite a lot of competitive space to play for. But it does need some political will.

The Future Perspectives reports on the eurozone and slow-growth economies were published this week. They’re available, free, for download from the website. The picture of Will Hutton is from Wikimedia Commons, and is used with thanks.

21 February 2012 at 7:25 pm Leave a comment

Looking back on Looking Up

Walker Smith writes: For the past three years, since the economic crisis ballooned, I’ve been writing a regular column called Looking Up, on the ways for businesses to manage through recession and tough markets; I wrote the last one in the series earlier this month.

I wrote the first Looking Up in October, 2008, just over a month after the global financial system went to the edge of collapse.  (I’m not being melodramatic here; if you need a stark reminder of just how close we came to financial meltdown during the eight days from September 12 to September 19, 2008, James Stewart’s New Yorker essay “Eight Days” is still chilling).

The column had three purposes.  It translated financial concepts, to help people navigate the macro-economic news. It provided evidence and examples, to show that there were still opportunities in the market. And the third, and most important, purpose of Looking Up was to offer insights and guidance about how to reach consumers effectively during the Great Recession and subsequent stagnant recovery.  Over three years, Looking Up focused on delivering insight and inspiration to our clients.

And looking back on something like a hundred issues, I see that three themes repeated themselves over and over again. They’re worth repeating here.

Innovation.  The single most effective way to thrive in a downturn is to innovate. Reams of academic research have demonstrated this across past downturns and across geographies.  There are hundreds of examples of successful innovations introduced during the depths of past recessions, along with hundreds of examples of defunct companies that went bust waiting out a recession while competitors innovated. The logic is simple: innovation sparks new demand, creates new jobs and advances the overall productivity of the economy, which is the key to prosperity.

No other theme has been mentioned in Looking Up as often as innovation, one of the core practice areas of The Futures Company. If you had to take just one thing away from Looking Up, it would be: innovate!

Sourcing growth.  The biggest challenge facing companies at the moment is sourcing growth.  Unemployment, stock market volatility, cuts in government benefits, deleveraging and housing price declines all mean that household budgets remain tight. But there are pockets of strength in the consumer marketplace; more can be found through close scrutiny and shrewd analysis.  A number of MONITOR methods, such as Dynamax, have been developed to identify this enduring spending potential.

Practice optimism.  Consumers take their cue from businesses.  Optimism is contagious (as research has shown time after time).  If you want consumers to be buoyant again, you need to help. Conversely, if your marketing echoes their worst fears, don’t expect them to be cheerful. There’s a virtuous circle here: if businesses look up, then your customers will too.

Global MONITOR is an innovative, strategic, future-focused Global Insights programme for clients and agencies. It identifies the key dynamics shaping the world and the consumer marketplace, as well as potential implications for your clients’ businesses. If you want to know more about Global MONITOR, please call Simon Kaplan in the United States, or Deniz Erdem in Europe.

The picture at the top of this post was originally published by Global Envision – well worth a visit – and is used with thanks. 

23 December 2011 at 8:40 am Leave a comment

A future made of screens

Alex Steer writes:

There was a lot of discussion in our London and New York offices last week about a short video called A Day Made of Glass. It’s produced by Corning, which makes specialized glass products, including mobile and tablet touchscreens, and the video explores a day in the life of a family in a not-too-distant future in which (surprise) there are screens, especially touchscreens, in just about everything.

The first thing that struck us was Corning’s imaginative approach to the dry task of selling high-tech glass. It’s a great illustration of what can happen when you apply a bit of futures thinking to your brand. It’s also smart as a piece of brand planning, focusing on the consumers at the end of the supply chain, not Corning’s B2B customers. Creatively, it’s well executed.

But it’s the futures aspect which has provoked the debate. The video is cheerfully optimistic about the screenification of the entire world, as you’d expect from a sales tool, and cheery optimism runs through the creative work too, presenting a perfect upper-middle-class family – mum, dad, kids, all so happy and healthy-looking – that feels more like a nod to the heyday of Madison Avenue than a look to the future.

Some of the futures thinking isn’t bad. Consumerism is one of the strongest forces defining technology innovation, and this trend is everywhere in A Day Made of Glass. Glassland is about user experience, good design and straightforward, seamless interaction. All the devices assume a world of rich information and always-on connectivity.

Which is what also makes this an extreme scenario.It assumes there are no limits to our attention, or our wish to interact with everything in the way we currently interact with our phones or tablets. The prevalence of touchscreens led one of our Senior Consultants to compare it to another video, for Microsoft’s Future of Work scenarios. In both, ‘the future looks very much like the waiting room at Heathrow Terminal 5’.

In information-rich markets like the US or the UK, the desire to stay updated is already clashing with the recognition that there’s too much information, and we’re looking for more efficient filters. There’s also an emerging awareness of the importance of continuous partial attention in our interaction with media, and the need for interfaces that are useful even when they don’t have our full attention (such as radio or TV).

The continuous interested multitasking imagined in Corning’s world seems, frankly, exhausting. Said one of our SVPs: ‘The woman emailing from her bathroom? I can pretty much guarantee that if you email me anything before I’ve washed my face and brushed my teeth in the morning you’re not going to get a “yes”.’

So in the end we were a bit sceptical. We also worried about the sheer energy cost of all those screens. But hats off to Corning for producing a thought-provoking piece of work that got us talking about the future of media and technology.

21 March 2011 at 9:00 am 1 comment

The World in 2020

Andrew Curry writes:

I’ve been working on a Futures Company report on The World in 2020 for the last couple of months, and since I’ve end up doing much of the work in the evening I’m delighted to say that we’ve just published the summary edition, and the full version has just gone into production. The summary edition can be downloaded from our website, although registration is required.

The World in 2020 is the first in a series of ‘Futures Perspectives’ reports which we’re publishing over the next few months.

It takes a high level view of the big drivers which are shaping the world, and looks at some of the innovation spaces which may emerge as a result. Here’s are a couple of extracts:

The financial crisis of 2008 represented an ending, but not a beginning. We are in a liminal moment, betwixt and between, when there are more questions than answers, but when, increasingly, our assumptions about how the world works are open to challenge and interrogation. … Liminal moments such as this one can last a decade or more, before opinion coalesces around a new set of operating assumptions about how the world works.

Over the next decade, we’ll see much tougher resource constraints – energy, food and water, and resources will all be under pressure – as well as the continuing long economic shift towards Asia. Issues involving technology and inequality will also be influential. It will be harder to make money in the coming decade. As a result, businesses will have to rethink their approach:

The changing economic environment creates the dilemma of new yet alternative prospects for different types of customers. The emerging middle class across much of Asia and Latin America will be very different from the debt constrained consumers of Europe and the United States. Globally, the
costs of basics such as food and energy are likely to rise over the next decade, so discretionary income will be lower than some project. In the richer countries, the experience of recession will create demands for more social behavior from businesses.

Business critic Umair Haque talks of the “meaning organization” that builds “authentic prosperity.” As he writes in a blog post, “An isolated notion of ’profit’ is obsolete: it’s an arid industrial-age conception of a currency-focused construct that’s built to trivialize everything but what a firm owes its ’owners’.

14 March 2011 at 9:16 am 3 comments

Build it? They might come

Tom Richardson writes:

What people need is still more important for business than what businesses happen to be able to create – even though the gap between these two sometimes seems quite large.

Without research, and the freedom to pursue ideas that might never be profitable, some of the world’s most successful companies might never have become so. But this is different to throwing money at services that people haven’t told you they want, simply because these services seem to offer something “innovative”.

Innovation is the monkey to our organ grinder. It exists to find new ways of approaching age-old needs, such as reassurance, simplicity and community.

IBM, for example, has been working on a supercomputer called ‘Watson’ that can understand a question posed in colloquial language and respond vocally with an accurate, factual answer. The company says it’s designed for trawling through piles of papers such as legal documents to find an elusive fact.

Poor old Watson; destined to infuriate. It may respond to one of our needs (more time to do things) but even 99% accuracy isn’t good enough for a lawyer. Education helps us develop the ability to evaluate competing claims and make judgments about the information we really need. Understanding the use of language is only one part of that.

Why are we so bad at identifying tools that respond to human needs? They’re our needs, after all. Take Wolfram Alpha – again, an incredible product – that will make a lot of money through an expensive premium subscription that offers complex mathematical modelling. But at its launch in May 2009, it was seized upon by sensationalists at ‘the next Google’.

What Google has done, brilliantly, is to work hard in private on their sterile algorithms, while presenting a likeable human face to its users, with a visual identity that is colourful and simple. Google, like the iPod, is a human technology.

Wolfram Alpha, meanwhile, is a technology for technologists. It arrogantly (there I go again with the irresistible urge to anthropomorphise) tells you the answer, rather than humbly fetching information for you to interpret, like Google. If it gets the answer wrong, there’s no way to click back, think and discriminate.

The same delusion applies to social media. We know that no-one wants to be friends with washing powder. The company knows that plonking its washing powder down on Facebook makes it look awkwardly like the try-hard kid at school.

And, sadly, you can imagine the conversation around the water cooler in the Marketing Department:

“But have you seen the numbers?

“We have to be a part of this. Let’s ride this wave, let’s jump on board, let’s join the conversation!”

No. Go away. Really. No-one wants you here. You’re the wasp in my garden. And by the way, I resent your digital cold call.

The image at the top of the post is from the Museum of  Mid-Century Illustration, and is used with thanks.

5 November 2010 at 12:31 pm Leave a comment

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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.

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