If you follow the money instead of the marketing services sector’s own narratives, change on a scale far larger than anything Google or Facebook have brought is on the way. That’s the conclusion we can draw when we listen to Silicon Valley’s smartest money talking about what’s next for them.
Benedict Evans is a Partner at Andreessen Horowitz (aka A16Z). His presentation a few days ago (November 2018) is — like the slower, more slide heavy Mary Meeker rival at Kleiner Perkins — billed as an annual fact fest and market proclamation. his theme this year was “the end of the beginning”.
Why is Evans worth listening to? Well, partly because he’s not speaking to you, he’s speaking to the money — his firm has US$2.6 billion of venture capital under management, and is ambitious to grow more. Its biggest successes since it started in 2012 have been backing firms like Instagram, Dollar Shave Club and Skype. It is the smartest money on the web. They are driven by the key insight articulated by founder Marc Andreessen that “software is eating the world” — everything that can be made to run better with digital technology will be disrupted and changed by the web.
There are three main points he makes that are worth looking at more closely — and then a torrent of industry-specific insights for CPG, retail, automotive, healthcare and financial services. First, When it comes to digital transformation, we are at the beginning of decades of change. Second, the past 20 years of the web have been about access — a wave of connecting up all of the people in the world — the next 20 years will be about usage, how we rethink almost every aspect of human activity using this network and the digital tools connected to it. Third, the current wave of change is being driven by machine learning and crypto (i.e. blockchain and related technologies).
A concept that leaders in every field need to grasp is that the digital revolution — the number of things that software and connected technology will change dramatically — has only just begun. Benedict Evans’s presentation will give a valuable return on the investment of your time and attention if it only helps bring that one concept to life a little more.
Watch the video of the full talk below — and a fillet of the points that I found most interesting (quotes are all from Benedict Evans, edited for clarity).
Key points from Benedict Evans The End of the Beginning
The forces at work
Access to the web — the number of people connected — has been growing the past 20 years at an exponential rate, but the usage is only just beginning to grow and there is a massive addressable opportunity.
The next wave of disruptive innovation will be of a different order of magnitude — harder problems, but bigger opportunities (and bigger disruption for established companies).
We will tackle harder markets and we probably change those markets far more than we changed things before
Social media and search were an organising layer over the web, but crypto and machine learning will allow much more profound changes to how we access and use the massive amounts of data, people and resources the internet has connected.
The upshot of these changes is that the markets that VC-backed disruptor companies will be much, much bigger. A comment by Evans as he talks about a graph gives us a sense of the scale of this:
“I used to charts in billions of dollars, now they are trillions of dollars”
Marketing disruption will be enormous
Evans characterises the disruption of marketing so far as having been mainly about advertising. For those of us working in the non-advertising areas of digital marketing we might think of this as a slight, but it’s not. From the point of view of the money, for whom we can think of Evans as the guide/spokesman, the game in digital marketing has been all about the advertising. Just look at the money that went into advertising leaders like Doubleclick vs. leaders in content and inbound marketing, or however we wish to characterise it these days. Brandwatch, Percolate and Sprinklr are worth hundreds of millions right now, but that is partly because they service relatively under-prioritised, disconnected and under-operationalised parts of marketing.
And even thinking of marketing isn’t thinking big enough, says Evans — the opportunity is more about thinking of the total cost of reaching a customer.
As I mentioned in the main post above there’s a lot more in the presentation — although it is only 24 minutes, Evans speaks at the speed of an Aaron Sorkin character, so there’s about an hour’s worth of content in there. I paused it frequently and took notes — and then wrote this post to make sure I’d had time to think through some of the profoundly interesting and challenging things he was talking about.
The leader owns the question, the team owns the answers. That’s a thread running through several of things I have been reading and writing about for clients lately.
Reading Liz Wiseman’s Multipliers this morning I saw this quote from Tim Brown of IDEO:
As leaders, probably the most important role we can play is asking the right questions and focusing on the right problems. It’s very easy in business to get sucked into being reactive to the problems and questions that are right in front of you. It doesn’t matter how creative you are as a leader, it doesn’t matter how good the answers you come up with. If you’re focusing on the wrong questions, you’re not really providing the leadership you should.
If this sounds obvious, think of all the leaders you’ve known who have insisted on arriving with the answers, or the questions about why their team hasn’t guessed the answer they have decided is obvious.
Wiseman casts this type of leader as a “diminisher“, which sounds like a monster from a Harry Potter story, but I know what she means. It’s your boss that’s always right, and therefore you’re rarely right — you soon stop trying to solve problems and just do what you’re told. Or leave because — despite their self-advertised or heavily implied genius — it’s just not that rewarding working for a monomaniacal smart arse.
There are three kinds of problem, says Grint, with increasing amounts of uncertainty: critical (a crisis with little time for decision-making and action, tame (problems with known solutions that ), and wicked problems.
The required response to critical problems is to command. Things need to happen fast and there’s not much time to consult or debate issues. Put out the fire and then we can talk about those things, the commanding leader says. Tame problems have known solutions and need to be managed through a process to be solved.
Complex problems don’t have an obvious answer. By their nature they may not even have a correct answer — they are wicked problems. If you move a piece of the puzzle all the other pieces change too. As Ben Horowitz says, “this is not checkers; this is motherf**kin’ chess”.
An example of a wicked problem…
Think of a reorganisation of a company or even just department — it’s not a series of simple questions. Person X can lead the operations team, person Y can lead the project team — simple. No. Person X is more competent at projects but more respected by the operations team who would be dismayed to feel that they are losing X for Y. The other way round? No, the operations team needs the competent manager and person X would probably leave. Can we hire for X’s role? Yes but we would lose six months of expertise of X and it could create a flight risk in the team that’s not led.
Did it give you a headache reading that? It damn near gave me one writing it, but that is a tiny aspect of a complex problem — like prioritising product development across hundreds of possibilities.
On a grander scale, Professor Grint cites JFK’s finest hour as a leader:
…President Kennedy’s actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis were often based on asking questions of his civilian assistants that required some time for reflection — despite the pressure from his military advisers to provide instant answers.
How to respond to digital disruption is a wicked problem. Other organisations may have done it, but you don’t know if they are going to be successful. Your transformation is specific to your organisation. You learn from others but your solution will be uniquely yours.
Where to start? Pilot a new approach or large scale change? What are the disruptive challenges you face — and which ones are the ones you need to focus on first? If it’s a combination of technology, business process redesign, capability building and organisation re-design which is dependent on which.
It would literally be simpler to create a start-up — except that you would have fewer resources and less capital and would still have to deal with wicked problems. Dealing with wicked problems is a core competency for any leader in the digital age, the VUCA era or however you choose to describe a time when we don’t seem to know what will happen at any level in markets, politics, the environment or technological progress. We don’t really know what’s going to happen next week, never mind next year and yet countries, companies and careers all still need to be managed.
Some things are harder than running a start-up
Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn and now Silicon Valley wise man at large, compared running a start-up to an impossible feat: “Starting a company is like throwing yourself off the cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down,” he was reported as telling Bloomberg in an interview.
Hoffman also said:
A startup, to some degree, is a set of those challenges of ‘if you don’t solve this, you’re dead.’
The challenge for an incumbent is even less clear. If you don’t solve this, you might be dead. If you do solve this, you might be dead anyway because you weren’t paying attention to the right thing.
The zeitgeist for the past ten years or so has made heroes of the start-up pioneers. This may be passing as heroes become villains and new empires rise. The heroes we need aren’t necessarily in start-ups, they are leaders who are brave enough to start
In a large organisation you may be assembling several aircraft at once and hoping at least one them will fly — and that you’ll be on it — before they hit the ground. Meanwhile you have a lot of board members and investors sitting on a slowly deflating zeppelin balloon insisting that the ground is still sufficiently far away, and that the hydrogen system that has worked for the flight so far is in no way flammable.
(Admitting) ignorance is strength
If you can’t stand not always knowing the answer — or at least appearing to — not only are you downgrading your team’s potential every time you meet them, you are blinding yourself and them to the true nature of the challenge.
Wicked problems, as Grint puts it, require clumsy solutions. If you try to find the right answer you will go mad or go out of business. You have to lead with questions, enlist every bit of thinking power in your organisation to be curious about what solutions might be and then start trying them out. The solutions will be clumsy and imperfect, but they will advance you toward things that will work. Either what you try can be crossed off the list or the grains of insight you gather from it can be applied to the next step forward and the step after that.
Progress will come from leaders who are brave enough — a theme of the recent Marketing Society conference — to take on the new, the confusing and the complex.
I gave the book five stars on Goodreads/Amazon and wrote the following review:
An absolutely essential read for managers, leaders or anyone who wants to get more done in a team
Concise, compelling and practical. Basically those are the three criteria for a business book for me and Scrum scores five stars in each category.
Visionary without getting too preachy — I ‘d say this is an essential management read. I’d imagine whether you are new to Scrum/Agile or a past master it is a very useful book.
This year at Brilliant Noise we have been using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) for our business challenges. In the quarterly cycle just about to finish, we have experimented with company-wide OKR projects with teams comprising everyone in the business. This has given everyone the chance to work with the Scrum method, soem for the first time (myself included). I mention this because Scrum is a method which is interesting conceptually, but is definitely something you need to be doing in order to properly understand. In the context of the Brilliant Noise OKR projects, this book was incredibly useful for getting a deeper understanding of Scrum.
The following are the main things I took away from my first reading of the book.
Scrum requires a high level of honesty and discipline in a team
As my colleague Rachael Rainbow put it “A lot of people think agile methods are relaxed, free and easy, but they aren’t — they are incredibly disciplined.” You have to be clear about the direction, clear about what is valuable, and communicate frequently, openly and candidly to achieve progress. These are all things we all want all the time, regardless of whether we are in an agile project or not, but Scrum — with its frequent deadlines, team check-ins, and constant prioritising on what the next most important thing
The importance of prioritising by value
The Scrum method’s use of a backlog is a hugely important element in the method and one which helps make progress more likely by acknowledging that not everything you want to do will be done.
The idea behind the Backlog is that it should have everything that could possibly be included in the product. You’re never going to actually build it all, but you want a list of everything that could be included in that product vision.
You cannot do everything you want to do. Even within a focused strategy there will be more actions that you want to complete than you can. In Scrum, there is a backlog where you store every task that you could take on, but you try to pick the ones that will give the most value.
This principle is liberating and lowers stress levels. I’ve reflected it into every aspect of my personal time and energy management.
Scrum is not exclusively useful for software development
I’d understood agile and Scrum as coming from the software world and that they might not be suitable for a services company like Brilliant Noise. I could already see that this wasn’t true by the profound breakthroughs and progress we’d been achieving by using the Scrum method for our OKR projects.
What the book did was show me why, both by highlighting use studies of various types of team using Scrum — news teams in media organisations was one of the most relevant — but also that the roots of Scrum were in the Toyota lean manufacturing method, which in turn was based on post-War management techniques promoted by the occupation government of General McArthur in Japan.
There is a lot of room to make Scrum your own
Some of my encounters with Scrum practitioners in the past had felt intimidating and left me thinking that there was almost an introverted, cult-like introversion about the approach. Having a felt sense of what a Scrum project is like, and reading the book meant that I was a lot clearer that the practices of Scrum invite innovation and improvisation — you need to make Scrum your own when you start using the method and doubtless keep refining it to fit your challenges and culture.
Scrum is not the only way to organise a project
Some projects lend themselves more to waterfall project management — things where the ways of doing things are clear and have hard deadlines for instance, like organising a small conference that you’ve run before.
Scrum excels with challenges where we don’t know what the answer is (and are honest enough to admit it). Things where something is going to need to be invented, designed for the first time lend themselves well to the Scrum method.
As Sutherland puts it:
Scrum embraces uncertainty and creativity. It places a structure around the learning process, enabling teams to assess both what they’ve created and, just as important, how they created it. The Scrum framework harnesses how teams actually work and gives them the tools to self-organize and rapidly improve both speed and quality of work.
I highlighted a lot of Scrum as I read it, but these are some quotes that I will keep with me for reference.
Scrum, like aikido, or, heck, like the tango, is something that you can only really learn by doing. Your body and your mind and your spirit become aligned through constant practice and improvement.
On how Scrum can provide temporary relief from silos, but bad habits will often remerge:
I’ve seen this happen at one large financial institution in Boston repeatedly. They’ll call me up in a panic when they have a mission-critical project that is in trouble. They’ll have me train dozens of their people in Scrum, have me start up teams that are capable of addressing their emergency. They direct people from across the organization into cross-functional teams to address the issue. And then they solve it. Once the crisis is past, they disband the teams to their respective silos and managerial fiefdoms.
On daily stand-ups as habit:
…it didn’t matter what time of day the meeting took place, as long as it was at the same time every day. The point was to give the team a regular heartbeat.
Ohno talked about three different types of waste. He used the Japanese words: Muri, waste through unreasonableness; Mura, waste through inconsistency; and Muda, waste through outcomes.
As I’ve said previously, the very act of planning is so seductive, so alluring, that planning itself becomes more important than the actual plan. And the plan becomes more important than reality. Never forget: the map is not the terrain.
On avoiding prioritising:
One bad habit a company can fall into, because of constantly shifting market needs and because managers don’t know exactly where the most value lies, is prioritizing everything. Everything is top priority. The adage to keep in mind comes from Frederick II of Prussia, later to be called “the Great”: “He who will defend everything defends nothing.” By not concentrating both your resources and your mental energies, you thin them out to irrelevancy.
Scrum scales well:
An important thing to say about Scrum is that it rarely remains a one-off for long—it’s built to scale.
On bad behaviour and blame:
it’s pointless to look for evil people; look instead for evil systems. Let’s ask a question that has a chance to actually change things: “What is the set of incentives that drives bad behavior?”
On levels of mastery:
Earlier in this book I discussed the martial arts concept of Shu Ha Ri. People in the Shu state follow the rules exactly, so they learn the ideas behind them. People in the Ha state begin to create their own style within the rules, adapting them to their needs. People in the Ri state exist beyond the rules; they embody the ideals. Watching a true master in the Ri state is like looking at a moving work of art. His or her actions seem impossible, but that’s because the master has become a philosophy in flesh, an idea made real.
Scrum is for pragmatists:
Scrum is the code of the anti-cynic. Scrum is not wishing for a better world, or surrendering to the one that exists.
I took a look at some of the work on Friday and highly recommend a visit to it in Brighton’s North Laine. Entry is free, but you will want to book a place for the Terminal 3 installation.
As soon as you enter Lighthouse you will see the amazing Belongings taking up most of the long right-hand wall in the gallery. It’s an interactive work the like of which I’d not come across before.
Life-sized greyed out images of people sitting on stools are projected on to the wall. Connecting to the “Belongings” Wifi you press and hold a button and a circle appears — multiple visitors can do this at once, you quickly work out which is yours — and you select a figure and who then gets up off their stool and is rendered in colour.
Through your headphones, you can hear them as they tell the story of the object they are holding. It turns out that each a refugee and the object they carry is one of the few things they brought with them.
I found the work fascinating on so many levels. Coming from Sheffield Doc Fest it is, of course, a documentary. The technology is fascinating but the stories are even more compelling and beautifully told — the photography, the staging and sound are all amazing. Immersive experiences — VR, AR, etc — can often feel a little like watching someone at an arcade playing a game, or like watching a film — but this artwork became part of a crowded room, where people were interacting with it, talking about it, being around it. It fitted right in with a human social space, not demanding to be used, not taking over the conversation, but a complement, a part and sometimes the focus of conversations. It’s a wonderful thing in so many ways.
Alternate Realities is on at Lighthouse in Brighton until September 30. Take a look at other Brighton Digital Festival events here including content strategy conference Curio and pop-up sensation Tiny Disco, both of which colleagues of mine from Brilliant Noise have had a hand in making happen. Full disclosure: I’m very proud to serve as Chair at Lighthouse.
I love this executive summaries section at the end of the paper version of the Harvard Business Review. I don’t know if it has been running for years or just started, but it’s very useful in helping decide — do I want to give these X,000 words my attention?
They should put it up front really, to make it even more useful.
The dance of the meeting room hunt and bluff-double-bluff has many variations but is common to offices large and small across the UK. Open plan offices are still the dominant template for workspace design despite a growing armyofdetractors. So when you need a quiet space for an impromptu chat, the hunt for an empty meeting room begins, and then the dance of trying to negotiate your way into rooms.
A delightful bit of making by Brilliant Noise’s creative director Gareth James has made meeting room headaches just a little less frequent for us all.
A pedestrian-crossing style illuminated sign turns red when a room is booked in its dedicated Google calendar, and green when it is not. This alone is helpful – our main office is a long wide space, so opening up calendars or walking down to see if anyone is in there are both clunky ways of working out if you can use the room.
Even better, though – is the instant room booking button. Pressing it gives you the room for five minutes – automatically booking it into the calendar and a couple of seconds later the light turns red.
Simple things. They make me happy.
Gareth’s going to be posting the details of the project soon, so I’ll be sure to update this post with a link to it when he does…
TL;DR: “Type as quickly as you can and always carry a pencil.” — Clive Thompson.
When the late Iain Banks talked about the inevitable “where do you get your ideas?” question that authors are dogged by, he said, “we have exactly the same amount of ideas as everybody else – authors are just better at capturing them”.
Getting thoughts out of one’s head and onto something where they can make use of is an essential practice for everyone who works with their mind.
The moment when the idea or insight occurs is where every great inspiration starts where every new novel, screenplay, strategy and scheme either sparks into life or winks out of possible existence as if it had never occurred to anyone.
When it comes to meetings and listening to presentations I currently prefer a notebook over a tablet or laptop for taking notes. Actually, I’ll use a smartphone if it’s more discreet – say on a crowded restaurant table. I’m always careful to make it clear I’m taking notes, however – if people suspect you are attending to email or other things they can find it distracting and even a little stressful.
For focused note-taking, though, nothing beats the reliability and – it turns out – self-editing and précis skills required of physical note-taking.
This video of a short talk by Clive Thompson, a journalist who writes a great deal about how our minds work with machines, confirmed many of my suspicions about why I like note-taking by hand, as well as why when it comes to developing ideas and getting them down in a document, nothing beats the ability to type quickly.
Since watching this I’ve got the pencils and sharpener he talks about finding as a result of his obsessive search for the best example of each. I can confirm that they are fantastic.
This post comprises notes on a work in progress – a drive to reduce tech-based distractions and learn how to use personal technology help me get things done more effectively and with less distraction and stress.
There is only one red dot on my smartphone now. It is to remind me to do things with things coming out of my mind not out of my email inbox. It’s for an app called Drafts, which effectively has become an inbox for my mind.
If you put in the effort to decide when the dots and pop-ups appear, then you can use them to support your goals, not nibble away at your reserves of willpower, attention and time.
That’s why I like the one red dot I’ve introduced back onto my phone.
At first, I thought Drafts would be a distraction – another text app, a sub-genre of productivity software of which I cannot resist trying out new examples. Then, as I tried to minimise the number of apps on my home screen – down to a maximum of four on the menu bar – I discovered its unique strengths.
The default screen when you open Drafts is a blank page. You write down your thoughts, notes, reminders or whatever and you can then send them to the app they are for or leave them there until you’re ready to process them.
This removes a friction in one’s workflow I’d not noticed before – deciding and finding an app to write in, post in or whatever. When you’re getting a thought out of your head and into an app you’re often on the move, or int he middle fo something else. You don’t want to start using an app and slip out of flow or walking and start doing something else – you just need the thought to be captured.
The notes are in an inbox which you can then process later. That’s where the red dot is useful – to remind me I have some notes that need to be sent to where they will be most useful. An email goes out via the email app using the share function or a list of options in Drafts (it will format it straight into the app with the first line becoming the subject line). An idea for a blog post goes into Ulysses Inbox, the draft of an idea into Slack to share with my team, the list of things to remember into Reminders, the sketched agenda points into Trello.
Image: The operations options for Drafts – these can be changed to the apps you use most.
I’ve been trying this out for a week, and it seems to be very useful. My ways of working don’t often stay the same for long – but this one feels like a small leap forward in personal workflow.
Image: A satisfyingly minimal clear home screen and dock.
I use the Overcast app for podcasts on my iPhone and iPad. It’s really good – straightforward with some useful features like keeping synced between devices and being able to control the speed of playback.
Today it asked me if I wanted to “go anonymous”.
So simple. So much simpler and less queasy an experience to be able to opt out completely of having my data tracked than the post-Cambridge Analytica, pre-GDPR emails and terms and conditions alerts from apps and online services elsewhere. While they are all getting you to click more user agreements you might have a 20% better chance of understanding or even seeing than the old ones, all in the hope of evading a fine or further market cap slips – this approach is so refreshing.
“In or out?,” It says. “We don’t really have to know your date of birth and closest friends and family in order to provide you with an acceptable podcast app.”
How does Apple tell you that you have a new email or message? A red dot on the app. It’s the color choice of both bullfighters and Defcon 5. It incites urgency. “Come back to work,” Slack warns after 5 p.m. “Have you even seen the latest on Trump?” Facebook beckons. Numbers live in those red dots to list the triple digits of your unanswered inbox. And this is not to mention Apple’s worst sin : All those “out of iCloud storage!” notifications that Apple pushes to your home screen in the hope that you’ll spend money on services that other companies offer for free.
You want to know how Android tells you there’s an update waiting? A pale blue or pink or yellow dot. A digital baby blanket. Developers can choose one that coordinates with their icon badge. These washed-out hues are the least urgent colors that I can imagine, and their psychology sinks in quickly. As I use the Pixel, my stomach doesn’t tighten with the guilt of every waiting message or task. “The easy thing to do would have been to put a badge and numbers on our home screen, but that was part of the direction of not being too distracting that we wanted to take,” says Google product manager Allen Huang when we spoke on the topic last month. “There’s no benefit to distracting the user on the way to accomplishing a task.”
I know exactly what he means about iOS – though it’s the same with Macs and Windows on computers.
They all have distraction built into their apps as default.
Whenever I have a fresh install of an OS I turn off all of the default alerts and notifications. When to look at things is not something I want to be dictated by developers’ algorithms.
Over the next few days I turn on notifications for things I would like to know about – usually just in the “history” section, so I can choose to go and see if anyone has emailed or Slacked me for instance, instead of being distracted by messages and sounds every time any message arrives or my running app thinks that now is the perfect moment to badger me to go for a run.
In recent years, a feature that was only available with specialist apps like F.lux has become standard on phone and computer operating systems – night mode. Lowering the amount of blue light means people can get a better night’s sleep.
But how about the daytime? Interruption free mode should come as a standard set up option on new devices. Not just a “do not disturb” mode, but a “never disturb” mode. Users should be able to opt-in to alerts and notifications, not opt-out.
I’m trying out an Android device at the moment – it’s not distraction free, but it is easier to quieten the thing down. This alone wouldn’t be enough to make me switch permanently, but coupled with the superior voice UI of Google, it’s making a strong case. Apple beware.