Fostering Innovation

We spend most of our lives in an “operational” world – one that is defined by rules, routines and rationality. But Innovation requires a different skillset that includes connection making, curiosity and experimentation. So, how does one go about building a culture that fosters these values?

This week, I had the privilege of attending a workshop run by Amazon’s Innovation team on Customer Centricity and Building a culture of Innovation. And, here are some of the principles that particularly resonated with me…

  • The key is learning how to handle experiments and failure; If you already know its outcome, it doesn’t count as an experiment
  • Culture ultimately drives Innovation; Make sure your hiring, reward & recognition, performance assessment, etc. are all aligned to support it
  • If your focus is on truly improving the life of the Customer, the other business metrics are sure to follow
  • When working on a new product/service, take the MVP route: What is the smallest thing I can do to test my idea? Then, release to users. Then, iterate and improve.
  • Avoid slide decks, and instead aim for simple narratives written in customer-speak; It will provide much-needed clarity on what will really work (and what will not!)
  • When it comes to Innovation, you need to be “Stubborn on the Vision, but Flexible on the Details” ~ Jeff Bezos

Much of this may seem like common-sense, or even something you may have read elsewhere. But, try to implement any one of these (at a team or organization level), and you will truly appreciate what goes into making it happen.

It may take a while to get there, but the reward is well worth the effort.

Change Is The Only Constant

The idea of ThinkShop was born way back in 1999, when I first started a web-design studio called UncommonWisdom to work on Internet-based Communication Design. My boutique consulting firm was way ahead of its time, but we were able to deliver some interesting work in the digital space, including digital strategy, website design and UX for enterprise-grade applications.

In its second avatar, ThinkShop began life in 2013, helping its clientele bridge the gap between Idea and Execution, until the end of 2017.

As an independent consultant at the helm of ThinkShop, I was fortunate to work with some of the leading players in Financial Services, Insurance and Education, on projects that included developing Customer Engagement strategy and Marketing Communication frameworks, User Experience Design across multiple platforms, and architecture for a 100,000+ page web presence.

With the beginning of 2018, I have decided to take up an assignment that, once again, offers me the opportunity to apply my skills to problems of scale. With it, I commence a new chapter in my professional life, as ‘Group Head – Customer Experience’ at the Edelweiss Group – one of India’s leading Financial Services conglomerates.

A big Thank You for all the support you’ve shown to ThinkShop and me.

Doing UX Right

Yes, we live in a multi-screen, always-on world. Yes, most of us agree that Design and UX matter. Then, why is it so hard for most organizations to do UX right?

There are, of course, some challenges involved. Business enterprises are trained to think of customers as belonging to various segments. And, as the business grows, it tries to tap into an ever-expanding market, reaching out to newer customer segments that eventually have little in common with the original tribe. This is especially true of large, diversified groups of companies.

In such a context, how do we establish which design approach to take? After all, what works for one customer type, may not work for the rest. More importantly, how do we institutionalize the pursuit of “good design” across the enterprise? As it turns out, it is possible to do a few things right and meet the objective of delivering a good UX…

1. Good Design is a Thing

Segmentation is important, and customers often exhibit different personalities and needs. But ultimately, we all like an elegant, friction-less experience. So get your team thinking about what constitutes “Good Design”, learning from the principles laid down by Dieter Rams, Don Norman and others. Build on those principles when you start working on aspects like Presentation, Interaction, Content, etc. and you will be a step closer to your goal.

2. Know Thy User

Understand your “user”. Walk in his/her shoes. Meet with them often to keep in touch with their needs. Find out what they want from you. Reflect on what you want from them (Hint: There can be more than one possibility). Then, align your design philosophy to those insights as closely as possible. After all, design is not just art. It is about crafting solutions to real issues.

3. Embrace Insights

Be open to insights from diverse functions – UX is a multi-disciplinary science. Ask “why” like a five-year-old would. And, don’t be afraid to split test and iterate all your ideas. As Kate Zabriskie once said, “The customer’s perception is your reality.

4. Aim for Amazing

Understand each medium or channel that your customer interacts with. Aim for a consistence experience across channels – your customer is expecting you to do so. Every design decision is a trade-off, and you can never please every one. So make sure you make the trade-offs that matter the most. Remember: Good experience + Thoughtfulness makes for an amazing experience!

Knowing It All

As we get older, most of us assume that we get wiser. This is seen to be true for both individuals and organizations. We may call it different names – learning, experience, insight, etc. Some of us may accelerate the process by learning from others’ experiences (through books and training), or by exposing themselves to changing environments (think travel or shifting industries). Others may see themselves as a “lifelong student”, constantly seeking out ways to add to their knowledge base, or challenging themselves to step outside their comfort zone.

But, what does this “wisdom” really mean? Why do we assume that being wiser means having all the answers? Why do we take it for granted that while we are doing the right thing, others (those whose actions are not in sync with our’s) are on the wrong path? Again, this is often true for both individuals and organizations.

Let’s take a look at some of the issues that business enterprises face today: Should it be scarce or abundant? Should it be free or expensive? Should it be about what used to matter or what really matters today? What should we do when our hunches don’t match the data that’s pouring in?

We live in a complex, interconnected world. And, organizations of all shapes and sizes struggle with questions to which they do not have the answers – even if they bring all their experience to bear on the issue. So, why pretend that we know it all?!

The way I see it, knowing what you don’t know is an essential attribute of being wiser. And, working on filling those gaps only means that we are on our way to becoming a better version of ourselves. To me, continuous learning means having the humility to ask a lot of questions, being receptive to other (dissimilar) perspectives, and developing the ability to synthesize them suitably.

We’ve all heard of IBM predicting a world market of “maybe five personal computers”. We know that Kodak missed the bus with digital photography standards, even after inventing the digital camera! And yes, “uberization” is a word now. In other words, just because someone (including your competitor) is on a different path, it doesn’t mean they are wrong.

Believe it or not, organizations can admit – to their employees, customers, stakeholders – that they don’t know every thing, but that they have learned a few things along the way about what works (and doesn’t work) in their unique context. And, so can individuals. Yes, even those in “leadership” positions!

Let me end with the words of a wise Economist who once remarked: “When the Facts Change, I Change My Mind. What Do You Do, Sir?”

Travelling Abroad 101

This post was also published on HotFridayTalks.com

Who doesn’t like to travel? Our glossy magazines and social media feeds seem to be filled with pictures of people in exotic locales across the world. And let’s not forget the steady diet of Switzerland and Canada in our Bollywood films! But, if you haven’t yet left desi shores to travel outside India – I mean, ever – it can all get a bit intimidating.

No worries, this post might help you master the basics and make the transition a pleasant one…

Visas

First things first! If you are an Indian traveller going abroad, you will find that most places will require a visa, which typically means documentation and visa fees. Some countries also require explicit permission letters from the destination country as a part of the application process, while others involve in-person interviews that may or may not be scheduled in your city of residence. That said, there are also a few countries that are relatively easier to access via simple visa formalities or even visa-on-arrival. So, do some research online (or through your preferred travel agent) to learn what it takes before you zero-in on the destination. Of course, visas get stamped on passports. So make sure you have one that doesn’t expire in the next 6 months.

Getting By

Most popular cities have traffic congestion during peak hours on popular routes – way worse than you can imagine. Thankfully, most popular destinations also have cheap, fast alternatives to help tourists (and locals) get around. These include Rapid Transit systems like the MRT or SkyTrains popular across South East Asia, with many major international airports also connected to the city center through an Airport Express system. Bear in mind that in some cities, it may cost you nearly as much as hailing a cab (for a group of 4), but you’ll save a significant amount of time not being stuck in traffic.

Connectivity

Carry your India SIM for emergency, but ask for a local SIM (destination country) as a prepaid card for your second slot. You can even carry a spare handset if you don’t have a dual-SIM phone. You will find that most travel destinations have very attractive short-term offers for calling, data and messaging on prepaid plans, aimed at visiting tourists. You may need to show your passport to get a connection.


“The world is a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page.”
Augustine of Hippo


Sights & Sounds

When it comes to taking in the sights, tourist-friendly destinations have a lot to offer. Unlike most places in India, you may not save much money by showing up at the venue and buying the ticket there. Online ticket websites and travel desks of popular hotels may charge you the same (original) price, and include free transport to and from your hotel. Ask around to figure out what works better.

Shopping

At most popular malls in tourist-friendly cities, there will often be a designated place/exit/gate where you can queue up for taxis that take you back to your hotel. The queues may be long during peak hours, but are the quickest way to get a cab, unless you have a vehicle on standby.

Lost?

Many hotels I have stayed in across the world have “contact cards” at the reception with the hotel’s contact details, a tiny map and the address printed in the local language and in English. Pick up some copies from the hotel desk, and carry them with you, especially if you are travelling to a city where the locals may not speak/understand English. It will help you re-trace your steps back to the hotel from an unfamiliar location. On that note, it is also a good idea to carry a print of some emergency numbers like the nearest local hospital, the Indian embassy, etc. for those times when unforeseen events happen.

Respect

Last but not the least, remember to conduct yourself in a manner that is appropriate and respectful of local customs. Some countries also prescribe what is appropriate (and not appropriate) to wear for ladies, or inside their temples of worship, or on the palace grounds of the reigning monarch. Other cities have very strict rules about what is permitted through customs or what is allowed (and not allowed) as a part of their traffic regulations. Read a little about what’s ok and what’s not, so you are on the right side of the law. And, don’t forget to set a good impression for your country, when you’re in a foreign land!

Enjoy your travels…

Holding Customers To Ransom

What if the business that services your needs could hold you to ransom?

Think about that for a minute. There are many business firms that enjoy a monopoly in their particular industry or geography. Yes, we clamp down on the monopolistic practices of giants like Google and Microsoft, every now and then. But, for every Google, there are hundreds of thousands of businesses that operate as a monopoly, and go virtually undetected or unfazed by anti-trust settlements upheld by the European Union. And, by virtue of the disproportionate power they enjoy, they get away with things any other business would not dream of.

Let me take a hyperlocal example of a newspaper distributor. In most major cities in the India, the newspaper distribution is virtually a monopoly. Every little nook and corner of the city is carved up in such a manner that at most one newspaper agent “services” the region, free of any competition. On the face of it, most of these agents seem to belong to just a few communities, and seem to respect each other’s boundaries as if they are conforming to some unwritten law. And most of the time, the system works. You get your newspapers and magazines delivered as per your preference, each morning, at your doorstep. And the service comes to you at no extra cost – the distribution fee is built into the cost of the publication.

But, what happens when the service standards falter? What happens if you get the wrong stuff delivered each day? Or if your favorite morning daily is delivered to you after you’ve left home for work? Yes, you can call and complain to your agent, but if his processes are broken or his staff inept, or worse, he couldn’t care less – most customers have no recourse to switch to a better alternative. In short, if shoddy services are meted out to them, they will just have to stick with it, or go out of their way each day to buy a copy from the local news stand.

Take another example of your Accountant. Once again, I speak of this in the Indian context, where prevalent Tax laws are so convoluted and ever-changing that there are very real exit barriers involved. Your “accountant” – the one who maintains your books of account and helps you file your tax returns – is not only well-versed with the regulations, but also an expert in your peculiarities and how things work specifically for you. And he/she is a vital component of the system, ensuring compliance with the law and advising you on making prudent investments, as you go through various life stages and business maturity cycles.

But, what happens if there are missed deadlines and constant reminders involved (from you to your accountant, and not vice versa)? What happens if you discover that you could have saved more tax under current provisions, but you were not informed of it in time? If the service delivery is short of expectations in this department, most of us would simply grin and bear it, because it’s not that easy to change your accountant mid-stream. I should know, since I’ve successfully attempted it on more than one occasion!

Which brings me back to my original question. But, now that we’ve understood the context in more detail, let us try and examine the issue in a new light: What if it was your business that enjoyed such a disproportionate power as a monopoly, or operated in an industry with high exit barriers?

Would you use such an opportunity to improve or lower your service standards? Would you invest any more in automation or new technology than you absolutely needed to? Would you make it easier for your customers to reach you, or avoid dealing with the extra hassle and costs involved? Would you want to listen to your customers and respond to their needs, or ignore them knowing that most are in a helpless situation anyway?

I know that most of us are part of organizations and businesses that do not enjoy such monopolistic protections. But the questions I have raised apply equally to us. In fact, even more so, considering that most businesses operate in fiercely competitive environments, where the other guy (competition) may be willing to bend over backwards to take a larger share of the market from us.

Are we doing enough to keep our customers close, respond to their needs, set and meet service benchmarks and invest in a consistent, brand experience for them? And if not, what are we waiting for?

Design Thinking and Innovation

Having spent more than twenty years (as an internal or external consultant) addressing a variety of business problems for both clients and employers, I do know a thing or two about “Design Thinking”. In fact, my consulting outfit – ThinkShop.in – regularly works with clients across industries on a range of business/technology/marketing solutions, including organizing custom boot camps on topics that include Digital Strategy, Design Thinking and Customer Engagement.

But even Teachers can become Students, and there is no limit to the learning one can assimilate. So, when the opportunity arose a few months ago, to attend a workshop on the subject of ‘Design Thinking‘, I looked up the profile of the coach, and realized this was an opportunity not to be missed!

The workshop was being conducted by Prof. Srikant M. Datar – the Arthur Lowes Dickinson Professor of Business Administration, Faculty Chair of the Harvard Innovation Lab, HBS One Harvard Faculty Fellow, and Senior Associate Dean for University Affairs at Harvard Business School. A Chartered Accountant by training and a gold medalist from IIM (A), Prof. Datar holds two masters degrees and a Ph.D. from Stanford University, and brings decades of experience working with leading Fortune 500 companies as a consultant.

Though no single post can capture the depth of this subject, if you are just starting off on your journey, here are some key learnings you may find useful:

Innovation can be a breakthrough or even incremental change at a product, process or business-model level

Innovation ultimately depends on the quality of observation and insight, how we frame the problem, and quality & quantity of ideation

‘Breaking Fixedness’ – our fixed ways of thinking that help us in our day to day life, our hard-wiring – is the key to Innovation

The risks of not innovating are even greater than the risks involved in innovating

Most of us spend most of our lives in the “operational” world defined by rules, routines and rationality, while Design Thinking requires skillsets that include connection making, curiosity and experimentation

‘Status Quo Bias’ is a real thing that adversely impacts the pursuit of Innovation in any field

Techniques like multiplication, division, rapid prototyping, etc. can be used to overcome prevalent cognitive biases, when it comes to designing a relevant solution

Of course, if you are serious about building an Innovation practice, you will need to do a whole lot more, including equipping your team members with the skills they will need to make a dent.

‘Design Thinking’ matters, and investments (of time and money) made in building a strong foundation will surely reap rich rewards for your organization, when it starts impacting the Customer Experience positively. As an added bonus, you will find that it also ingrains in you a new, refreshing way to look at the world.

Did I mention, ThinkShop can help?!

Startup India: Taking Stock

Last month, Mint did a feature on Hits and Misses in the Indian Startup universe. It was a great opportunity to take stock of reality, since most of what we read about in the mainstream media is a function of “survivorship bias”. Here are some interesting statistics from that story…

  • The E-commerce sector alone has raised over $11 billion over the past decade – roughly 75% of the funds that have been raised by Indian start-ups during that period
  • Of the $11 billion, Flipkart Internet Pvt. Ltd has raised more than $4.5 billion, and is now India’s most valuable Internet company at $11.6 billion
  • The top five most-funded start-ups in E-commerce to have shut down had raised $51.1 million in total, which doesn’t include the distress sales of companies such as Letsbuy and SherSingh
  • $3.1 billion (including debt) was raised by Digital Payment startups, making Paytm – now valued at $7 billion – India’s second-most valuable Internet company
  • Of the 192 companies founded in the Cab Hailing category since 2007, 76 have shut shop; Ola is currently valued at $3.5 billion
  • Nearly 310 start-ups in Healthcare, of 2,678 founded since 2007, have shut shop; Practo, 1MG, Portea are the top startups in this segment
  • As many as 2,460 ventures in the Edu-tech / Education space incorporated since 2007; about 224 have shut down
  • Of the 2,420 start-ups founded in Hyperlocal (home services+food tech+delivery) since 2007, 780 have shut shop
  • As many as 514 ventures tried group buying model one way or the other, but at least 221 shut shop

Think about those statistics for a moment; There are plenty of lessons to learn from. Here are some of my personal takeaways…

  1. A healthy dose of funding was available to those who ventured out and attempted to create an organization of value
  2. The best known in each segment typically finds it a bit easier to gain preferred access to investors, markets and customers, simply by virtue of their size and brand salience
  3. Path-breaking, innovative ideas executed well are not the only recipe for success; Addressing a customer gap with great execution at a profitable price point can work wonders too!
  4. Despite significant resources at their disposal, and addressing a real customer need, countless startups did not survive the past decade

For some of you dreaming of launching a startup, posts like these may signify doom and gloom. For others, it will probably provide the inspiration to soldier through.

The fact is, not every venture is meant to succeed and not every startup will fail. “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly“, said R. Buckminster Fuller. For me, the biggest lesson buried in these statistics is that building a successful organization takes decades, not years. There is simply no shortcut to it.

Crystal Gazing: 2018

We are almost at the halfway mark of 2017, and I thought it would be a good idea to capture some emerging trends, and explore how business will be impacted in the coming months…

Trend #1 – Chatbots

Bots seem to be everywhere these days. And, cutting-edge organizations are rushing to deploy them. Bots today are kind of what Apps were like, just a few years ago – it sounds like every one should have one. Surely, bots offer some real advantages, and chief among them is the ability to automate repeated tasks at a fraction of the cost (of a human/manual alternative). That’s a great use case for organizations that are in scale-up mode.

What role, if any, will bots play in your organization? How can your business leverage this emerging technology to reduce operational costs or improve responsiveness? How will that impact the team?

Trend #2 – Sinking Data Costs

Intuitively, we all know that data costs are significantly lower than they used to be. In India, disruptive players like Reliance Jio have already upset the apple-cart and eroded market share (and profits) of the established telcos. Worldwide, voice and messaging is rapidly being replaced by VoIP/VoLTE and web-based messaging, with data now being the primary use of a mobile phone. Broadband Data costs inside the home are also more affordable than ever.

What will this do to Internet and Mobile penetration in emerging markets? How will customer behavior change? Will users go beyond chat and e-commerce? Is your organization ready for the next phase of evolution?

Trend #3 – Aadhaar, Everywhere

In the India context, we are witnessing no less than a revolution in terms of data linkages and availability. 1 Billion+ users have already registered for an Aadhaar id, with 93%+ coverage among adults. This, naturally, establishes a strong foundation for payments via financial inclusion, but that’s not all there is to it. Increasingly, services like filing IT returns and booking air tickets are being linked to Aadhaar. The IndiaStack APIs already offer a robust platform comprising Aadhaar + eKYC + eSign + Digital Locker, reducing Customer Onboarding time from days to hours, and we have only just begun.

How will this ever-connected universe of data impact privacy and consumer protection? What will it to to service levels? How will customer expectations evolve over time? What is your organization doing to stay ahead of the curve, or keep up with the changing dynamics?

The answers will not be easy to come by, and may differ for each one of us. As we head into these winds of change, here’s hoping we ask the right questions… and embrace Change.

Social Absurdities

When someone we know is admitted into a hospital, social norms dictate that we visit them while they are hospitalised. If unable to do so during that window, those of us who are closely related to the patient, are expected to pay a visit to them in their home, after they have been discharged. That’s the norm, isn’t it?

But, what happens if you’ve already paid a visit once, found that the patient was recovering well, and after a few days find out that he/she has taken a turn for the worse? Should you go again?

What happens if, after your visit, the patient has been sent home, only to be rushed back to the hospital after a day’s rest? Are you expected to re-visit?

What happens if the event in question is not an illness, but the birth of a child? As a mother, you may think that the last thing you want with a newborn is to attend to visitors. Should you extend that kindness to the mother currently in the hospital, and spare her your visit? By doing so, will you be remembered for your generosity of spirit, or for the fact that you did not bother to show up, despite being a close friend or relative?

If the event is, in fact, an illness, should the severity of the illness determine how many times you are expected to visit? Should a recurrence qualify in severity as much as the original ailment? How many visits are adequate?

Yes, there are those among us who are genuinely concerned about the patient in recovery, and would like to show up just to let them know that they are not alone, and that help is at hand. But, the bulk of visitors in any given hospital are there as a social formality, is it not?

Like the ‘hospital dilemma’, I find that many of the social norms we religiously follow, border on sheer absurdity!

We all do it, because every one else is doing it, and because every one expects us to.

Like complimenting the host for a yummy meal. If some do it as a social nicety, and others do it only when they really like the food, how does the host know which is which? Of what use is the compliment to you, if you yourself say such things all the time, without meaning it?

Are we becoming a society that almost never means what it says, or says what it means? What will the world look like if more and more of us head down that path? What will Truth mean in such a world?

I wonder.