Reaching adulthood as an independent seems to be a rare milestone for companies these days, especially in our world of digital strategy, design and innovation. While our purpose as a business remains very much the same as it was on day one, the world we operate in has changed drastically since then. I want to reflect on a few of the changes that have had the greatest impact on digital business — not least because many remain areas that companies need to be paying close attention to.
Let’s start with a heartland topic. I still remember the first time I said to a client that they needed a digital business strategy: it was about two months into working with a big US client in 2003. They’d asked us to help them design a platform that could open up new ways to sell a vast content resource to global customers. In an early call with their CEO I remember saying something like “You know, if we (collectively) get this right, your whole business can change. We should think about how to develop a strategy that moves you from a print publishing to a digital services business.”
He said no, albeit nicely: digital was ‘just a channel’ and while he was happy to be a pioneer in how they used e-commerce he didn’t see it affecting how they thought about their business at all. He saw it as an add-on to, not a replacement for, the way they’d always done things. Ten years later, the conversation was a very different one.
This, in many ways, was the business world in microcosm back then. While we’d embed strategy into our design and innovation programmes it would be several years before someone engaged us for a digital strategy explicitly, and it wasn’t until the first period of recession hit that we started to get clients asking us for help with digital strategy regularly.
Fast forward to today and while there are still a good number of laggards out there, most business leaders know that without a clear strategy to be a strong digital business — via continued evolution or wholesale transformation — their future is bleak. The global pandemic has ruthlessly exposed digital weaknesses and it’s galling to see businesses collapse that could so easily have flourished if they’d made investments in digital strategy sooner.
While some have been hit hard, many were on the right path already. It has been a good few years since I can remember needing to sell the necessity for a digital-first business strategy. It’s true that many misapprehensions exist about what that means (“we’ve implemented Agile” still chills my blood) but at least it’s in the leadership team’s consciousness, and that’s a good step towards true digital maturity.
Digital strategy, no more than a curiosity for our clients back when we started, is now at the heart of all the best modern businesses, its tendrils stretching into every aspect of how they think about the future of their organisation.
It’s remarkable to think it now, but making customers part of the design process was still a rarity when we started. On numerous occasions we were asked to ‘hide’ budget for customer research within other areas by programme owners because they couldn’t get a budget for it explicitly. Senior leaders talked about the importance of prioritising customer experience but rarely believed it, in my view.
That, thankfully, has not been a problem we’ve experienced in a long time.
What I find more interesting is how those customers themselves have changed over time. The attitudes and behaviours of people, whether in a business or personal life context, have shifted drastically.
The way most people routinely share sensitive and personal data with service providers is one of the most profound shifts: when we started WF it was still a major challenge to get many consumers to enter their credit card details in an online service (let alone store them there). The shift in trust has been extraordinary, enabling a revolution in personalised service provision alongside, sadly, abuse and exploitation of that trust by the big advertising and social networks in particular.
Let’s hope the privacy backlash balances the scales a little more in the years to come, because when companies are forced to focus on generating value from customers ‘honestly’ they make better decisions about their businesses and the services they offer.. The trust that has built can only be maintained with strong digital ethics.
One of the customer shifts that I’m most obsessed by is the impact of what I’d call aggregate expectations. When we created some of the earliest digital services, customers would assess them only against their peers: their expectations were defined by the best of the domain we were working in. Today it is routine for people to engage with dozens of diverse services as part of their daily and professional lives, and to try new ones all the time.
This has completely rewired the way we all form expectations for any new service, or the way an organisation is expected to behave. Today, our mental models of what good looks like can be drawn from experiences across almost every type of service imaginable because in most cases we access them all in the same way: via a web browser or, more commonly now, the touchscreen of a smartphone.
Our 18th exactly coincided with the iPhone’s 14th. I really don’t need to dwell much on the extent to which this single device and all its derivatives have changed the course of billions of lives. When we started, feature phones and PDAs were all the rage, a Nokia or Blackberry in almost every hand. The big impact? Here was a beautiful device that you could design beautiful things for — and thousands did. Aside from all of the life-changing capabilities the iPhone enabled, I think it made more people than ever cognisant of what good design is and raised the aesthetic and behavioural expectations of all of the devices with which we share our lives.
The last one for now is purpose. 18 years ago, almost no-one talked about organisational purpose and very, very few had a long-arc mindset about their organisation that they made decisions against. Sure, the more sophisticated could articulate their brand ethos and its values, but no-one talked about why their organisation existed.
We can all thank Simon Sinek for raising purpose to the forefront of corporate consciousness, largely using a flipchart, some concentric circles and a great TED talk script. ‘Why?’ was increasingly put before ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ in strategic conversations, but while I think purpose now plays a massive part in the narrative of businesses, few really have a purpose-driven mindset, even today. Too many decisions are made about short-term impacts without consideration of the ultimate purpose of the organisation and whether a more patient approach that aligns with that purpose is more appropriate: doing fewer, more purpose-aligned things today will always achieve more in the long-term.
Understanding of the importance of ‘infinite’ organisational purpose is growing and, compared to 2003, it’s a whole new world. I think part of the reason we’re making progress here is down to a simple shift in priorities in senior leaders.
Where 18 years ago, seven-day weeks and relentless doing was the obsession in top leaders, there has definitely been a shift towards more thinking time among many of the leaders we work with. The value of this time in a purpose-driven organisation can’t be overstated because the headspace to do proper thinking is essential if you’re going to make robust long-term decisions and maintain the kind of strategic clarity that modern leaders and their businesses need.
The faster the pace of change became over the last 18 years, the more important thinking time became, too, and those that grasped and embraced the need to step out of relentless doing have seen the benefits.
Well, we’re officially an adult. We’ve learned an inconceivable amount in the time we’ve been in business and what we do now, while very much what we were trying to do on day one, is unrecognisable in so many ways. I’m happy to say that I consider it better in every possible respect.
We make some very deliberate choices about WF and how we operate that have always made us a bit of an oddity in our domain, but it works for us. We always set out to do the best possible work in a way that didn’t feel like it was something we had to choose to do instead of life. We’ve had some remarkable people work with us, and our team today is a collection of brilliant, diverse people who, somehow feel like a family. More Addams family than The Waltons perhaps, but that’s exactly as it should be.
To every client that’s helped keep our lights on, and to every team member that’s helped keep our clients’ lights on, we can only say thank you: you all made growing up exactly the experience it should be.