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Focused on maximising your business ecosystem? Visualisation is vital.

Large organisations increasingly realise the importance of developing partnerships and building out ecosystems. Used well, ecosystems enhance and accelerate innovation; enabling the rapid development of new products and services to generate new revenue streams from customers old and new.

Stephanie Fletcher

Managing Partner & CDO

Both sides of this equation are working hard to realise ecosystem opportunities. Big companies are becoming more open (and open-minded), and the startups they are looking to work with are becoming more focused on plugging in to them easily.

Progress is definitely being made in developing new tools and processes to onboard new partners (to speed up delivery to customers). The mechanics of making an ecosystem work are getting better and better, and plenty of time is being invested in mapping available 3rd party partnerships, technologies, channels, and the integrations they require.

This mapping provides a clear view of partnership opportunities, but it tends to be very reactive (’come and pitch to us’) and, therefore, unpredictable.

Ecosystems are always rich with tempting opportunities, and can lead to a focus on easy wins instead of future-focused opportunities: big leaps that create the most value for tomorrow’s customers.

In my experience, a key component of ensuring that ecosystems are harnessed to their maximum potential lies in how they are envisioned and articulated.

This article outlines a technique that enables a more proactive approach to identifying partnership opportunities – by visualising a futurestate experience that will need them.

Mapping the components of your ecosystem

Ecosystem maps allow businesses to see how all their tools, platforms and services are connected across the business. When we create them, we’ll often include collaborators, regulators, suppliers, competitors and anyone else that has an influence on the business at hand.

They can help to streamline processes and better understand connected data-flows across and between business ‘units‘, and can identify where the company’s resources are being well, or poorly, used. Updated regularly, ecosystem maps help the business take stock operationally.

Mapping is a useful exercise, as part of the current state mapping, but it’s a pretty abstract representation. As part of a futurestate design programme we will use these to map what’s there but we recognised a long time ago that they were not useful as a storytelling device nor as a way to make proactive investments in what the future business can become.

The traditional approach: drawing connections between the customers, partners, internal and external tools, systems and servicesThe traditional approach: drawing connections between the customers, partners, internal and external tools, systems and services

Imagining what your ecosystem will make possible

A very different way to approach this is to visualise a futurestate ecosystem - in the context of a future customer’s experience. It’s a less structured view than a customer journey map as it can jump in and out of an ecosystem of supporting services and expose services that don’t exist yet – be they explicit to the customer or as integrated capabilities.

It presents a holistic view of the entire service experience; whether it is built and provided by you or a partner is irrelevant at this point in time. It just focuses on what is needed to achieve an optimal future experience. By focusing on what capabilities are needed, not who is providing them, it is not constrained by what’s known now.

That difference is really important because it makes it a tool to use to identify and source partners and technologies that align with a long-term vision, and helps to avoid ‘shiny thing‘ syndrome when the next cool startup walks in the door. Having a clear vision doesn’t preclude serendipity: it just helps you make better judgements.

In some recent work in the travel sector, this approach exposed the need for new capabilities in single payment, multi-vendor ordering and fulfilment. These did not exist in the business, nor in any of its current partners and it was not on the roadmap. A short research and analysis exercise later, several potential full-service partners were identified, alongside a range of technologies that would enable the company to do it themselves. Each option can now be assessed against the futurestate experience which demanded capabilities that none of the partners or platforms currently had – but one had in active development. This would never have been discovered without identifying the need, then asking.

An experience-focused approach: mapping the experience journeys and interactions visualises the outcomes of the ecosystemAn experience-focused approach: mapping the experience journeys and interactions visualises the outcomes of the ecosystem

We map the services delivered, the value created, information or data required, used or shared, supporting services and systems required, the devices used and the channels communicated through.

Envisioning the futurestate ecosystem in the form of its end results immediately opens up a range of benefits that more traditional approaches cannot achieve. Here are a few.

A tangible vision drives better, faster ecosystem development

Ecosystems demand that the whole team fully understands the strategy and what they’re all aiming to achieve. There are a lot more moving parts than in traditional business operations and there are many more points at which a misunderstanding can lead to an expensive failure. We use this approach to visualising the ecosystem as a way to tell the ‘ecosystem story’ in a way that everyone on the team can really understand. It visualises what the target future looks like - and what everyone is driving towards.

This eliminates many of the ambiguities that will exist across a diverse team, and therefore drives better identification of appropriate partners and faster development of a robust ecosystem as a whole. Common understanding and aligned vision is arguably more important in a growing ecosystem than in any traditional business context, and being able to ‘see’ what you’re all aiming for is the best method we’ve ever found for achieving that.

Focusing on the outcome provides perspective

When you can see the value of the outcome, it’s easier to understand its relative value to the overall proposition and it’s therefore easier to be balanced about how to achieve it. In each case where capability is lacking you need to decide whether to partner, buy, build, license, integrate, create a joint venture or any other commercial and operational permutation.

It won’t make sense to bring some services into the fold because you’re uncertain of the value or impact of that aspect of your future proposition. Others will be identifiably core. Some services will already be offered while others might be in development but currently invisible (like my travel example earlier).

Many of those who you already partner with – like a payment service provider, or a fulfilment network – may stay the same as today. It may become clear that a partner currently useful for a small part is going to become vital for something much larger soon, so an acquisition or exclusive contract might be a good idea.

In every case you can make a better judgement of how much to invest or how tightly tied to a partner you should become if you can step back to keep the whole picture in perspective.

Looking ahead helps get a head start on data or compliance challenges

Once you can see how your future experience might shape up, you can start to ‘follow’ data around the journey, highlighting areas where moving data to an external partner’s systems might prove challenging, or you might see an opportunity for new forms of data packaging to enable a radical change in how to move data around. It’s like using a topographic map to see where floods might occur. Just ask yourself as you move around ‘where’s that data coming from?’. It’s the simplest of sense-checks but it often shows up a major issue (or opportunity).

You can also see where you might take advantage of technologies like AI and ML to manipulate data or automate a process that’s clearly going to be repetitive. This might flag the need for a new type of capability (or partner) in its own right.

Finally, ecosystems can be a compliance minefield, so visualising them in a realistic, more scenario-driven way can highlight where legal or regulatory issues might lie, and it’ll make it much easier for compliance teams to understand what those challenges might be. Given how tricky some of these issues can be to overcome, the sooner you identify them, the sooner you can start the conversations needed with an industry regulator, for example.

New distribution opportunities can appear unexpectedly – if you let them

One of the things I find most interesting is how this type of visualisation can help people spot new ways to get their service to customers, not just ways to make it happen.

Sometimes partners can instead become channels, or both. It might be that integrating what you do into what someone else does wasn’t the aim of the exercise, but screams out to be done once you see how it might play out. Keeping the futurestate concept clean of how it should be realised allows you to think very openly about what it might all mean. You do have to be open-minded though, and people often find that harder than they think.

Right now, for example, we see far more opportunities to embed ‘big’ services into ‘small’ services than vice-versa, and also far more reluctance to do so. Think in terms of ‘how can we be most valuable to the customer?’ not ‘how can we own the customer?’ and you’ll be on the right path: I’ve often found myself designing a new service concept only to recommend that it would best serve the customer if it were integrated into something that they already use.

Particularly where large corporates are bringing small startups into their domain, it’s worth thinking about who that startup is targeting, and why? It might just be that one of those elusive new marketplaces that have been such a struggle to break into will fall into your lap, just not in the way you expected. And that’s ok: ecosystems are, and should be, multi-directional.

A few tips

I’m usually creating this type of visualisation as part of a broader futurestate design programme, but we also create them as projects in their own right. Here are a few tips if you’re tackling this yourself.

  1. Keep it focused on customer experiences or interactions and away from the ‘entities’ that provide them. It’s about what it will enable and how it will do it, not who will do it. (It’s fine to identify what activities, services, functions your organisation currently provides or where existing partnerships or integrations lie, but make them an overlay or small annotations only.)
  2. Create one for each key audience, as there are often huge signals in the places where they overlap or intersect. A company offering B2B and B2C services should visualise both future customer experiences, for example.
  3. Base them on ideas, anecdotes and broad research, never on what you do today. It’s about what you can be, not what you are. Look and think well beyond your peer group.
  4. Involve a good range of different brains. Go broad in your team, bring unusual groups together and encourage really open, free-form thinking. We often run workshops involving 15 or 20 people and by the end of them there are more new ideas for the future than you’d believe.
  5. As we say for all of our futurestate work, think without current constraints, but no rocket shoes. If it’s being done somewhere, assume you can do it too.
  6. Choose your end format carefully. We’ve created them as posters, narrated videos and interactive experiences: if you’re all in the office, posters are a much underrated way to keep things front-and-centre. Equally if you’re mainly remote, they’re not much use at all and a distributable or online format will work best.

Is it right for you?

This is a technique that we developed as part of our futurestate design work, but quickly found to be incredibly valuable for organisations who are building, or who are part of, growing ecosystems. If you’re already involved in, or considering how to, harness the opportunities that a rich ecosystem strategy can deliver, this approach can be incredibly valuable.

It’s not, of course, a silver bullet. You still have to do the thinking and the hard work to imagine what the futurestate can be. However, if you start that work with a clear view of this type of output, you’re forced to think about many of the right things.

In my experience, this approach has so many advantages that it’s worth considering for any business that needs to understand and capitalise on its role in a broader business ecosystem.

Stephanie Fletcher

Stephanie Fletcher is a co-founder of Wilson Fletcher. Steph leads the company's design work.

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