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If you want to design the future, don’t start in the past

Genuinely innovative services inspire new behaviours in customers. The best way to conceive the kind of breakthrough ideas that make this possible is to free yourself from the past. In this article we discuss why current state analysis can stop you achieving a bold step forward.

Mark Wilson

Managing Partner & CEO

“So… how do you approach analysing our existing performance: I assume that’s something you want to do before starting to design the future experience.”

This question was posed a few days ago by a prospective client. Their assumption was, quite logically I suppose, that we would interrogate their analytics and conduct a detailed analysis of their diverse digital estate before we kicked off work on shaping an entirely new service.

My answer was: “Our approach is always the same: we don’t start with the past.”

We get posed questions like this all the time. Understanding what has performed well (and what hasn’t) tells us what aspects of the service customers currently value, or at least use, the most. Conventional wisdom would suggest that this should be an excellent foundation for designing a new generation.

That premise, in many cases, proves to be entirely wrong. The reason, when you think about it logically, is blindingly obvious: these are historic data points based on historic experiences. Essentially, they’re answers to old questions.

Starting with the current state leads to weaker future state solutions. The two most common analyses of current state information are performance data and service functionality, and both can set you off in the wrong direction.

You wouldn’t dress for yesterday’s weather, so why design for yesterday’s behaviour?

That quote I started with was in the context of an ambitious target to increase revenue 10x from a suite of services that are heavily used but don’t operate profitably.

To achieve the commercial goals, the service needs to be completely reinvented, and an entirely new value proposition created that reframes it in the minds of its target customers — essentially teaching them how to think about its value in future. Clearly, without a dramatic change in perceived value, asking people to pay for something tomorrow that they didn’t pay for yesterday will not go well.

Creating something new, built on similar core assets, provides an opportunity to get customers to behave differently and build a new relationship with the company providing the service. As I wrote about a while back, providing an alternative is usually a better way to shift customers away from a crumbling or loss-making service than trying to update it and migrate them.

Create a new way to do something and you have an opportunity to monetise that change in behaviour. New behaviours, driven by new levels of utility, can drive new value.

New, new, new. That is the crux of my answer to that initial question. The last place to turn when trying to release yourself from the shackles of an under-performing service is the current state. What performs well now could be exactly what kills you tomorrow.

In an established company, the core aim of any step-change innovation or generational reinvention is usually to create new customer behaviours that can generate new or expanded commercial returns. When you boil it down, that’s it.

Empowering new customer behaviours tends to make even the best historic data obsolete. The digital age is littered with the corpses of terrible decisions built on world-class insight into current performance. Who cares today what the most used/best selling/highest rated 35mm film is? It largely doesn’t matter, because new technology switched on an entirely new set of consumer behaviours, which in turn rapidly made all of that historic performance data worthless.

Data, as I have said many times, is a fundamentally important part of operational performance for any modern company. But you have to understand its limitations and know when to set it aside to take bigger steps forward.

I guarantee that 10x increase will not come from any of the areas identifiable as the best performing today — not least because the definition of ‘best performing’ will have changed completely.

Looking too hard at how things work today will stop you from thinking inventively about the future.

“We’re currently undertaking an extensive programme to map all of our existing services. We aim to be ready to design their replacements in around nine months.”

This (also real) quote came from a large public sector client. Their challenge is to design new generations of services that are relied on by thousands of people every day, most of which have been in operation for many years.

Again, this sounds like an entirely sensible approach: fully understand everything you do today before creating a new generation of services for tomorrow. Years have been spent making these processes work, and workarounds to fill gaps exist in abundance. By understanding how these services function today, they will be able to fully inform the design of future services. Right?

This is the functional equivalent of performance data: how things work today may have no relevance whatsoever to how they should work tomorrow, because, again, the greatest gains come from enabling new, not just better, ways to do things.

Now I know that’s not always possible, but it has to be the aim at the outset or you guarantee that you’ll never achieve anything but incremental improvement.

More importantly, in every case I can think of, it saves a ton of wasted time and money.

As with performance data, getting into the weeds of current functionality inevitably clouds future thinking. People ask, consciously or unconsciously, ‘how do we do this better?’ instead of ‘how might we achieve a new level of service?’ or ‘what could this experience look like in 5 years?’ or even ‘what if we didn’t do this at all?’ — or a hundred more fundamental questions like these.

Create a new customer behaviour by coming up with a new way to achieve something and I’ll bet that a large percentage of that current state analysis that has taken so long, and cost so much, is now of no value at all. All you’ve achieved is a compromised view of the future.

Jump ahead, focus on the future, and only look back if you really need to.

In both cases, there’s a better way. Start in the future, and check that against the past if it’s needed.

In our work, we always start by envisioning the ideal future state of a service before we even consider paying attention to current performance or function. It spans every aspect of the work we carry out: for example, our early stage work with customers always focuses on achieving broader empathy with them and their worlds so that we can identify opportunities for the future. We rarely ask them about current service performance (where one exists) early on because it’s then hard for them to think beyond that.

Our initial aim, typically after a very short phase of work, is to articulate a ‘clean’ vision of what the future state could be: harnessing new technologies, emerging customer behaviours and new business models in the most value-rich way possible for both customer and organisation.

This should be the first step in the design process for any step-change reinvention or new innovation: imagining an optimal (and realistic) future state that is rich in insight and free of hindsight.

This embeds a new mental model of how things might work, and insulates our collective brains against the effects of historic characteristics. We can then dig back into more detailed current performance analysis or mapping of current functionality where it is relevant (and it often is) — and can freely leave it behind where it is not.

We have approached dozens of major programmes this way, and in every case there were also clear advantages beyond better qualitative service outcomes; cutting months off of programme durations; saving man-years of current state analysis; reducing low-value resource costs by de-prioritising work on areas that will not be carried forward; making technology investments with more clarity and greater focus… to name but a few.

You can’t escape human nature.

In our work here at WF our job is always to help our clients think ahead. If we started with a deep analysis of current state behaviour, we’d have to be superhuman not to let that influence how we shape new ideas — even in the knowledge that it shouldn’t. It’s a basic part of human nature: fill your brain up with the detail of today and it’s hard to step outside of that to imagine a genuinely different future.

Dwell in the current state and you will fail to ask the more profound questions, you’ll be allergic to leaving out something that works well today, and you’ll never truly realise the full potential value of a new service — because you’ll always be looking over your shoulder.

The past is rarely a great place to find answers to future questions (sorry, historians) and in the digital age it can be down right disastrous. Focus on ‘what if?’ not ‘what is?’ and you give yourself the best chance of a genuine breakthrough.

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