The last generation

The millennial generation will be the last of it’s kind. The pace of technology advancement means that people born even five years apart will soon have very different skillsets, and very different views on the world around them.

Human beings have long defined a generation as people born across a span of 10-15 years. That number has worked because people born across those time frames have ultimately experienced similar life events at similar times and grown up in similar social and economic realities.

It was safe for society to consider people across this time frame as a singular generation and to position their product, service or even politics in line with that generations world view.

That is already no longer a safe bet and it’s going to become less and less reliable as time goes by.

The pace of technology change has a huge impact on this.

First, let’s take a look at Millennials. If you were born in 1979 to 1993, the odds are that you had a similar education experience when it came to technology.

Few of us had a computer. Some of us were fortunate enough to have computer lessons at some point and most of us would have had regular access to computers by the time we were in our late teens.

Technology was certainly not integrated into the education experience. It was something additional that you had to learn about.

Generation Y have had similar experiences, although the later you were born, the earlier you had that computer experience. But not by much.

Millennials all got their hands on smartphones at similar times. Again, they had to learn how to use them and have pushed the boundaries by demanding more and more from this technology.

Now let’s fast forward to children born in generation Z. Those born around or after 1994 and up until about 2010. This is where the sheer speed of technology advancement really starts to change things.

Those born in and around 1994 will actually have had a similar experience to later-born Millennials. They’ll have been between 7 and 10 years old when smartphones became a thing. Technology education would have still been separate from other subjects.

But, the later you step through the generation, the more fundamental the shift in technology access has been at an earlier age. Those born after the year 2000 would have had increasing exposure to computers, tablets and phones at home and at school.

Those born after 2005 never knew a world without the iPhone.

Technology is increasingly an integral part of most subjects in schools. And not just secondary or higher education.

My daughter’s nursery uses an iPad to keep us informed on how her day is going. She is not ignorant of the technology around her – quite the opposite – she sees it as normal. She has known nothing different.

From the early 2000’s the access to technology, both through the education system and at home, has changed so dramatically that people born even five years apart are now having very different experiences of the world around them.

I know kids who are confused when an appliance doesn’t respond when they ask it a question, because they have had access to Alexa. I know others still that will only watch a cartoon on an iPad, because the TV just doesn’t appeal to them.

Children as young as five are learning to programme drones and other devices at school. Children born after 2016 may never need a driving licence because of driverless cars.

And so I suspect that the millennial generation will be the last of its kind. I think society needs to start bracketing people against much shorter time periods, or risk making assumptions that are hugely innacurate.

It could be argued that time horizon becomes so irrelevant that it should be ignored altogether.

Of course, people will still go through major life events such as graduation, first job, marriage, children and buying a home together against roughly similar timeframes.

The major difference will be in how they go through these events, and what their expectations will be when they do.

And the technology they are exposed to, and how they grew up with it, will play a major role in determining those attitudes.

We all need to be thinking about this. If the attitudes of society can be marked over much shorter time periods, how do we all ensure we continue to relate and understand one another? Does that get easier, or harder?

Time, ironically, will tell.

If, then, else: a foundation for good decision making

One of the things I have often taken for granted has been the ability to read and understand programming code or website script, and more importantly, the effect that has had on my offline thought processes. So am I an outlier, or do people who can code to some level of proficiency think differently and make better or more considered decisions?

I’ve managed, and worked with, lots of different types of people in my career. Most of them were not developers and most of them would have run a country mile if I’d asked them to tell me what a page of HTML script did, or showed them a page of C++ or .net or Java code. That said, many if not all of them have been problem solvers, business analysts, project managers and business function managers who have had to define and explain what they want the technology around them to do differently or start doing. Downside? Most of them have no idea how to talk to developers in a way that clearly expresses what they want the software to do, and not do, under various circumstances.

Most of my career has been spent translating these two worlds. I’m not a developer, far from it, but my understanding of the basic concepts of programming, database development and website creation has allowed me to capture and interpret business requirements and articulate them to developers. I’ve sat alongside non-code-literate colleagues doing the same role and, in my early career, was often baffled by what I saw as an inability to do this translation or, in some cases, even attempt it. It all seemed so logical to me and I struggled to understand why people didn’t think the way I did.

The need to think through a wide range of possible impacts quickly has never been more important.

It wasn’t until much later, when I began to run teams of my own, that I started to understand that the way I thought about problems was different to most other people. Most people, when you talk to them, can articulate what they want the outcome of a change to be. What they don’t do, without help, is think about all of the various permutations and variables on that outcome that need to be catered for. For a developer, that’s a pain. For a business, that’s expensive.

In today’s world, where the decisions we make as senior business leaders are increasingly real-time and the consequences felt within days not years, the need to think through a wide range of possible impacts quickly has never been more important. It’s not enough to simply say, “this is what I want to happen” and expect everyone to know what to do if something else happens instead. Customers are not as predictable as we might want them to be, and neither are our colleagues, and that’s OK. In fact, it’s better than that, it’s amazing. If we only ever got what one person thought of and wanted, we’d stifle innovation and many of our best ideas as a society would never come to fruition.

The problem with Humans is that we tend think in a linear way. And this is where my basic education in programming, combined with the demands of risk management from my project days, has stood me in good stead. Most people think along these lines: “if this happens then I want this to happen.” Simply put, I tend to worry about what won’t happen, or what might happen.

If you can plan for the exceptions, and be clear about the different outcomes in different scenarios, then you stand a much better chance of having a successful outcome

When coaching my team I try to get them to introduce some complexity to their thinking. “If this happens then I want this to happen, else I want that to happen”. Now we’re getting somewhere. But it’s not quite far enough. Gradually as you embed this thinking you can start to introduce more complex logic. For example, “I want this to happen for as long as a certain set of conditions is true, then I want to stop, or for something else to happen”.

Now, for some, this may seem obvious. Others will be baffled and see this as utter nonsense. For a few, probably those who code in one language or another, you’ll see what I’m doing. I’m embedding the basics of things like if statements and do-while loops, these bamboozling concepts that non coders assume is voodoo and terrifying, into the thought process of “normal” human beings. This helps them to translate business outcomes to developers more accurately but, beyond that, it encourages them to think about the exceptions and alternative paths their decisions might lead.

Now, if everyone in the organisation could articulate what they wanted in these terms, I predict that the success rates of projects would go up, purely because the outcomes and exceptions would be better thought through at an early stage. It takes the emotion out of the decision making process and replaces it with pure logic. If you can plan for the exceptions, and be clear about the different outcomes in different scenarios, then you stand a much better chance of having a successful outcome or at least predicting some of the other things that might happen and plan for those.

The best business analysts and project managers I’ve worked with think like this. Some of the strategists I’ve met along the way as well. They take problems and they break them down, consciously or otherwise, into these logic-driven statements and then articulate the various potential outcomes.

Recent movements in Agile methodologies have also helped, heralding the importance of prototyping which, in it’s own way, forces people to consider alternative outcomes they might not have otherwise. Frankly, anything that makes you stop and think, “what else might happen?” can only be a good thing.

For me, I’ll be forever grateful to that early education in foundation-level programming Whilst I never grew up to be a coder, the principles have stayed with me and, I like to think, made me a better business leader and decision maker as a result.

Digital real estate: who’s in your neighborhood?

The word digital has come to mean different things to different people, and the various parts of the digital ecosystem are often managed in different parts of an organisation. Does bringing it all together make sense? How do you land the right operating model and instigate a change to the current one?

It is not uncommon for a company to have its digital assets managed by different teams across the organisation. In fact it’s quite rare that they are all in one place. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it does introduce some complexities from an operating model perspective. More importantly, it can also lead to a fragmented user experience for customers.

First let’s bracket the traditional (can we say “traditional” yet in digital?) elements of the digital ecosystem:

  1. Websites – still the cornerstone of a good digital proposition, these may be purely brochure-ware or they may have a more functional, transactional purpose
  2. Social Media – hard to find an organisation without a presence (good or bad) on social these days. Very important for customer engagement and a great tool to bring an audience to longer form content on your website
  3. Apps – an optional part of any digital real estate and will vary hugely in functionality and purpose. May be native (specifically coded for a particular device, such as Android) or wrapper (looks like an app but really just a website wrapped in an app shell)
  4. Email – don’t forget this one. Researchers into the effectiveness of email continue to contradict one another but this still remains a powerful part of a digital marketeers kitbag, if used well

Ask yourself where each of these tools are managed from in your organisation. Marketing? IT? I’ve seen many variations, up to and including a corporate LinkedIn account being managed exclusively by HR (admittedly, that was a weird day).

Whilst a case can be made for almost any operating and ownership structure when it comes to these assets, my experience is that, were you to walk into most organisations and ask why the current model exists, the answer is usually linked to evolution rather than design. It’s just how it is.

Difficulty with communication and consistency of design, tone of voice and customer insight aside, the impact on the customer is usually a fragmented and non-sensical experience. Why can I do this on their website but not on their app? Why is it really easy to navigate the app but the website is a pain? Why do I get an answer on Twitter but not on Facebook? Why do I keep getting these emails on the same day as the notifications from my app?

We’ve all experienced this kind of frustration with services that we use. One way to make sure that these kinds of inconsistencies don’t find their way to a customer is to bring together the different parts of your organisation that manage these assets into a single digital team. That way, you can bring together the design, development and marketing skills that are necessary to create, test and promote your digital services into one team. This gives them a much higher chance of collaborating successfully.

Doing so presents different challenges of course, not least that those existing structures probably won’t want to let go of what they have. However, it does cement a centre of expertise within your organisation for digital customer experience. Finding the right person to lead that team, someone who is respected and can think laterally across all of these digital arenas, is absolutely crucial. They need to be truly customer centric when it comes to the experience – to obsess over the details that transform an experience from just being ok to being something that excites and surprises.

And that, ultimately, is what it’s all about. The better the experience your customers have across your digital estate, the better they will feel about your brand. However you measure yourselves, be that NPS scores, complaint volumes, revenue targets or some other measure, defending the customer experience by seeing and treating your digital real estate as a single entity is, in my view, the most sensible step to driving those measures in the right direction.

Artificial Intelligence? I’ll stick with the real thing for now

With the ever increasing focus on digital services, not just in the customer outcome, but also in the mechanisms by which we deliver solutions, people are quickly becoming the only true differentiation for companies. Can the quality of our people really influence the project outcome or the customer experience to the extent that technology by itself is no longer important?

This would seem like a backward question to ask for many of us. From years of having words like “automation” and “digitisation” thrown at us (the latter is not even a word) all predictions throughout the 90’s and early 00’s we’re of a future surrounded by robots, automated processes and a very quiet time for Human Resources departments. It hasn’t quite panned out that way yet though and, in my view, it is becoming increasingly less likely.

That’s not to say that companies won’t continue to reduce cost and workforce numbers over time. This sadly is a trend that larger organisations will certainly continue for some time to come. The idea that the future holds a handful of mega-companies that produce everything we need (Microsoft, Walmart, Apple, Google and Amazon for example) seems to me to be less likely though.

The reason for this? Startups. There has never been a more fluid startup market than now. Venture capital and crowdfunding mean that new enterprises are getting off the ground far more quickly and regularly than ever before. With this constant and continuous innovation comes a frantic pace of change that seriously challenges automation of delivery practises. You can only automate something that is repeated. With the exception of certain regression testing routines, and the manufacturing industry as a whole, it is hard to see where you can automate much of what goes on in today’s workplace.

Artificial intelligence on a level of sophistication that we have yet to see would be needed to seriously threaten the human mind. When it comes to the mental agility required to innovate at the pace demanded of today’s workplace, the focus from employers should certainly be on finding the best people, not the best technology. Don’t get me wrong, you need the best technology, or certainly very good technology in order to be competitive in most industries. But the best technology in the hands of average people is worthless, or possibly even counterproductive. Find the best 5 people and give them slightly above average solutions to work with and they will easily out-produce 100 average people with the best tools in the market.

When asked recently by my CEO what I was most proud of I answered very simply. My team. I’ve delivered some brilliant and innovative solutions in the last year alone but, for me, having the best people has made that possible. And so, in this digital age, I will continue to focus the majority of my time and energy on people.

A perfect storm: the dreaded website redesign

Well your website design is a little dated, your content is somewhat stale and the content management system you have in place is so cumbersome to use that it takes three days and an IT engineering team the size of NASA to change an image on the page. So how exactly do you go about running a large website redesign?

I faced this exact challenge recently. In hindsight, whilst we knew the fundamental elements of what we needed to do, the project really didn’t have the emphasis on the right problems, nor the resource focus in the right areas, at the right time.

From my experience, a large-scale website redesign project can be bracketed into three main themes:

  1. The technology – the replacement or upgrade of the existing content management system
  2. The design – the user experience and look and feel of your new shiny website
  3. The content – the words, images, video, documents and tools that users will interact with

Asking yourself at the outset how many of these three elements you want to significantly change in one go is hugely important to defining the success of the project. It is also essential in keeping the expectations of your senior stakeholders, and indeed, the anticipation of the wider organisation, in line with what will actually be delivered.

If possible, I would strongly suggest changing a maximum of two of these three elements at once. It significantly reduces the number of chicken and egg problems you need to solve and reduces the risk of the project dramatically.

For example, if I were switching to a completely new content management system (basically, building a new website), I would probably look to overhaul the design at the same time, but keep the content the same. This might still require a rationalisation of the existing content into a different site navigation, but at least it reduces the number of people across the organisation that need to be involved, which reduces complexity.

The trickiest two to change in parallel are the design and the content. When these two are thrown up in the air together, it becomes a difficult juggling act to keep everyone’s expectations aligned, and almost impossible to hold a project plan together once content and design start bouncing back and forth.

Beyond the primary three there are two other important elements that must not be forgotten.

First, how will the site be monitored and analysed? Whether it’s Google Analytics or another package, take the time to think through what you’ll be reporting against. This fits best into your technology stream.

Secondly, your SEO strategy. This should fit strongly into your content stream. Take the time to consider who your site and content is for and how you are going to monitor how successful you are in bringing that audience to your content.

Ultimately, any large-scale site re-build carries risk. As much as possible, reduce that risk by focusing the effort into those key elements that are going to give you the biggest possible benefit in the fastest possible time. Focus on the authoring experience and the user experience equally, and don’t forget that everything you implement needs to be monitored and tracked so that it can be continuously refined.