The Madness of Crowds

[ezcol_1half]Yes, it’s official: standing on a busy escalator IS faster than walking!

If you have ever used the London Tube you will have figured out the convention: you stand on the right to allow people that want to walk up the escalator to do so on the left. Seems sensible?

Why then did Transport for London (TfL) ban it and make everyone stand in order to speed things up? How can it be?

As you can see from the tweet to the right, the good people of London, weren’t best pleased.

Of course comments like these are actually about people not wanting to be told what to do! Before TfL could explain the rationale, we jumped to our own conclusion that it was plainly ridiculous!

But it’s not ridiculous, it’s perfectly sensible.

The Innovation lesson here is; explain clearly what the Challenge is. It WASN’T to help individuals get from the bottom to the top as quickly as they wish….it was to get the CROWD from the bottom to the top as quickly as possible at the busiest times and the simple fact is that the fastest way to get the crowd from the bottom to the top is indeed for no-one to walk and everyone to stand. [/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end]1

The public-flow wonks at TfL produced this very simple model. Here’s how it works;


As you can see, it makes perfect sense IF you want to be part of the crowd. If you want to beat the crowd – sprint up the left hand side like a rutting stag – the City-dwellers badge of honour, well, it’s tough luck.

By the case you are interested (I find this stuff kinda interesting, I know, slightly sad – you’ll be excused if you want to stop reading now), but this model only works in a couple of stations as well as Holborn where the escalators are very long – so long that most people that hit the escalator at a sprint actually dip into a gap on the right and stand for the rest of the journey.



Crowd-sourcing doesn’t always work….

When the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) here in the UK opened up suggestions to name their new £200 million ship to the Public, little could they have predicted what the frontrunner would be.

Steaming ahead of its rivals, RRS Boaty McBoatface outstripped the likes of Endeavour, Henry Worsley, David Attenborough, Falcon and many more offerings.

boaty mcboatface smaller

The lesson here of course, is that the crowd often behaves like a crowd and follows rather than leads. Thankfully the organisers had the foresight to put a clause in the competition which allowed them to disregard the public 😉

boaty mcboatface with eyes smaller


Book review. Who do you want your customers to become

shopping carts thin


“Who do you want your customers to become” by Michael Schrage is essential reading for all Innovators.

This is a short and succinct book – you can read it in one sitting (my favourite type 😉 ) and has a very powerful concept which he calls the ‘innovation ask’.

[ezcol_4fifth]Organisations typically innovate by going out and looking to identify a need and then innovating to meet that need, they often fail to recognise that it may be necessary for their innovation to transform their customers into something else.

One great example of this is the inventor of the shopping cart, Sylvan Goldman. During the Great Depression he owned Oklahoma City’s Standard Food Stores and Humpty Dumpty chain. He watched his female clientele shop in 1936 and was struck by the obvious; whenever the wicker shopping basket that he provided was full, the shopper stopped shopping. He made the basket bigger but a new threshold appeared – as soon as they were too heavy, they stopped shopping. The innovation was a big basket that wouldn’t be too heavy – a basket on wheels! He had a great innovation – it did exactly what he wanted it to do, didn’t work. [/ezcol_4fifth] [ezcol_1fifth_end]who do you want your customers to become[/ezcol_1fifth_end]

The innovation ‘asked’ his shoppers to do something different – to push a cart rather than carry a basket but it appeared that his female shoppers didn’t want to be seen to be pushing a pram and his male shoppers were insulted to think that they couldn’t carry a basket. Far from being pleased that the cart made shopping quicker, easier and more convenient, his shoppers felt insulted.

He then hired a few extra staff to pretend to be shoppers pushing a cart near the entrance to the store full of shopping and another to encourage shoppers to take a cart saying “look, everyone is using them, why don’t you take a cart”. His innovation took off.

Which is the next vital insight; Innovation is as much about designing customers as it is designing products and services.

By showing his customers that other shoppers were using the carts he changed the ‘ask’ from ‘do something new’ to ‘follow everyone else and make the task of shopping easier’.

I can think of a number of innovations that I personally believed in that ultimately failed because it ‘asked’ the customers to be something different and challenging which the innovation didn’t cater for.

I launched a Lean start-up called idrcloud ( which was a facebook app that allowed Page owners to set-up idea competitions. It gained some, but limited traction. I pivoted the idea to something else. The ‘innovation ask’ was for the customer (the business owners who also run a facebook Page) to become a competition manager; to design a competition, set a prize, get the ball rolling with some initial ideas, encourage participation and select and reward a winner. To some people this came naturally, but to many it didn’t- it was too big an ask. I focused more time and resources on the software (which I saw as the innovation) than the customer. 

[ezcol_4fifth]Equally I can think of a number of innovations that were late to the market but succeeded where their predecessors failed, potentially because they focused more on their customer vision and their ‘ask’.

Every innovation needs users and therefore has an ‘ask’ for that user group.

The book is well worth a read. If you want more information or a chat about your ‘innovation ask’ please don’t hesitate to get in contact.

You can buy the book on the link here. Enjoy.[/ezcol_4fifth]

What’s the Innovation ask?

ASKI recently attended a pre-launch event of a new business. I’ve known the founders for years and they are all really brilliant people. They sold their first company, and after a break they are launching again…but this time they were going to be innovative and disruptive. Two of my favourite words!

They did a great job, I’m not criticising and hey, who am I to criticise anyway- they’ve been there done it, got the bank balance to prove it! BUT…I was underwhelmed because I couldn’t pin down where the disruption was.

The fundamental problem that I struggled with whilst journeying home was a fundamental question for everyone doing disruptive innovation which is, “if you are going to disrupt something, what are you asking your future Users to do / be”?

The concept of an innovation ask is one that was introduced in the book by Michael Schrage, “Who to you want your customers to become” which you can read a review of by clicking here. Let me explain what I mean by the Innovation Ask with some examples of great innovators;

-The Uber ‘ask’ goes way beyond simply a more convenient way to book a taxi. The reason they have grown so quickly is that the ‘ask’ is that we join a movement and disrupt an industry, that we show two fingers to the taxi firms that have been delivering a terrible service all these years

– The Starbucks ‘ask’ isn’t just that we buy their overpriced coffee rather than a competitor’s, it’s that we become ‘coffee connoisseurs’. Everything about their business is as much about the experience as much as it is about coffee

– The Airbnb ‘ask’ isn’t that we use their site rather than the hundreds of alternatives. They’ve grown so quickly because their ‘innovation ask’ is that we choose something different, something cool and adventurous, and again show two fingers to the corporate hotel industry and make a more sustainable, sociable choice and book a bed in someone’s home

– The Nest (the smart thermostat acquired by Google in 2014 for $3.2b) ‘ask’ goes beyond the idea that we can adjust our heating without standing up and walking over to the thermostat on the wall, the ‘ask’ is that we buy into the concept of the connected home, that we want our homes to reflect our immediate needs and mood, all controlled by our smartphones

– The Telsa ‘ask’ isn’t just that we buy an electric vehicle, it’s that we make a bold statement about our attitude to the environment and sustainable travel by paying a premium for a beautiful luxury car

I could go on and on (please contact me if you want more information or a consultation on what your innovation ask is).

Let me get back to the company in question. They built a multi-million $ business once and sold it. Their new business is designed on a simple insight – take the 20% of their old product that everyone loved and make the user experience (UX) as good as it can be and get people to switch to or adopt their new tool. The disruptive bit is that the core capability is free and they will sell premium tools later down the track. It’s a classic disruption play (take a look at this article to see a brilliant example of how disruption works) and they showed a slide full of ‘Unicorns’ (billion dollar startups) for whom that model worked.

Again, who am I to criticise, and I’m really not, but I did feel as though they are missing an opportunity to really disrupt and there is a great example of what I mean in If you don’t know of Canva, it’s an online design platform. As a piece of software they are disrupting the likes of Photoshop or Illustrator…but they aren’t really because their ‘ask’ isn’t directed to graphic designers to use Canva rather than the tools their currently use. Their ‘ask’ is to non-designers (the other 99% of us) to join a community and use their platform to create great design without any particular design skill.

Teamwork PM is another great example. It’s an online project management platform built it for non project managers.

You will have noticed by now that I’m being careful not to name the company because I have far too much respect for them and hey, they may be one step ahead of me and I just misunderstood, but it seems as though they are building the equivalent of the free alternative to photoshop for designers when they could do a Canva and solve a design problem for non-designers.

They absolutely solve a problem that we all have, we just don’t solve it the same way because, just like design, it assumes an understanding of a syntax and language which is impenetrable to everyone else.

The final insight therefore is; be really clear what the problem you are solving is and for whom and then figure out what your innovation ‘ask’ is. What are you asking your future Users to do / be?



Brilliant Insight from Seth

seth godinI do try very hard to create content for this blog rather than re-blogging other people’s insights…..but this is too brilliant not to share verbatim.

It’s from the brilliant Seth Godin.

For less than it’s worth

The only things we spend time and money on are things that we believe are worth more than they cost.

The key words of this obvious sentence are often miscalculated:

Believe, worth and cost.

Believe as in the story we tell ourselves. Believe as in the eye of the beholder. Believe as in emotion.

Worth as in what we’ll trade. Worth as in our perception of its worth right now, not later. Worth as in how we remember this decision tomorrow or next year.

and Cost, as in our expectation of how much it will hurt to get it, not merely the price tag.

If people aren’t buying your product, it’s not because the price is too high. It’s because we don’t believe you enough, don’t love it enough, don’t care enough.

There is a brilliant Innovation Insight in these words which is that you need to be acutely aware who you are innovating for. The believe, worth, cost formula will inevitably be different for different cohorts of people. Who has the problem that your idea solves and more importantly, why do they care enough to adopt your idea?



ROI (Return on Innovation)

not everything that counts can be countedI attend the Rail Innovation Association workshops and one of the interesting discussions that took place with a panel of experts / practitioners was about the ROI ratios (in this case ROI refers to Return on Innovation). In other words, the money they get from innovation activities against the money they spend.

The target for the industry, set by the Department of Transport seems to be 3:1.

There is some ambiguity as to what they include in the ‘cost of innovation’ but I am making the assumption that it includes a direct cost of labour for staff involved in Innovation activities. If that includes a Senior Manager or Director and some full time employees, then you can see they need to be proving something like £500k of benefit from innovation (ROI) and that’s before they spend any money testing and prototyping any ideas let alone the cost of deploying the ideas that pass the prototyping and business case stages.

Some innovations will be easy /easier to calculate the ROI. Take for instance an idea that improves the dwell times for a train at the platform by making it easier for passengers to alight and board a train, this impacts on punctuality which impacts on a percentage of fines for poor performance.

But what about an idea that is purely about improving customer experience – let’s take an idea that makes customers more comfortable and productive on their journey by improving wifi. This will surely impact on customer experience scores which of course is of value, but how do you attribute that to ROI?

Doubtless they will agree a structure, but it led me to think, what is a good ROI – is it 3:1 or something different? I’d love to know what you think.



Quirky shuts its doors

quirky bankruptThis is a great shame. In case you are not aware of Quirky, they were a community company whose mission was to make invention accessible to everyone. You could share your ideas with a community of over a million people and get involved in bringing the best ideas to market. They started hundreds of thousands of idea projects through the community, launched hundreds of products and paid over $10m in payments to the Community. BUT, they were working their way through $80m of Venture Capitol funding at a terrific rate

They also launched Partnerships with the likes of GE which also gave them a cash injection of $30m . To me, they were pioneers in Crowd-based innovation Management and it’s a real shame they couldn’t sustain their business model. It will be really interesting to find out, which I am sure we will eventually, what led to their bankruptcy but it looks, from the outside looking in, that although they had a vibrant crowd of people offering ideas they were spending their cash on a legion of staff – designers, engineers, product development and testing guys and marketeers all of whom are expensive!