Designing Out Problems Through Networks

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On Monday I attempted my swiftest ever return to work after a trip.

My plane from Zanzibar via Kilimanjaro and Doha landed at 6am. I was home by 8:30am, online by 9 and in work by 11.30am.

I felt like The Man Who Fell To Earth. I’d had 16 days without any problems. Now – they were back.

  • It started on the M6 – with our taxi driver talking of ‘six months of hell’ as new roadworks attempt to solve a perennially unsolvable problem.
  • It continued in work  as we talked of problems too big to take on at once – and the amount of resource needed to tackle them.
  • The media and the Twitter chat was all about big intractable social problems – health, housing and social care. The same big intractable problems we were talking about 5, 10, 15 years ago.

Here’s the interesting thing. In the 16 days previously I hadn’t encountered a problem – in circumstances where you absolutely might expect to find one.

  • My malaria meds arrived in time from an online retailer – supplied faster and more cheaply than the NHS could manage.
  • I took four flights that all took off on time and arrived ahead of schedule. The baggage, tracked digitally, arrived safely – as it always has with that carrier.
  • I stayed in four places booked online by Booking.com and Airbnb. Each one was expecting me, required no paperwork and I got exactly what I ordered.
  • I used about 10 taxi journeys and all of them arrived early – pre booked online or negotiated with local drivers who confirmed bookings through WhatsApp.

The only problem I had was that I bust my GoPro camera (human error) – but even this has been resolved and I have a new one just four days after I arrived back.

We can’t compare the problems of the UK and the social sector to a frivolous trip but there are lessons to learn.

  • New entrants are using the opportunities afforded by digital to step into the gaps and solve problems that have plagued people for years.
  • Smart organisations are reimagining their customer experience for a digital era rather than digitising existing services.
  • Platforms are replacing intermediaries – focussing on specialisms and performing the functions that organisations have traditionally found difficult.
  • Savvy entrepreneurs are spotting services ripe for disruption – introducing simple work arounds to turn distrusted services into trusted ones.
  • Communities are using technology to leapfrog the natural adoption cycle. In a village I stayed in most homes had no electricity or running water – and yet WhatsApp and mobile payments were common.
  • Additionally I observed the power of letting people solve their own problems – and shifting from the mindset of institutions as the default.

This is not a post about digital technology.  Although – everything that can be automated will be automated.

This is about networks. 

All of the things I have highlighted above have been improved by bringing in new entrants, building new relationships, forgetting the past and flexing business models.

Our organisations are not best placed to solve their own problems. They need help from a variety of sources – communities, entrepreneurs, technologists.

Any sector that has multiple players performing similar services is ripe for disruption. And right now multiple people are working on the biggest problems your organisation faces.

Organisations who fail to seize the opportunities will see someone else step into the gap and solve the problems for them.

Most of these people don’t work for you – and never want to.

The challenge is to bring these players into our  networks – reshaping our organisations with them.

Sitting around and waiting to see what they come up with is about the riskiest strategy we could adopt right now.

4 Comments on “Designing Out Problems Through Networks

  1. I have always been impressed by the capacity for innovation born out of necessity. Mobile payments (as opposed to mobile banking) has been massive in Africa for years because infrastructure for other (safe) payments wasn’t there.

    Similarly it’s utterly depressing to a) see the same issues being debated without an end in sight b) seeing old/and failed policies rehashed as new solutions c) seeing ‘disruption’ consultants offering utter BS solutions.

    Real change for housing policy happens outside our bubble. As does real innovation. Draw in that creative thinking and use it. Otherwise we’re stuck with the same system/process flaws that we always have been.

    Great blog chap.

    • Thanks Neil for the comment. It will be interesting to look back in say five years and see how much genuine ‘transformation’ has happened. I think you’re right – a lot of the barriers are the entrenched ways of working and thinking that we need to forget as soon as possible.

  2. Another great insight into how new methods of working needs to evolve moving forward. Please describe how far technology will be in 5-10 years time in supporting people with an ever decreasing budgets!

    • Thanks Mark – difficult to answer second point as it partly depends on extent of our ambition. Ultimately we should be asking how technology can help us eliminate, not alleviate, poverty – but I think we are practically a long way from this sort of vision.

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