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The next big thing?

The Management Centre

Maybe it’s just ‘end of the year’ fever. But there seems to be a lot of interweb chatter about the Next Big Thing. Usually the answer seems to be very general like ‘social media’ or sometimes as simple as ‘twitter’. (Try #nonprofit2010 and see the flood.) I’m not sure.

As a consultant who writes book with vainglorious titles like Breakthrough Thinking I’m often asked “ so what IS the next big thing…?”. When I confess I don’t know customers sometimes seem to lose a little faith. But actually I think it’s an honest – to return to a previous theme – answer. I’m not sure anyone knows what the next big thing is in the non-profit world. I want to reframe the question.

Let’s think about some learning from the world of business. Many (bust) hi-tech companies have discovered you can get into real trouble by looking for radical-revolution-first-mover advantage. (As consumers we sometime get left holding the Betamax, Mini-disk, Laser Disk, or Vista baby/puppy.)

So maybe evolution by small incremental steps – what the Japanese call Kaizen – is the way forward. I’m talking about my revolutionary strategy called the Next Small Thing © !. That might sound boring but steady progress step by step can achieve radical results. As important it can deliver internal momentum and external results – whether it’s market, mind, donor or heart share. The secret is not to make small steps a vague stroll – but to take each small step quickly – and be prepared to stumble.

I was reminded of this through a reference in a recent article by Rosabeth Moss Kantor of HBR. She asked us to consider Woody Allen’s comedy routine about the first landing of UFOs on Earth, bringing aliens keen on world domination. (So our first contact with an advanced civilization is an analogy for an advanced competitor we fear.). Allen wrote that most concerns in popular culture are about alien invaders who are centuries if not millennia ahead of us in technology. These fantasy creatures bring devices we can’t understand or communicate with, which enables them to control everything. Allen is phlegmatic. “Not to worry”, he says “If we can’t understand or communicate with their systems, we’ll just ignore them, doing our work the way we always do until they leave in frustration.” Instead, Allen argues, the advanced civilization that we should really worry about is one that is just 15 minutes ahead. “That way they’d always be first in line for the movies, they’d never miss a meeting with the boss… and they’d always be first in every race.”

This “15 minute competitive advantage”: changing and improving – or even failing – in short quick steps seems to be more effective rather than guessing about the breakthrough – AKA Next Big Thing – that transforms everything. The learning, I’m suggesting, is that by trying series of quick and easy experiments you are more likely to build successful momentum and avoid becoming the Betamax of your day. (BTW Betamax you may not know was much better than VHS – it just didn’t take off because it was also more complex/advanced.)

Rosabeth Moss Kanter reports how she heard Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, “praise the value of cheap, fast experiments at a recent CEO meeting. He recalled watching Toyota’s method of continuous improvement on the shop floor: simplifying, speeding, and taking costs out with each round. Bolt instead of weld, tape instead of bolt, hold instead of tape. Cook’s advice is to turn business concepts into hypotheses to test fast. This is the essence of rapid prototyping, and it doesn’t require total transformation.”

I’ve seen the same process work at NSPCC in the UK where Giles Pegram the inspirational Director of Fundraising talks about how he made 10 significant mistakes when running the breakthrough Full Stop campaign to treble his budget in two years. But he developed ‘resilience’ as a strategy by noticing mistakes quickly so that there was recovery and learning from each faltering step. Likewise UNICEF has adopted a wonderful approach to it’s global innovation programme that is doing the same thing – allowing ‘1000 blooms to contend’ rather than trying to guess what the one Next Big Thing will be.

Let me finish with five specific learning points to help you put my not-so-revolutionary plan into practice:

  • Maintain momentum: make sure your small steps are all in the one direction and that you don’t stop. So if you’re trying to make twitter work for supporter engagement try different times and types of communication all of which promote the key message. Above all don’t stop in mid-flow.
  • Practice Piloting: Make sure all ideas have to go through a pilot phase. So there will be a trial for a week, or six months or a year. So there will be a time to try – and a time to stop and review. (This balances point one and avoids lemming-syndrome.)
  • Create Chunks: See if you can break any big change up into chunks and give people or teams a chance to practice with these. Maybe even get different teams to try the same thing. This spreads the risk and is a bit like breaking a long 10-mile walk down into a smaller series of 4 x 2.5 mile strolls.
  • Re-engineer Reversibility: make sure that if your initiative doesn’t work, that you can reverse some or all of the process. This offers people- donors, staff and users – a ‘money-back’ guarantee that encourages them to try the experiment. If it’s undo-able it’s bound to be riskier.
  • Fail fast: My big advice? Work to stay a little – a 15 minute – step ahead of the competition. But make sure you stay close to customers, donors, or users and take them with you. And if something isn’t working, be over it, admit it, don’t blame and try the next small step. Keep heading towards the Next Big Thing through the Next Small Thing.

Glad to hear ideas and feedback from you… but keep it short and sweet. I only have 15 minutes.

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