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Tuesday, 05 October 2021 22:49

Your Next Trick? The task of imagining new digital services

By Tony Bailey AccessHQ
Tony Bailey, AccessHQ CEO Tony Bailey, AccessHQ CEO

GUEST OPINION by Tony Bailey CEO AccessHQ:  As technology matures, we can expect competition to become more intense as companies seek to find new points of differentiation. And, as smartphones and apps merge further into everyday life, consumers will become far more discerning of a company’s ability to live up to their promises – especially the promise of a better experience of their service.

I recently wrote about how the ‘vanishing human’ from service organisations is a major challenge. The very definition of a service is the action of helping or doing work for someone. Traditionally that involves human to human interaction. However, in the age of digital, we are witnessing a reshaping of this traditional relationship. If human interaction becomes absent from services, the exchange is experienced more as a functional transaction.

A functional transaction can be very effective in certain circumstances, for example, online banking or online shopping. However, when this occurs, the design of those services must be excellent. They need to be reimagined in a way that compensates for the lack of human interaction.

Many companies see labour costs as a drag on their ability to scale and/or maximise profits. However, don’t assume that removing human interaction from services delivery is as easy as implementing bots and AI. AI and ML are still a long way from being able to match human intuition and judgement, not to mention the nuances of interpersonal communication.

Service organisations that remove or delay the customer’s ability for human interaction in favour of AI or ML interactions must ensure a seamless transition and maintain a considered and connected customer journey. One that’s reimagined in a way that compensates for the delayed or lack of human interaction. Quality and a deep understanding of customer expectations are central to achieving that.

While we further develop artificial intelligence, we should also note that human intelligence is very much at the fore of the way we need to work. There are far too many industrial-era processes and structures in modern business to truly capitalise on the thinking power of the people who populate companies.

In one of the best leadership books so far this century, Turn the Ship Around, David Marquet argues as follows:

        ‘In the modern world, the most important work we do is cognitive; so, it’s not surprising that a structure developed for physical work isn’t optimal for intellectual work.’

So, on the one hand, humans are vanishing from front line services, while on the other there is a growing expectation that we use our mighty intellect to design services that have exceptionally high standards for quality – quality that is perfectly attuned to the way humans behave when interacting with human-less services.

These challenges tell me that we will see creativity become a major force shaping the new frontier for technology-driven services. I’m not talking about workshop games or cosmetic makeovers. Rather, I’m suggesting we have the courage and confidence to bring a much bolder imaginative effort to our endeavours.

And to reassure doubters who may view creativity as the domain of artists and designers, I can point you to one of the great intellects of all time, Albert Einstein. In a discussion on intuition and inspiration, Einstein was asked if he trusted his imagination more than his knowledge. He answered as follows:

          ‘I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’

All humans are creative, and all creativity requires imagination. But tapping into your imagination is difficult. So how do you improve your imagination?

Like all skills, a good imagination needs practice

And the first step to practising with your imagination is to understand and trust that our imagination is liberating. It does not have to obey the rules of logic or physics. Moreover, it is being able to dream, to conjure new situations, new worlds. Imagination is the enemy of the status quo.

In many companies, the status quo far too often quashes the sprouts of imagination that dare to spring up in our cubicles.

To try and up the quotient of imagination in service design, we can start with the following broad approach to collaborative, imaginative thinking.

Firstly, we need to set the scene. What is the landscape we are dealing with? Not only do we want to be sure our thinkers are all familiar with the challenges, but they also need high-quality data to inform them of the starting position. So, this preparatory work is vital, and it needs to be done in such a way that it is as objective and as free from bias as possible. In short, stick to the facts, and prepare a comprehensive brief.

Next, we want to be able to imagine different scenarios. These will very much depend on the type of business, but you will want to see scenarios that sit at well-spaced intervals along a spectrum of possibilities.

One scenario might be that a global technology giant decides to play in your patch, like Apple deciding to offer credit services in the Australian financial services market. Another might be that a classic low-cost disruptor offers a service that, at face value, you can’t compete against without sacrificing margins. Or perhaps they offer a level of customisation that you will take years to match.

At the other end of the spectrum, imagine it is your company entering a whole new market or, indeed, creating a whole new market, completely reinventing your business while at the top of your game.

Work up a range of scenarios that give you a sense of what the future might hold but, as far as possible, resist jumping to solutions at this point. Just paint the picture of what the scenarios might be. Anchor it as much as you can with the data and insights you have from your scene-setting exercise. Don’t rush to solve the challenges the scenarios present.

Once you are comfortable that you have a range of scenarios, the fun begins. You are now set to explore some provocative ideas and see where they take you.

There are thinking tools you can use to encourage imagination

Edward De Bono, who passed away in June this year, made numerous contributions to how we can harness the power of our imagination to overcome major challenges. De Bono coined the term ‘lateral thinking’ and gave us some very practical thinking tools, such as the Six Thinking Hats. If you are unfamiliar with his work, you should quickly study his contributions.

For now, another of De Bono’s inventions, the word ‘Po’, or a provocative operation (also referring to poetry, possibility, hypothetical) is of interest. Po illustrates how our imagination can better serve business thinkers. De Bono argued that when we want to move forward with new ideas, we can obtain great value from provocation. Simply challenging prevailing assumptions and the status quo can result in breakthroughs.

One example of the use of Po, that De Bono gives is from his work with a life insurance company, is where an executive asks the provocative question, ‘what if you die before you die?’ According to De Bono, this one provocation triggered the transformation of the industry and gave rise to living needs insurance policies.

Another good example is from De Bono’s work to help stop pollution in California’s rivers, caused by factories along the river. The provocation was that a factory built on a river must have its water intake downstream of its outlet. In this way, the factory would always be the first to get its own pollution and would therefore be much more careful about any pollutants in its outlet.

Lest we be afraid of such radical thinking, De Bono advises that breakthrough ideas always make sense, indeed they often seem remarkably simple. So let your people be provocative and let their imaginations fire up.

Expressing a new idea brings it to life

Your exploration should lead you to articulate a value proposition for the new service design or process change. How will you express the value that comes from this breakthrough? In most cases, this will be related to customers, but it can also relate to business efficiency and stakeholders.

Bring the value proposition to life through visualisation. As humans, we are hardwired to process visual models far more easily than heavy written text. Map it out visually, show the steps and functions, what happens when and how, using diagrams and other visual references. We can problem-solve and extend ideas much more effectively when we can see a visual representation of the solution.

The guiding star over this whole process is quality. Everything you do, from the most radical ideas to the most minor tweaks, must add value to the quality of the experience your customer or user has. Quality is a stable, objective feature of design.

And quality should not only be brought to bear at the design stage. You should be able to maintain a line of sight to quality throughout your entire operation. That alone might seem like a radical idea to some! Nonetheless, it makes a big difference to the results you can achieve.


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