The Future Is Already Here. It Just Hasn’t Scaled Yet

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A colleague recently made the comparison that working in the innovation sector today is somewhat reminiscent to working in the early days of the commercial Internet in the late 1990’s.

If you experienced that incredible time of technological and social change, you may remember just how much of your time was spent explaining to potential clients why the paradigm shift in thinking and capability the Internet presented was so significant to their business. Only once you had thoroughly dipped them in the Internet Kool-aid, and painted pictures of the various alternative realities that lay ahead, could you even start to discuss practically how their business could take steps towards embracing and capitalising on the opportunities the Internet presented.

It feels much the same today if you are in the business of designing and selling innovation programmes – lots and lots of explaining the value of innovation audits, incubators and accelerators.

At its height, major technologies were being announced on almost a weekly basis.

However, this is where the analogy breaks down for me. The backdrop to the “Web 1.0” era was an incredible and relentless pace of genuine invention and product releases. It was the sheer pace of change that fueled it all. It left you breathless and scrambling to keep pace with how fast the new digital landscape was evolving, simultaneously creating an atmosphere of optimism, and a fear of being left behind. At its height, major technologies were being announced on almost a weekly basis —  technologies which (after the market thoroughly pressure-tested them and weeded out the weak) went on to form the bedrock of the modern-day Internet economy – browsers, HTML, HTTPS, JavaScript, RTSP streaming etc.

Fast forward to today, two decades after that initial digital Klondike era, and the ability and rationale to innovate and digitise business is stronger than ever. Young hungry startups are openly eating the lunch of bigger established companies. But, somehow the imperative to change feels less urgent than in days past. Why is this?

Often the first to be blamed is the leadership function in companies for failing to predict and adapt to market forces.

With the prevailing trend to prefer internal over external candidates for new CEO appointments, you’d be forgiven for assuming it was fear of failure that leads to risk-taking never being high on the C-Suite agenda.

You’ve just spent 15 years climbing to the very top, why jeopardise that position by taking huge risks with the company with which you’ve only just been entrusted with?

And what about those startups eating our lunch? How much of a threat are they really? There are precious few examples of startups gaining enough traction and scale to truly take out swathes of traditional companies at the knees. Sure, there are plenty of successful digital-first businesses, and some of them are giving their traditional competitors a thorough drubbing in the marketplace, but we’re hardly stepping over piles of dead bodies of this supposed era of “corporate mass extinction” either. If things get too uncomfortable, we’ll call the M&A team in.

A startup is a temporary organisation designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model, whereas a company is a permanent organisation designed to execute a repeatable and scalable business model.

Instead of blaming companies for their supposed failures to innovate, and criticising startups for their inability to scale fast enough, perhaps it’s time to recognize the role each has to play in advancing the overall business agenda.

Let’s go back to basics, and start with some definitions:

A startup is a temporary organisation designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model, whereas a company is a permanent organisation designed to execute a repeatable and scalable business model.

The mandates couldn’t be more different, despite the similarity in wording.  One is driven by the search for innovation in a product or business model, the other is built to execute it once found.

So, instead of looking to point the finger at risk adverse company cultures over the risk-taking ones observed in early-stage companies, what if we could meld these two very different approaches and play to the strengths of both? Then we’d reach a perfect state of successfully scaling startups and continuously innovating companies.

In the past, blending these two very different mandates has generally been attempted from the corporate viewpoint first. How do we bring the rigour and process of big business to the scrappy unpredictable world of innovation, so that we might harness it and make it more replicable?

Sadly, this approach often only serves to squash the very outcome we seek, as company cultures are all about removing risk. Instead, we should look at things from the opposing viewpoint and attempt to copy the agility, speed, determination and risk-embracing methodologies employed by startups.

In response to this, here at Publicis, we recently announced the next iteration of the Publicis Drugstore — our cross-Groupe initiative that helps our clients with their innovation agenda.

At the heart of it, we announced an exciting and potent new partnership with Plexal, London’s newest Innovation hub and destination for entrepreneurs. Through this exclusive arrangement, Publicis gains a unique lens into London’s fastest growing startup community and early-stage company cultures, that we can bring to bear on our client’s own challenges.

Plexal sits within the Here East campus in East London, itself a focus for collaborative innovation between the worlds of education, enterprise, and entrepreneurs. This puts Plexal’s own community of startups in close proximity to corporate open innovation teams from the likes of Ford, Sports Interactive, and Matches – as well as the research departments of Loughborough University, robotics and machine-learning teams from UCLand the Bartlett’s school of architectural engineering.

Drugstore itself has adopted an open innovation approach, promoting collaborative and ‘lean’ methodologies which favour experimentation over meticulous planning, listens to customer feedback over gut instinct, and promotes iterative design over upfront monolithic projects.

Drugstore is now an end-to-end offer, that can help from the earliest stages of product exploration right through to helping clients to scale successful offers into new markets.

This breaks down into four key service areas:

  1. Creating the culture for innovation to succeed in your company
  2. Catalysing and managing effective collaboration with the right partners
  3. Creating fast market tests to validate ideas (or not)
  4. Scaling successful results so that your company can capitalise on them

Drugstore has entry points for all of these areas, to suit different levels of maturity that we encounter.

Early results are promising, with some successful projects completed and more under consideration, but we eat our own dog food, and regularly pressure-test our own “startup” to seek the best product/market fit.

Like all good organisations, we need our own north star and rallying call. In our case, we grabbed one of the most famous mantras from the Web 1.0 era – William Gibson’s assertion that “The future is already here” and created our own punchline with the addition of “it just hasn’t scaled yet”.

I for one, look forward to seeing how we progress because progress is the only desired outcome of any startup.

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