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I did a short talk at Neil Perkin’s most recent Google Firestarters soirée a couple of weeks ago.

The subject was ‘Digital Transformation’ and Neil had also invited Emily Webber (Agile and Lean consultant and coach, ex-GDS Head of Agile Delivery and community-obsessive), Lucia Adams (transformation consultant, led the change program that delivered the tablet and smartphone reinventions of the Times and Sunday Times), and Johan Enstrom (he of the connected budgie-smugglers, and Digital Transformation lead at Pentland Brands .

My slides are at the bottom of this post and I’ve annotated them so you get the talky bit of the talk too. However, because there’s some jokey stuff about ‘digital transformation’ in the talk, I also want to summarise our alternative approach and describe what we mean when we talk about ‘Change by making’ and ‘Product-led transformation’. I want to try and set out why we believe it’s such a compelling and powerful alternative approach for tackling ‘the big T’.

Let’s start with a story

Made by Many started as a company of digital makers back in 2007. We started out describing what we do as, “Making new stuff out of the internet”. Later, we felt the need to be a bit less vague and changed this to (from 2008), “We make digital products and services, that drive big changes in our clients’ businesses led by design”.

Throughout, we have always been obsessed with making: experiences, new models, products and services - that serve that sweet spot where peoples’ needs and business intersect and unlock huge new value. (Note: not simply cost-reduction, although that is always somewhere in the solution. Our focus has always been, and still is, on new value creation.)

We’ve invented, designed and made hundreds of innovative digital products and services for big global companies over the 20 years we’ve been doing this.

Throughout the 10 (nearly 11) years of Made by Many - and also for the 10 preceding years when we did this at other companies - we’d always noticed that when you made and launched a successful new digital product or service with a client, it ended up changing the business, often in very profound ways.

Sounds obvious. The phenomenon will be familiar to anyone who designs digital products and services for established businesses, but perhaps some of the effects aren't as immediately obvious.

Hopefully, you get that I’m not talking about the specific benefits of individual products or services (i.e. the specific new opportunities it might unlock). I’m talking about the deeper, broader operational and cultural changes that are wrought from working very closely with others in a Lean and Agile product team.

The changes I’m talking about are:

  • Designing and embedding the new workflow and processes required to operate and manage the new product over time
  • Creating the new capabilities required to support the new product over time (often means hiring and training; always means coaching and teaching)
  • Bringing the voice of the user right into the heart of decision-making at every stage of the process
  • Swapping the cultural default of ‘requirements to be delivered’ for ‘hypotheses to be validated’
  • Providing the philosophy and tools to help with everything from defining business models and value propositions, to prioritisation and estimation, to testing and measurement and loads more
  • Enabling a massive increase in speed-to-market, without sacrificing quality (and, in fact, increasing quality)
  • Sparking the invaluable quantum of self-belief that derives from successfully delivering something that people love and that grows the business, on time, in budget, surpassing expectations (most times this has never happened before)
  • Building a product culture to support all the above

There’s probably more, but you get the idea. A self-managing Lean and Agile product innovation team is a fragment of the future state.

Because of this, working together in the right way, and delivering something exceptional leaves a permanent mark. It changes the way people work and think. Doing it is a powerful way of learning it. The way we partner to co-design and collaborate very closely across every stage of the lifecycle through ideas, insights, design, prototyping, making, scaling and operating is an incredibly powerful learning experience. You don’t get this if your partner works inside a black box, or handles the engagement in a top-down way.

For the longest time (again, even before Made by Many) we considered these very positive impacts simply as beneficial ‘side-effects of making together’. We discussed the value of them, going right back, but decided they were pleasing by-products and that we were solidly about making first.

Over the last two years, however, we have totally re-considered. Today, we understand that ‘the change bit’ is actually the most valuable part of what we do and that ‘the products’ and ‘the making’ that motivated us so much as practitioners are merely a means to an end. It turns out that a collaborative and open Product Design process is a really powerful lever for helping companies navigate towards that digitally transformed future state. Whatever you do, the average future state looks a lot like a self-managing Lean and Agile product innovation team within a software-driven business.

This is why we’ve switched things about. ‘Digital transformation’ (loathsome a phrase as it is) is now front-and-centre as Made by Many’s ultimate goal and headline mission, and the product kind of weirdly becomes a ‘by-product’ of ‘Change by making’. We are consultants who make.

We call this 'Change by making'

Making is a wonderful catalyst and vehicle for big change. ‘Making’ is the opposite of ‘talking about it’. Making is fact and everything else is opinion. Making is the antidote to predictive, Big Strategy-Upfront (aka ‘BSU’). Making is the engine of emergent strategy.

As it says on our website:

Our product-driven approach gets straight to the point: making models and ideas tangible and testable very rapidly by putting them in real people’s hands.

Making is a uniquely adaptive, iterative and measurable vehicle of change – and when carried out by semi-autonomous product teams working broadly within the rhythms and rituals of a Lean and Agile process it’s a deep and to some extent self-propagating learning experience. It’s like a small revolution in thinking and doing that ripples throughout the business.

So when we say ‘Product-led transformation’…

We’re talking about a minimal viable digital change program delivered by semi-autonomous Lean and Agile product innovation team.

The advantage of a 'Product-led' approach is that it manifests ‘transformation’ as a tangible object that people can get behind and solve. Progress is obvious, easy to test and measure. It’s demonstrable, not abstract or theoretical. It’s on a human-scale. It’s a real thing that must deliver value to people and the business in order to be seen as a success.

We’re having great success with this approach.

We think it’s less disempowering than a more traditional, top-down, mega-transformation. It’s actually incredibly empowering for the team, and that has a profound effect beyond the team.

So too does the visible success of making stuff that isn’t shit: never under-estimate the power of self-confidence that you get from making a thing that actually adds value rather than disappointing, and wasn’t a total nightmare to work on.

The approach taps into a deep human bias towards social learning (aka solving problems together in teams) and experiential learning (‘learning by doing’ is a deeper, better experience than simply being told). It’s so much more powerful to learn how to be customer-centric – to take just one example – by being involved in a real human insights process (recruiting, interviews, hypotheses and materials, test-scripts, synthesis etc.) than it is if someone comes in to tell you how important being customer-centric is. It will always be a more powerful way to learn new practices and ways of thinking about the world than being told what to think by a bunch of MBA cut-outs. Human beings are actually really good at this transformation stuff when they’re allowed to play to their strengths.

Mandatory apology

In passing, I offer an apology for using the phrase ‘digital transformation’. I really hate it, for so many reasons but whatever you call it, everyone’s doing it - and as clients are appointing Chief Transformation Officers all over the place and ‘digital transformation’ is at the top of just about every company’s to-do list we just have to get on with it.

Tim Malbon

Tim Malbon

Tim founded influential digital product design company Made by Many in 2007. He’s a leading voice in the emerging practice area of product design and innovation, customer experience and business strategy. He’s the Webby Awards UK Ambassador and a member of the IADAS, and was recently named by Creative Review as one of the 50 Creative Leaders "driving change, not just within their organisation but in the world at large."

@malbonster

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