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Alignment, Blockchain, Design Thinking, Digital Transformation, Innovation, Organisational Change

How to do Business in the Age of Alignment

I’ve spent the last 10+ years on digital strategy, design thinking and blockchain. And that path has – naturally it seems – led me to what I think will be the new core trend for the next decade: alignment. 

From Digital to Alignment

The last few years I’ve been saying that Digital Strategy is BS. Rather than focus on digital, it was more about developing a Strategy for a Digital World. Sure, tech was important, but companies also needed agility, user-centricity,….

So we all said, 
“Bring on Design Thinking (DT1) to stay relevant to users.” 
“Bring on Digital Transformation (DT2) to stay relevant in the digital world.” 

But to stay relevant in the future, there’s a heavily under-exposed opportunity area. And that’s ‘world’. As in ‘society’. 

So bring on AT, aka Alignment Thinking.

To unravel my thoughts, I’ve sketched a model. As with any model, it’s probably not true. But it has been useful, as it has given me the insight that businesses can break this down into 4 areas of interest.  

From now on, if you want to be a successful business, you need to  

  • be aligned with user-people, 
  • be aligned with ‘worker’-people  
  • be aligned with digital impact
  • be aligned within networks/society

1- People as users

Yes, businesses need to put their users first. And yes, smart ones realise that these users live in an increasingly digital world, with impact on expectations. Etc etc. That’s where Design Thinking can help. 

But soon, that won’t be enough. 

Signal 1
There’s a declining trust in businesses and their CEOs. We just don’t believe it anymore. 

Signal 2
There are increasingly critical views of consumerism. There are concepts like the donut economy. And Digital Transformation people like Jo Caudron are writing award winning books about concepts like the Solution Economy, where you don’t sell stuff but solutions/subscriptions.  

Signal 3
As people, we are having a hard time, trying to navigate this increasingly complex world. Climate, digital overload,… No wonder there is an increasing trend of younger people feeling lonely.

Which makes me assume/believe that…

The business of the future will have products or services
with a (social) value proposition that lets users add value
to an increasingly digital and conscious world.

How? What can we do?  

  • At the very minimum we need to stop looking at users as individuals, but as part of a network. Could be 2, could be as part of the world. 
  • It’s time to take the Job To Be Done methodology (popular in Design Thinking) to another level. Let’s not just design for user needs, but for network needs. 
  • Etc etc. 

2- People as employees

Yes, companies put more focus on their employees’ well-being with work-life balance initiatives, life-long learning,… And some are working on new organisation designs, trying to get the best out of multi-disciplinary teams. Etc etc. 

But soon, that won’t be enough. 

Signal 1
It strikes me that so many people are being coached and need professional direction. An awful lot of us have mapped our human well-being to corporation well-being and it’s not feeling too good, it seems. 
Platforms for a Passion Economy are developing, to allow people to independently monetise their passion/purpose. 

86% of British people say they have experienced anxiety due to work pressure in the last year. 87% have difficulties switching off from work, and 79% cite feelings of failure as a result. (Microsoft, September 2019).

Signal 2
The majority of our workforce is rapidly being filled by Millennials and Gen Z’ers. Things that strike me in various studies about this ‘new breed’ are that they are: 

  • purpose-driven
  • entrepreneurial
  • driven by fair pay

Plus, in less than 10 years, the first Generation Alpha kids will enter the professional market. These girls and boys are growing up in today’s world with lots of talk about values, equality, climate,… 

Which makes me assume/believe that…

Companies that manage to align the purpose and the incentives of the company with the purpose and incentives of the workers,
will attract talent and have a competitive advantage
in an increasingly digital and conscious world.  

How? What can we do?  

  • Think about how purpose can be aligned. I have heard of companies supporting their staff in discovering their individual purpose. Once that’s clear, you can see if that matches with company purpose and define roles accordingly. 
  • Think about how value-distribution can be aligned and what are the organisation models to fit that? From cooperative-style co-ownership models to pretty advanced visions of blockchain-based, tokenised organisation models. What will collaboration software platforms like Colony allow you to do in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years? (note: I invested in Colony. Very, very little, but transparency FTW).
  • Etc etc

The red thread is: how can you enable people to create value (and make money) with each other, not at the expense of each other. 

3- Ethical tech

Yes, companies are still doing ‘digitisation’. And yes, smart ones realise it’s not just about technology, but also about understanding and applying a way of working and culture to meet people’s needs and expectations. 

But soon, that won’t be enough. Because as technology is omni-present, we are starting to realise it’s not just ‘a tool’. It’s an ingredient, baked in to everything we do and that comes with potential side-effects.  

Signal 1
Digital powerhouses are getting more stick. From Google employees refusing to work on military projects to Facebook’s struggles with fake news. Twitter is funding an internal tech team to create a more decentralised version of its own product. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, launched a new Contract for the Web. Etc etc. 

Signal 2
The narrative around data privacy is changing: from ‘I have nothing to hide’ to ‘hold on a minute’. 

In a survey for IBM, 75 percent of respondents said they will not buy a product from a company – no matter how great the product – if they don’t trust that company to protect their data.

Signal 3
Digital wellbeing is a thing, a business. In a recent talk, Rachel Coldicutt, director of tech think tank DotEveryone, used the phrase ‘Just Enough Internet’. For people, but why not for businesses and governments? 

Which makes me assume/believe that…

Companies that manage to align the impact of their tech efforts
with impact on users and society, will have a competitive advantage
in an increasingly digital and conscious world.  

How? What can we do?

  • A tangible action would be to challenge the possible impact of technical decisions by using frameworks like EthicalOS or Jochanan Eynikel’s eth-tech checklist (Dutch). 
  • Look at re-aligning the economic value of data.
  • Think more open source. Contribute to Digital Commons. 
  • Etc etc 

4- Societal role of business 

Yes, more businesses are aware of their ecological impact, fair trade, hiring policies,… And smart ones realise that purpose-driven companies make more money, move this stuff from CSR into their DNA and go for a B-Corp certification

But soon, that won’t be enough. Or at least, I can imagine the goalposts will be moving. 

In the summer of 2019, 181 CEOs of major American companies gathered to redefine the purpose of a company. It should no longer be to serve the interests of shareholders, but to deliver value to all stakeholders. While this can easily be critiqued as a token gesture, they needn’t have done it. But they did. And words *do* matter. 

Add to that, quotes from successful entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, who believe in this kind of future.  

In another 50 years’ time, I believe the only remaining companies will be the ones that add value to their environs, societies, and the planet.
It’s abundantly clear our economic systems will evolve, too.

It is clear that successful entrepreneurs will drastically re-think their businesses. 

However, they should take it a step further than the statement of the Business Round Table, which visions ‘an economy that serves all Americans’. That’s not going to work. 

To the contrary, if you believe in the first 3 points (user/worker/tech), then the societal role of a business becomes the network effect of the first 3 points. Businesses don’t live in isolation, in a national economy – they are obviously part of a network with dependencies.  

Which makes me assume/believe that…

Companies that position themselves as part of networks
of parties and people (and machines/algorithms),
who collaborate around a common purpose with clearly defined incentives,
will have a competitive advantage in the Alignment Age. 

How? What can we do?  
This is the thing we will find out in the coming years. But I’m thinking along the lines of: 

  • Reconsider money/profit flow. Who benefits? Can that be more aligned? I once met a CEO who was extreme in this; anything his company made above their targets, he would refund to their clients. 
  • Reconsider KPIs from the point of view of a broader impact. What does success look like? Does success as a traffic designer mean ‘no accidents at this junction’ or ‘less cars blowing their horns out of frustration’ (I do like the idea of a silence KPI!) or ‘less cars’? 
  • Etc etc 

From words to action

There you go. 4 ambitions, which I think will be necessary to be a successful ‘company’ in the (near) future. Now the question is: what will your long-term vision be? And what are your short-term actions that contribute to realising that vision? 

This stuff is hard, no doubt about it. But this is what I’ll be spending more time on in 2020 (and beyond).

I want to inspire people to look at business in this way and I want to help leaders figure out the next steps in this journey. 

So, if you feel this approach is important and if you’re interested, get in touch.

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

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