4 years, 4 months ago

A Safe-Fail Business Model

Link: https://horsesunicorns.blogspot.com/2016/12/a-safe-fail-business-model-draft.html

This is the 2nd episode of the ACME Entertainment & Leisure story. The CIO, Mr Black has just been appointed, and set challenges by the Executive Board; ranging from cost reduction & innovation to improved regulatory compliance – and all this in the face of a pending merger.


The Systems Thinkers

The second week on the job, the newly appointed CIO of ACME Entertainment & Leisure, Colin Black, stared at a stick drawing of a Horse and a Unicorn. He was musing over the “magical properties” of the so-called Unicorn companies. How did they see the world? They seemed to act very differently from traditional firms; they had a knack of evolving ideas, testing them in markets and building on the ones that stick. And they were working at lightning speed.

Colin spoke his thoughts out loud.

“Of course, the Unicorns take advantage of the latest developments in Information Technology, but they’ve also modelled their whole business differently; a model based on an acceptance that the world was turbulent and unpredictable, and that this could be used to their advantage – the secret of their disruptive powers”.

Colin Black had become a passionate SystemsThinker. His friend, Carl Green had introduced him to the work of System Thinkers like Russell Ackoff, and Peter Senge, among others. Colin first met Carl after reading his book that introduced some ideas about how Systems Thinking might be applied to software analysis and design.  Since then, Mr Black had hired Mr Green from time-to-time to help him think through the knotty challenges of so-called “Digital Transformation”. It was one of those discussions that kicked-off an exploration of the mindset Horses versus Unicorns.

“I’ve a hunch that Unicorns have embraced Systems Thinking and have made it a core pillar of their business operating model”. Colin offered, as a conversation starter.

“Yup, I think you’re right.” Carl Green replied, and added,

“I guess we can trace back their mindset to the world of Open Source, maybe the first time teams of software developers self-organized to deliver world-changing products, at scale.”

“And, perhaps, most importantly, without top-down control.”

“It seems to me that we need to get above the consultant’s buzz-word-bingo; Cloud, Big Data, Digital Transformation, Internet of Everything, Digital Disruption, etc., etc. “ Colin remarked, and then added,

“Instead, I need to get a grip on the mindset of the Unicorns; Google, NetFlix, Uber and Amazon. They seem to work to a different mental model that understands how to apply such technologies disruptively. Those just talking about the tech miss the point!”

“It seems the Horses business operating model is based on Science 1.0 while the Unicorns are doing Science 2.0!” Carl retorted with a smile, and added,  

“Maybe a video I watched recently could help explain the difference?”

He showed Colin a web page with a video entitled “Safe-Fail to Thrive Under Conditions of Uncertainty”.

“The speaker is a philosophy professor called Alicia Juarrero .“


Canoes and Rafts

The following weekend, Colin Black watched philosophy professor Juarreo’s video and made notes her insights.

He glanced down at his notepad:
  • Science 1.0 vs. Science 2.0
  • Canoes vs. Rafts – thriving in turbulent waters
  • The way nature works – how ecosystems work
  • Sloppy Fitness  – another way of saying loose coupling?
  • Innovation – creating the conditions for the novelty to emerge
  • Distributed control – management as modulators, not top-down governors
  • Taylorism – (are my exec board Taylorists?).

He had a hunch he knew the answer to the last question. He scratched his chin and imagined presenting “Sloppy Fitness” to the Board. He chuckled at the insanity of the idea and imagined showing them the video; their glazed eyes rapidly followed by a hostile and, generally career-limiting, reception.

How the heck was he going to translate the messages from the video to something his paymasters would receive? How would he find a way to tell the story in their language, and in a way that didn’t challenge their dearly held beliefs? The latter would probably be impossible for some, but at least he might be able to get support from the CEO if he could find the right words; examples and anecdotes that resonated with her objectives. It boiled down the story; it had to be short, to the point, compelling – using in plain English.

His mind wandered back to the afternoon in the early1970’s. A ten-year-old Colin was struggling with his English Literature homework; the works of William Shakespeare. He let out a sigh of frustration. His Mother came over to see what the problem was.

“What’s the problem?”

“I just can’t understand this stuff, why can’t he use plain English?!”

His Mum scurried off and a few minutes later, reappeared with a book in her hand.

“Here, try reading this, it’ll help you understand his stories.” She passed him the book.

He opened it up to find translations of Shakespeare’s work in plain English. He read it from cover to cover. Instead of concentrating on unpicking the old-English language, he became fascinated by the stories and their messages. He began to understand the humour, irony and wisdom of the tales. Later that year, he got his first “A” in English Literature.


Lamb’s Tales of Science 2.0

The adult Colin Black was back in the present. He spoke aloud to himself:

“That’s it! That’s what I need. I need the “Lamb’s Tales” of Science 2.0.”

With that thought in mind he re-read the description beneath Alicia Juarrero’s video:

Alicia Juarrero -Lean Agile Scotland 2015

Colin Black was convinced that the Safe-Fail story was the key to understanding the Unicorn’s “magic”. And that this was why the CEO and her team were having a hard time understanding why their strategies were failing; they were locked-in to Science 1.0, through years of following so-called “Best Practice”.

He needed to convince the Executive Board that Science 2.0 thinking had a place at ACME E&L. This would be no small feat; it was akin to religious conversion! But he was convinced it was vital for the Board to understand that change started at the top;  with the structure, culture and behaviour – of the whole business. The alternative would be the familiar blame I.T. story; the wash-rinse-repeat – it’s an I.T. problem, just make it work Mr CIO!

Colin Black stood up and wrote “A Safe-Fail Business Model” on his whiteboard, and then added: WHY, WHERE, WHAT, WHO, WHEN … and HOW? – Board presentation (aka A Lamb’s Tale of Science 2.0).

He knew he needed to be bold, and during his “honeymoon” period, he’d better demonstrate practical examples of how Safe-fail would deliver the outcomes the Board had made clear they needed. He also knew a business-wide change in culture would take time – time he didn’t have. So, with Mr Green’s help, he came up with five personal objectives:

1.     Obtain funding and support to experiment with Science 2.0 ways-of-working (Note: the “Lamb’s Tales: A Safe-Fail Business Model” presentation needed to be outstanding!)
2.     Get the Board to agree on a set of principles for a Safe-fail programme.
3.     Demonstrate tangible business value in 30-60 days.
4.     Over the next 60-120 days, gradually introduce Unicorn-like practice through adoption and measurement of technologies & designs.
5.     Find like-minded System Thinkers anywhere within the business and outside it.


Alicia Juarrero’s 31-minute video here – well worth the time.

Thanks to Greg Brougham for inspiration and Sally Bean for her suggestions and help.

While this story is based on a real company, it has been anonymised and adapted.
The characters and events are often amalgamated.

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