Flattening The Bell Curve

2014-10-03-blogbellcurveThe Bell Curve

This is a bell curve and is what the world used to look like.  People used to watch the same movies and TV shows as one another, listen to the same songs on the radio as one another and even talk about the same topics as one another.

Then the Internet happened.

All of a sudden people are watching all sorts of stuff online and listening to music that no-one in their immediate vicinity has probably even heard of.  It turns out that we’re all freaks when it comes to our wants and needs.

In a lot of respects the Bell Curve has flattened as technology has allowed people to become exposed to so many different ideologies, art and knowledge.

What has also flattened is The Market.  All of a sudden entrepreneurs have access to all sorts of clients from all over the world who like what they’re doing.

It used to be that large companies would make a product or service aimed solely at the middle of the bell curve as a strategy to please everyone.  Now this strength has become their weakness.  Small startups are continually eating away at the fringes and coming after more and more of the large incumbents profit margins.

Nowadays, something for everyone is actually nothing for no one.

Should You Start A Business?

In my experience most people start a business to become rich.  However, during the course of starting a business most founders realise a deeper meaning and purpose in themselves.  Most of the time people who start a business realise that they actually started a business not just for money, but because they had a yearning for something more.

But, just because people want a deeper meaning in their life or want to have an impact in the world doesn’t mean that they should start a business.  The two are mutually exclusive a lot of the time.

There is only one reason that you should start a business:

If you are unable to create a product or service through any other means than by using commerce.

In other words, you start a business when you have no option but to do it yourself, because no one else can or will.  You do it because you want to see a change and the only option left is to do it via commercial means.

If you can do it by other means then it’s a good indication that you shouldn’t start a business as it would be more time efficient, less costly to get to your outcome.

I have seen too many entrepreneurs start a business because they wanted to get rich and therefore they come up with a business idea that actually sounds plausible.  However when examining the idea and their motives further, it becomes clear that the best way forward would not be via commercial means.

In enterprise software a good question to ask is:  “Would partnering with incumbent company X mean that my startup will do better?”.

If the answer is yes, then you have a bad idea for a startup or the incorrect intentions.

Because if partnering would be so beneficial, then it’s likely you aren’t working on something which is trying to change things.  It probably would have been cheaper and less time-consuming to just partner up from the get-go or become an employee for incumbent company X.

Every successful company has a similar story of having to resort commerce to create change. 

Steve Wozniak wanted to stay at HP, but left because they didn’t have the resources to help him create his products.  Richard Branson created Virgin Airlines because he thought that airline service sucked and didn’t have the flights he wanted.  Elon Musk made SpaceX because NASA weren’t making any more advances in space travel.  The list is endless.

In all of these cases choosing commerce to make progress and change things was the only option.

This is why starting a startup is so inherently hard.  The good startups are trying to change things.  And changing things means stepping on other people’s toes and causing a ruckus.

It’s counter-intuitive but it’s a sign that you’re on the right tracks.

This Is Why We Can Change The NHS

The people at the top of the NHS, it is widely thought, have it so easy.  If they just had the sense to engage with the public and front line staff then they could make things better, cheaper and more efficient.

The people on the front lines of the NHS such as junior doctors, nurses and physiotherapists also have a widely held belief – that they can’t make change happen.  Patients are mostly the same as well.  “What can I do?”  they say.

If only patients and staff could yell at the people at the top and tell them how hard they have got it, the thinking goes, then maybe change would happen.

How can staff and patients possibly create change when no one listens to them?  When they don’t have any money?  When they’re just a tiny cog in the system?  When speak of innovation and creativity is often met with fear and disdain?

If this is the case then only the people at the top must be able to create change, they say.

The fact is that the people at the top realise that they have a budget where they have a whopping 1% devoted for software and 0% for innovation and creating change.  If the people at the top decide to innovate and blow some of their budget on something new, then it better have a big impact, it better be nationally scalable from the get-go and it better deliver on all the outcomes promised.  If they don’t deliver on this impossible promise then it’s their head on a pike!

You see, the people at the top are paralysed.  They can’t do anything because they know too much about the wrong kind of things and they are risking their livelihood if they put their name on something that doesn’t work.

The patients and front line staff, the ones that pick themselves to make meaningful work are the people who will create change.  The problems and barriers we face are not nearly as big as what the people at the top face.  This is a lie that front line staff and patients tell themselves, as taking responsibility for something much bigger than their role is a tough pill to swallow.

When I was a Junior Doctor at St James’ Hospital in Leeds, I had the great pleasure of working with the late Dr Kate Granger.  She started the “Hello My Name Is….” campaign.  The reason she started the campaign was because she had terrible experiences of doctors not introducing themselves during her illness.  On one occasion the doctor that told her that her cancer had spread left her “psychologically scarred”.

She went on to say at a speech:

“I had been moaning to Chris (Kate’s husband) about the lack of introductions from the healthcare staff looking after me. Being the practical optimist that Chris is, he simply told me to ‘stop whinging darling and if it is that important to you do something about it.’ So we did.”

It wasn’t Kate’s responsibility to do the campaign.  No one gave her authority to start a campaign.  She simply didn’t have to do it.  But at that moment, she picked herself and decided to make change happen.

She didn’t know that her campaign would end up being endorsed by the then Prime Minister, celebrities, about half a million NHS employees and result in her being awarded a MBE.

The reason why the NHS is so broken is because there aren’t enough people like Kate who pick themselves.  But anyone can pick themselves.  And it’s as simple as saying “I am going to make change happen”.

Welcome To Entrepreneurship

Everyone is one Google search away from getting the information that they need, to start doing work that matters.

What is unfortunate though, is that lot of information isn’t a Google search away.  There’s a lot of stuff in business that people don’t write or talk about.

When I meet other entrepreneurs, we talk about things between ourselves that we wouldn’t ever dare utter in public, or write about in a public space.

I suppose the reason we don’t speak about certain things in public is simply because it would be too controversial and no one can be bothered to deal with the consequences.  I imagine this is the same reason why parents lie to their children when they start asking those difficult questions.  It’s just easier not to tell the truth.

This really sucks for anyone who wants to read about or learn about entrepreneurship passively from the back seat.

The unfortunate reality is that you can only really learn about entrepreneurship by sitting at the front, behind the steering wheel.  Don’t know how to drive?  Don’t know where you’re going?  That means you’re doing it right.  Welcome to entrepreneurship.

Ignorance Is Strength

I was reading some George Orwell and I came across this quote:

“In our society, those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are furthest from seeing the world as it is. In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion; the more intelligent, the less sane.” 

These two sentences in effect perfectly sum up what is wrong with not only society, but also with large organisations.

My own experience in the world of medicine echoes this sentiment.  I am always struck by how front line staff are all able to perfectly describe what is wrong with the NHS and can offer dozens and dozens of solutions to improve things, to make things more efficient and to make things better for patients.

However there are certain people (the “Inner Circle” as George Orwell calls them), who move away from actually seeing patients, see the healthcare system as a whole, see the challenges that we face socioeconomically, see the future (or think they can see the future) problems and so on.  As a result, these people end up knowing nothing about what actually needs to be done.

What does this mean for people on the front line?

Well, for the first time ever, thanks to the decreasing costs of technology, it means you can choose to pick yourself and create work that actually matters.  Work which is informed by actual reality.

Is it any wonder that incumbents get disrupted?  They are blinded by their own size and informed ignorance.

Which Bit Matters?

I just left the Clinical Entrepreneur Pit Stop Event, ran by NHS Innovation (I’ll do a full write up soon!), but it was incredibly useful getting feedback from seasoned entrepreneurs and pioneers as usual.

This pit stop talked a lot about how to fund raise from VCs, Angels as well as creating partnerships with different organisations.

I think entrepreneurship is all about walking a path that hasn’t been walked before.  Walking an un-walked path unlocks value that hasn’t been released before.  It was interesting to hear how fundraising is one of those things that you just can’t innovate on though!  You just have to play things by the book and put in a lot of due diligence.

I think that examining things and questioning things is important.

Often people will perceive that running a successful company means getting Angel investing, followed by VC funding.  Often people feel that to be successful you have to fund-raise.

But what actually makes an entrepreneur successful?  Can we dissect the actions of really successful entrepreneurs and figure out what they were trying to say with their advice around fundraising.

When looking at the successful entrepreneurs, they all had something in common: they made something that the market really wanted!

The fundraising came as a result of having created something that was needed!

When getting ready for bed, people brush their teeth, get into their pyjamas, turn the light off, lie on a soft surface of some kind, turn the lights off and then shut their eyes.  Actually the only two things you need to do to get to sleep is lie down (or sit) and shut your eyes.  Everything else is superfluous to what you need to do.

I think startups and businesses are the same.  Fundraising isn’t a must, creating something the market wants is.  The rest of the actions are just following the motions.

Creating Tension

Michael Schrage has written about what great organisations do.

And his term for it is:

“Who do you want your customers to become?”

I think this is similar to asking “what change do you want to make?”.

Harley Davidson is an amazing brand, worth billions of dollars.  Not because they make the best bikes in the world, but because they’ve turned a group of “outsiders” into “insiders”.  These outsiders used to be disrespected and frowned upon.  But when these people come together they feel something.  Harley Davidson made change happen.

Why is it that so many people line up outside the Apple Store for the newest phone?  It’s because Apple has made us into consumers that now have good taste in digital goods.

If we are going to make change.  You and I – what change are we going to make with our work?

I think doing important work means you have to be the one “in the spot”.  To do important work means you have to choose to be the one in the spot.

Being in the spot doesn’t mean it’s your “job” to do the work, or that the “dummies guide” told you to do the work.  It doesn’t mean you’re doing it because “everyone else is doing it”.

The work that matters, the work that we have the chance to create in our lives, is never work that other people could do.  It’s never the work being done by lots and lots of people.

The work that matters is the type of work where people would miss you if you were gone.  The work that matters is the type of work where people would be sad if you stopped.

Most of use work in organisations.  And most organisations are obsessed with authority.  “Can he do that?” “How come he didn’t ask me if he could do that?”  “Can I do that?”  “Who has the authority?”  “Who has the authority to spend for this?”  “Give me a raise so I can tell other people what to do.”

And this search for authority informs most of the bureaucracies in our life.  If you only had more authority, the thinking goes, then you could get “on the spot” and do the work that matters.

Well, no one’s giving you authority any time soon.  But there is something else you can take any time you want; responsibility.

People who take responsibility get responsibility.  No one gives it to you, you take it.  And what comes with it is the willingness to give away credit.  If you are giving away credit and taking responsibility when things go wrong, there is a looooong line of people out the door who want to work with you.

And this is super hard.  Because not only do you have to go “on the spot” and say; “I am going to do this”, but then you have to be responsible for what happens next.

Which leads to this huge idea about change.  Because when we do work that matters, we are changing other people.

There are two problems when creating change in other people: other people don’t want to change and we (ourselves) don’t want to be responsible for creating change.  Tension in us, tension in them.

Think of a great artist from centuries ago.  Got someone?  They created art that was universally hated by everyone!  Whether it’s Jackson Pollock or Elvis.  That person is hated.  But that person says “No!” and says “I’m making it anyway!”.

But it’s ok, because it was their responsibility and they wanted to create a change.

Are you willing to create this tension?