Oct 17

Empire of the Skies

(Disclosure: I was invited by Andrew Kelly to attend this talk & receive a complementary copy of James’ book and encouraged to blog about it afterwards, I did so I am.)

James Hamilton-Paterson’s new book “Empire of the Skies” has the official sub-title “When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World“, but from the interview with Andrew Kelly (Director, Festival of Ideas) it could more accurately be sub-titled “Decline and Delinquency of a National Industry“. Coming to Bristol during celebrations of 100 years of aviation engineering & innovation (BAC100) was thus akin to walking into the lion’s den and giving the lion a slap round the head with a fresh sirloin steak.

In fairness to James, his book begins at the end of the Second World War and focuses mainly on the military jet story. For the most part it is a boys-own style recounting of the early years in jet aircraft development. James’ own fondness and passion for that era is evident throughout and where he dips into melancholy it is for opportunities missed and advantages squandered.

Right at the start of the interview James made the point that, post-war, there were some 23 companies making aircraft from original R&D to production, and a further 9 engine manufactures. The almost mythical status of the RAF and associated planes, meant that politically the companies that built them “couldn’t be allowed to fail”, and where else have we heard that recently?

The following Q&A was predictably robust in defence of the aerospace sector, though too many rambling commentaries without discernible questions left little time or opportunity for a real Question Time cross examination.

From all the post-war jets, four are put forward as ‘great’; the Canberra (in service from 1951 and operational with the Indian Air Force until 2007); the Hunter in the same year (although only from the Mk6 onwards) and still operational with the Lebanese Air Force; the  Vulcan (1952), for which James describes Operation Skyshield in 1961 to test NORAD’s new DEW (Distant Early Warning) radar system where these remarkable aircraft effortlessly breached the US line and landed in New York State, less than 20min flying time from New York City; and the Harrier (1967) which was only the second post-war jet (after the Canberra) to be bought by US, and the last wholly British designed & manufactured military jet. This is also the de-facto end of the story for the book. English Electric Canberra at the 1951 Farnborough Air Show

If I have a criticism of the book it’s that there’s no grand narrative. There’s not enough depth and analysis in this book to genuinely think of it as a dissection of the post-war aerospace industrial decline. Although James apportions blame roughly equally between incompetent management at the companies and dithering short-termism in Government, he doesn’t go into the wider industrial-political story that might have explained why this happened. Its not really the story of Bill Waterson, though he is often the human face to the story. Other characters, such as Flight Lieutenant Al Pollock ‘buzzing’ the Houses of Parliament & flying his Hunter at full tilt through Tower Bridge on 4 April 1968 in protest at the lack of celebration for the 50th Anniversary of the RAF (for which he was discharged without a Court-Martial), are dropping in as vignettes but it’s not really a story of the decline of the RAF either.

The book, much like James during the interview, is at its best when recounting the undeniable bravery and honest patriotism of the people involved in pushing the technological limits of aviation long before the science was understood.

I did learn one cool fact, in 1971 we launched the satellite Prospero on a Black Arrow rocket (another wholly British undertaking) to test solar cells and detect micrometeorites, it’s still up there and probably will be for another 100 years.

Sep 16

How do you ‘lean’ a business?

In these straightened times, its a great opportunity to review your business processes & establish the foundations for the future.

Never let a crisis go to waste. Rahm Emmanuel (via WSJ)

Lean means taking a fundamental look at your business & driving out waste. Some of these wastes will be obvious (work in progress, re-work, multiple sign off sheets, etc) some of the waste may be harder to identify. There are experts in “Lean” & 6 Sigma Black-Belts, these may work for you, but I would suggest that you begin with a strategic review of your purpose, then consider some systems process modelling that will show how well, or otherwise, you are working towards those strategic proposes. From there you can assign costs and added value to activities to help with cast flow forecasting.

Strategic Purpose

You need to have one.

I was lucky to spend some time with Michael Corbett (Product Box, @productbox) a couple of weeks ago using a fairly new method called the “Business Model Canvass“. We spent a couple of minutes talking about the canvass but it’s such a simple, visual method that we quickly started drawing ideas on the sheet and making connections. It was quite fun to be the ‘client’ and not to have to think too hard about the model but just concentrate on the process.

We looked at a business I was involved with and used the Canvass to work up a representation of the business model. The visual approach quickly distilled the Strategic Purpose (which I can waffle on about for ages) and encapsulated a clear  Value Proposition. The business was a good test of the canvass as it’s not a simple model of taking orders, fulfilling orders, rinse & repeat.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing the stakeholders (or customer segments), activities and relationships. This actually identified a critical Value Proposition that I was completely unaware of. It had certainly not been articulated before.

We also worked out most of the rest of the business model, though without much detail. By lunch time we’d 75% of the business model captured, though not in a form that you could have presented to a third party. However, in a dozen or so post-it notes we’d encapsulated most of a traditional business plan and produced a couple of very clear value propositions that, together with the key partners & customer segments, represented a pretty good Strategic Purpose.

Fleshing out the sketch

Michael then pulled out his trump card – he’d set up a Google Site specifically designed to capture the output from our Business Canvas session. This contained all our notes, diagrams, together with a whole load of background info on the canvass, process, and associated references. Basically, all the information necessary to take the insights gained from the business canvas exercise and turn them into an action plan.

Michael explained that, given that it contains all this information in one place, and that it relates to a new product (or service) that he calls it a ProductBox™. Normally we’d have been working on the Canvass as team of business owners / founders / exec’s prior to launching a new product or service, and the ProductBox is designed to keep that team-work going on line. I just happened to be working with Michael on my own.

After our meeting I logged in to my new ProductBox and took a look at the draft diagrams & notes. Because we’d spent the time drafting the original using paper and pens, it was very easy to start using the on-line diagrams. The associated notes helped to expand the short notes with more detail.

After a couple more hours I’d got quite a detailed business model described. I’d also explored some of the panes in the canvas in more detail and put in some background information and explanatory notes on how things related to each other. One of the drawbacks with simple visual representations is that you often lose critical details, having the Product Box with all the notes kept all those notes together with the canvass. Although I was working on this alone (with Michael keeping an eye on me) the package is a wiki so naturally collaborative if you’re in company with others.

After a couple of sessions I had sufficient detail that I would naturally start using something like IDEF0 to detail the business processes needed to make the canvass work. One feature of IDEF that I really like is the concept of layering processes through parent-child relationships, while the Canvass doesn’t force on you, I can see it being a great complement to other approaches (and the wiki design of the ProductBox would help here also).

The end result (even after a couple of sessions) was sufficiently detailed that I could use the canvas as a map of the business model to describe to others. It’s also a live document that can continue to grow as more contributions are posted.

Michael and I discussed the use of the canvass. I think it’s strength is as a planning tool that very quickly and visually allows people to discuss their business model (without lots of MBA mumbo-jumbo). At first I was a little frustrated at the lack of detail, but I’ve come round to appreciate the simplicity of the presentation framework. There’s a lot more detail under the surface and the Product Box that Michael set up allows for almost infinite details if that’s what floats your boat.

Should you Canvass your business?

What I liked was the holistic view of the business model, and the expressed statement about Value Proposition. Anyone thinking of pitching their business should take a look at this approach, and have a chat with Michael.

Thanks to Michael for his comments on an earlier draft of this post and for introducing me to the Business Canvass and ProductBox.

Aug 06

Management vs Money – which is more important?


John Althouse Cohen, 2005

This is an age old problem for the company starting out (or indeed growing rapidly). Obviously a complete lack of top-notch people or abject poverty are both unlikely to lead to success.

But where should your focus be?

This recent piece from Startup Professionals Musing comes down pretty firmly on the people side of the argument. Even with all the caveats about being a US review of investing, the broad findings are valid here in the UK as anywhere else.

With that in mind what can you do?

Well you should get out and meet people that will either be those high quality people, or know them and can introduce you. Make yourself known to the local University incubator teams, go along to your local Open Coffee such as <shameless self-promotion>Open Coffee Bristol</ss-p>, try searching Google for <your town> entrepreneur / startup / etc.

Or go to one of the events specifically put on to help bring growing companies together with exactly the right kind of people to help the do even better.

One such event is the Angel News ‘Pitching for Management not Money’. <Disclosure; I promised Modwenna I’d help promote the event but there’s no financial return to me, and the tickets for this first event are free anyway!> The first of these events outside London (in partnership with Intramezzo and Boulevard) is taking place on Monday 28 Sept at the Smith & Williamson offices in Bristol. Sponsorship from Burges Salmon and Business Link means the tickets for both businesses and prospective executives are free.

If you’re not already registered with Angel News there are a couple of links below to sign up for this event, hope to see you there.

May 23

Social Media Systems (3)

(Update – Swapped Sam’s live UStream with Michael’s recorded YouTube)
This is an expansion on my Brrism talk on Systems Theory and how it can be applied to social media (systems).

If you’re interested in the history of systems theory, General Systems Theory, Bertalanffy, et al, then my previous post touched on that, plus there are good wikipedia pages to read (linked to in this sentence). The first article concentrated on the overview, the next article introduces the Soft Systems approach and I’ll conclude this mini-series with this example application.

But what is it good for?

Over the 30 minutes or so after my talk at Brrism, we worked mainly on the systems description using the CATWOE acronym. As with all systems descriptions and discussions, there were several views, forcefully put.

However, by the end of the very short session we’d arrived at a pretty good consensus opinion. There’s still some work to be done refining the description and it needs to be circulated widely within the Brrism community to gather feedback.

For me the breakthrough came when we agreed that the fundamental transformation that Brrism brings about is multiple ideas / perspectives into calls for collective action. That took quite a bit of work as we didn’t think that Brrism itself was about lobbying for social change, or making B2B connections, or promoting ‘best practice’; however the Brrism community might well do a bit of that after meeting and exchanging ideas!

The next task will be to convert the CATWOE into some rich pictures; but that’s for another day.

If you’re interested in what was actually said in my talk, the video is up on Facebook (sorry, not on an embeddable site, will have to talk to Michael about that). Sam Downie (@samdownie) was streaming on UStream and the slides are on Slideshare.

May 23

Social Media Systems (2)

(Update – swapped Sam’s live UStream with Michael’s recorded YouTube)
This is an expansion on my Brrism talk on Systems Theory and how it can be applied to social media (systems).

If you’re interested in the history of systems theory, General Systems Theory, Bertalanffy, et al, then my previous post touched on that, plus there are good wikipedia pages to read (linked to in this sentence). The first article in this mini-series concentrated on the overview, this article will introduce to a particular systems approach and I’ll conclude this mini-series with an example application.

Soft Systems

Humans are particularly complex systems, free will, determinism, etc mean we need some modifications to the above general approach to describing a system that specifically includes humans. This is where Peter Checkland comes in. He was a chemical engineer who realised that many of his industrial chemical systems weren’t behaving as designed, not because the design of the engineering processes were wrong, but because of the people in the system. Unlike previous engineers, who tried to design people out of their systems, Checkland tried to understand how people influenced and interacted as part of the systems. And thus, Soft System as an analytical methodology was born.

Open University, module T552

The first thing that Checkland realised was that the very neat, formal diagrams that were generally used in systems analysis didn’t allow for the messy human element. Rich Pictures are an approach that describes the system with the human elements included.

Rich pictures have the same basic features of any systems diagram (boundary, components, inputs, outputs, transformations, environment) but with some additions.

The first addition is that of Actors, not a wandering group of minstrels, but the people within the system. You can give them names, but its usually helpful to use functional descriptions. The second addition are Clients, the people that benefit from the system. Of course the clients may in large part be the actors, but usually there is a specific group of people that are beneficiaries that aren’t part of the system.

The third addition is that of the Owner. This is often an individual but could be a group, organisation, but is whatever has the authority to abolish or fundamentally change the system. Most online social systems make substantial use of free (as in beer) software, and thus have at least two owner groups; the people that set them up and run/coordinate and the people that provide the free online resources.

The final major addition needed for a rich picture is a description of the perspective being adopted by the people drawing the rich picture itself. Checkland referred to this as Weltanschauung (World View). Is the social system about generating shareholder value, individual self-actualisation, mutual support, environmental salvation…

The role of the Environment in soft systems is more important than just “stuff that’s outside the boundary”. What’s going on in the environment can directly impact the system. A good example might be the launch of annotations for twitter; we don’t know how the new feature will impact the various social systems using twitter, but it probably will.

All of which gives rise to the slightly clumsy acronym: CATWOE (Clients, Actors, Transformations, Weltanschauung, Owner, Environment).

But what is it good for? More >>

If you’re interested in what was actually said in my talk, the video is up on Facebook (sorry, not on an embeddable site, will have to talk to Michael about that). Sam Downie (@samdownie) was streaming on UStream and the slides are on Slideshare.