WEDNESDAY 13 JAN 2021 10:38 AM

FIVE MINUTES WITH ALAN COOPER

With 2020 turning the world upside down, businesses on a global scale, across every sector, have had to learn to adapt. Alan Cooper, co-founder of digital product studio Freestyle, speaks to Communicate magazine about the importance of experimentation and proposition development when serving customer needs, and why businesses need to be open to experimentation and ‘freedom to fail.'

How has Covid-19 changed strategic business best practice and decision making?

As it arrived out of the blue and without any inkling of its scale, speed and impact, it’s fair to say it threw most models of best practice out of the window. Businesses have had to make decisions and review changes pretty much on a continual basis for nearly 10 months, and that’s set to continue. It’s caused some seismic changes in the way boards, leadership and project teams have operated. Speed of decision making has seen the most tangible change, businesses by and large have had to become more nimble, and in many cases accept that decisions they are making haven’t been scrutinised as they would previously have been. This is both good and bad, and there are probably as many successes from this as there are failures. I think this has applied to both tactical and strategic decision-making, and has forced businesses to loosen some demands on investment decisions; relying less on best practice as there is no model for this; and relying more on gut feel, advice and business acumen to react to the changes.

How can businesses make strategic decisions when ‘best practice’ doesn’t work anymore?

By acknowledging that a more fluid, flexible, agile way of working is more suitable to current times. This in itself isn’t easy for all. For a 30 strong studio like ours it’s relatively easy to pivot, develop new propositions and fail fast inexpensively; but it’s a tougher job for those less able to react quickly. We’ve seen retailers who were behind the curve simply fail because they couldn’t catch up, let alone lead. Shift budgets away from conventional business lines to allow experimentation and innovation to flourish at speed; it’s one of the core reasons that businesses make profits, so use some of those reserves or P&L if it’s strong to facilitate trial and moving at speed, without reliance on what you did in 2019. Recruit better people and give them the freedom to experiment.

What role does agility play in business transformation during these unprecedented times?

A leading role. Transformation has stopped being the darling of the blue sky or future thinking department and is now essential for survival at the business’ core. If you don’t transform you’ll not only be overtaken but you might just not make it (unless, of course, you have a model which can ride on the wave of the impact of Covid 19. In which case, transform even faster!).

Has the pandemic enhanced the role digital plays in customer challenges and business problems?

Actually I think not. Good businesses were already using ‘digital’ to deliver better brand and customer experiences and to make their organisations efficient. The pandemic might have shone a brighter light on those who haven’t fully embraced the transformative benefits, but for those already underway with digital technologies at the heart, it’s just BAU but bigger, faster, more streamlined.

Why do businesses need to be open to experimentation and ‘freedom to fail’?

I believe this has nothing to do with a pandemic or any other PESTEL factor; it’s more to do with the pace and progress of business in general. The potential for businesses of all sizes and sectors to be disrupted, usurped or undermined by innovative competitors and start-ups is at an all time high, and will only go higher.

Failure and experimentation is so much less of a major impact on a business than before. You can experiment and fail in multiple areas concurrently and react fast to stop or accelerate experiments depending on their success.

You can be sure your more agile competitors are trying everything; so you should too. This doesn’t mean we should all be trying to be Tesla or Airbnb, we can experiment at different levels to gain small and large improvements in customer experience, product efficiency, proposition diversity. The key is to make decisions at speed where possible, and to allow fast failure without penalising the efforts of the innovation/experimentation teams.

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