Dear Uber, It’s Time For a Man To Man Talk.

 
Dear Uber, 
 
I feel it’s time to have a man to man talk. Or, to put it more pedantically, a human being to voraciously ambitious young company focused on world domination on other people’s money, at the significant cost of human dignity talk. 
 
I mean, wtf people? You launched a taxi service in New Delhi, in India, a city where women till recently balked at the idea of getting onto public transport for fear of being groped or touched. Where carrying a safety pin was considered prudent in case of the need for self defence. Where most women think many times about taking any form of transport alone, after dark. A city that has witnessed horrific crimes on women in frighteningly recent memory. Into this environment, you dropped your oh-so-convenient taxi service which makes no more than mandatory background checks and takes little responsibility. Did you really think this was going to go well? 
 
I am a huge supporter of your technology. I’ve written about it here and here. I’m also a huge supporter of your service, in general. I’ve even compared it to impressionism, and that’s pretty high praise. So this is not some disgruntled rant by somebody who doesn’t get technology and wants to stand in the way of progress. Just wanted to get that out of the way before we go any further. 
 
Because the problem is obviously not limited to New Delhi or any specific place, as this terrible incident from Boston suggests. Let’s face it. If, hypothetically speaking, I had evil intentions, becoming an Uber driver may just give me the kind of opportunity my imaginary dark side craves. After all, you take no liability so you naturally are more carefree with your background checks. 
 
The irony is that technology could actually make it much safer to take a cab. To start with you might consider using blackboxes instead of consumer grade mobile devices, as these guys do. These would be much harder to turn off. Second, and even with your current set up, the moment a GPS device gets turned off for more than a minute, a red flag should go off, triggering a call to the driver and the customer. If they don’t get answered, that should be a call to the police. You should also be able to track if the car has gone significantly off the path indicated by the customer, and you’d probably be able to mark off busy and lonely spots on a map. I mean there must be a hundred other ways for smart technologists like you to make your journeys safer. 
 
I’m sure world domination is within your reach, but it seems like you are your adolescent worst enemy right now. After that ill-advised rant against a woman journalist, and that completely over the top idea to track down another journo, with carefree ignorance about privacy, you’d have thought that you would have battened down the hatches and focused very hard on doing the right thing. 
 
But apparently not. 
 
May I suggest that you seriously consider appointing a Chief Ethics Officer? I appreciate that this may cause some confusion with your existing CEO, but from where I stand, your Ethics Officer may just be the most important person in the company right now, given that he/she stands between you and implosion. I get that you’ve hired a Chief Privacy Officer, but I think that ship has sailed. I also understand that you’ve got helpful lists for customers such as this one. But isn’t that a bit like a giving out road safety instructions whilst dishing out licenses to dangerous drivers? 
 
I sincerely hope you go from strength to strength and I will likely be availing myself of your service at certain moments. There is simply no better way to get home from Heathrow at the end of a long day. Btw, the Spotify integration was cool, and fun. 
 
However, I will be advising all my women friends to stay away from Uber for a while until you’re able to demonstrate that you do really care. And there will be all those other times when I could use your service, or not. And I probably won’t. And you do realise that you can’t aim for world domination by being a last resort. 
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Digital: Time To Put The Horse Before The Cart?

As somebody who has come into the technology world with an education in economics and business, I have always been the one to argue vociferously, that it’s business first and tech after. You must first sort out the business objective, change, process impact and then select or customise the tool to the business needs.

Of late, in the digital environment, I am learning to question and often invert this logic.

Cart horse

But let’s remind ourselves of what ‘good’ means, in traditional technology projects. The correct flow has always been:

Business need –> Process change –> Define the ‘to be’ stage –> deploy appropriate technology –> impact on user behaviour –> outcome achieved.

As a consultant, I’ve made a living out of fixing this flow. Or specifically, fixing projects that have confused this flow. Many IT projects have historically gone bad because the technology came first, and nobody had thought about the business outcomes, or the desired process change.

But I find myself regularly giving advice in the digital projects which includes putting in the technology early in the game. Why is this?

To start with, traditional technologies were not intuitive. Many long suffering users would argue that they are often the absolute opposite of intuitive. It is definitely true that these technologies and tools are process centric. They are based around a view of a business processes that is deemed the ‘right way’. As such they are based on conformity, and used to drive process adherence.

Digital technologies, on the other hand, are fundamentally based on diversity. This is not diversity as in customising the font and the colour-scheme. Think of a smartphone, which, from the moment you start using it, starts to morph into something that is uniquely yours – in the applications you carry, the way you arrange them, the way you use it, and what you use it for. This is not about selecting from a limited number of pre-defined settings. It is creating enough degrees of freedom and choices so as to enable, mathematically speaking, options which are many orders of magnitude higher in number. A virtually infinite number, since you can’t humanly work through all of them. Or think about any two people’s Facebook or Twitter feeds.

Even the way 2 people use map applications can vary. My wife prefers Apple Maps (yes, and I still love her!). I can’t get away from Google Maps. The way we access the apps differs, how we check directions differs. Even the way we search varies. Both of us use exactly the same model of the iPhone.

Digital technologies are as we all know based on user centric approaches. They are built based around user journeys, not business processes. This philosophy shift, is the second key difference, and is the reason why these tools and technologies far more intuitive. The tech is not being used to corral a diverse user base into standardized work processes, it is in fact liberating them to do things their way, while allowing an underlying process to support a massive variety of users.

The combination of these 2 means that the technology can embrace the diversity of people and behavioural spreads without having to apply blinkers.

So far so good, but that still doesn’t explain why we should put technology and tools first, does it?

Now consider that in enterprises, technology is something that is done to people. Users are essentially recipients of the technology that is planned, designed and implemented by a specific set of people. Digital technology is more of an interplay than a one way street. And while traditional technologies are deterministic, digital is exploratory and discovery driven.

A critical pillar of this is the move to agile methodologies. I met a start up recently which has been self funded, has 6 people, has an excellent product, and has had 28 releases of its app within the past 3 years. The best businesses today tend to talk about a ‘tight development cycle between user feedback and new features’ – this tends to be in the range of a fortnight to a month, between releases. This also implicitly means that your users are now willing participants in the product roadmap and there is very little second guessing of what the users want.

When you pack all of this together, you can now see why in the digital space it makes sense to get technology into the users hands early. To summarise, the technology is intuitive, and digital solutions are typically discovery driven and supportive of huge diversity, and the delivery and continuous improvement is driven through tight agile cycles. So giving something that simple that works, to the user community, engages them, draws them into the development and improvement process and creates outcomes that you possibly couldn’t imagine even with the best product team. Its why Evernote or WhatsApp, which are fundamentally simple, even primitive propositions – note taking and text messaging, respectively – are able to take market share away from Microsoft or even Google, in the case of Evernote, and Vodafone or (earlier) Facebook, in the case of WhatsApp.

I argued earlier that Digital is all about big vision and small action. I’m now going a step further that the small action may well be to get a simple tool or platform to your users in the shortest possible time, rather than spend weeks and months drawing process maps and building complex systems. Now, obviously there are risks here. Simple and quick does not mean poor quality and badly thought out or executed. This isn’t a short cut, it’s a methodology which requires skill. The skill to strip a complex idea to it’s MVP version, and then to elegantly execute it. User experience quality is non-negotiable. And it has to solve a problem, not half a problem. And the best measure of this, is that it has to make the users’ lives a little easier, in however small a way. The challenge is that only the user can assess whether this has actually happened.

I was pleasantly surprised when I flew into the US this time to notice there were self service kiosks at immigration, at Atlanta. Sadly, the output of that processes was only to verify the fingerprints and then stand in another queue to meet a person. In a competitive environment (which I appreciate this isn’t), this would be the equivalent of solving half a problem.

So the way a digital “cart-before-the-horse” process might work is:

Product vision —> User journey understood —> MVP delivered —> engage with feedback —> co-create product roadmap with users —> co-own the outcomes —> deliver the (modified) vision.

So we’re back to the idea of customer journeys, and understanding how to simplify or transform them. If you were creating a new consumer product, such as the next Dropbox or Spotify, you have a certain level of freedom, I would even say simplicity as you have a clean sheet of paper with respect to your back end, processes, service and fulfilment. The challenge for enterprises is that simplifying one customer journey may require cutting across multiple business processes. This is why this is much harder for large businesses. From the earlier world where we built software to replicate our desired view of the process, we are now building tools that are perpendicular to process thinking. This can be messy, politically, operationally and commercially, for large organisations. Offering a transformation of how automobile accident claims are settled by an insurance company may require multiple departments, processes and existing technologies, to be impacted. So it would be a mistake to think of this as a trivial exercise of throwing a bit of technology out.

Also, digital processes typically apply to the systems of engagement – broadly speaking, to those components or aspects of your systems which need to interface with humans – be they customers, partners or employees.

And here’s the catch. Once users start to engage with your MVP technology product or solution, they start to drive the evolution of that platform. You now have the proverbial tiger by the tail. You can’t go halfway down the process and then abandon the needs and feedback that your users prioritise, even if it goes against what your Senior Vice President of Product Development (or other HIPPO) wants you to do.

So while it sounds simple, this is actually quite a profound change for enterprises, and especially for the entire ecosystem of IT teams and traditional IT vendors but one that you need to embrace unless you want to become a victim, rather than a proponent of Digital Transformation.