How to predict the future (and almost always get it right)

Understanding the future is the ultimate competitive advantage. Defining strategies and making decisions become a whole lot easier if you already know where the future is taking us. Unfortunately, knowing the future is incredibly difficult…but that doesn’t seem to stop us trying.

  • People buy lotto tickets hoping they’ve predicted the winning numbers.
  • Property investors buy property expecting to make a capital gain.
  • Executives create annual budgets that determine spending priorities for the next 12 months.

Now perhaps this feels like an unfair comparison, and in some ways you’d be right (but perhaps not for the reasons that you’d expect). But if I was being unfair to anyone in this comparison it would be property investors. Well, perhaps not all property investors, but at least long-term property investors. Long-term property investors aren’t too concerned about whether they are right in the short-term. They believe, and the evidence is there to support them, that over the long-term property values go up. So although there is a bonus in buying property at the bottom of a property cycle, over the long-term it won’t make that much of a difference.

Buying lotto tickets and creating budgets (along with any other form of strategic decision making) is, like property investment, a bet on the future. But unlike property investing, the odds of getting it right over the short-term, or even the long-term are not stacked in your favour. The odds of winning lotto are something like 8,000,000:1 which means that if you were to play the same set of numbers for both the Wednesday and Saturday draw for approximately 78,000 years you should expect to win the jackpot once.

And yet I would tell you these are better odds than you creating an accurate 12 month budget.

“Heresy!” you say? Yet, this is the truth. Even though the odds of winning lotto aren’t great at least they are calculable and finite. At the end of the day, there are only 8 million or so different combinations of numbers and we know that one of them has to win. When it comes to budgeting we are making a prediction about not just the organisation’s priorities, but also its operating conditions and countless other factors outside an executive’s direct control. Unlike lotto where the options are finite, for organisations the number of possible permutations of the future they could face are infinite.

And yet, although the odds of getting our budget right are infinitely lower, most people put more faith in their budget than their lotto numbers. People are generally aware that their chance of winning lotto is low and don’t go and spend their winnings until they’ve won. But in business, people will happily start spending their budget well before they know if their predicted future will come to pass.*

*Those of you who are regular readers of my blog would know that I have a general dislike of budgeting. Although this isn’t the focus of this particular article, I can’t help myself but to reiterate that an overt focus on working to budget encourages people to justify decisions based on the cost rather than their value generation. This leads to some perverse outcomes where people spend their budget on just about anything at the end of the financial year. This is rarely strategic, and has little consideration for value generation. Instead it’s done to ‘protect’ their budget so as to justify similar levels of spending in the next budget period. But perhaps the most perverse part of this is that by spending the organisation’s money on things it may not actually need they are likely to get praise from their manager for their ability to ‘work to budget’.

The problem with budgeting, along with many other planning activities undertaken in organisations are reflected in this quote by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

I would argue that in the way in which many organisations approach their planning activities is that they a) put too little thinking into the planning, and b) put too much faith in the plan.

The starting point for any meaningful planning or budgeting activity needs to be ‘we don’t actually know what’s going to happen’. We cannot predict the future accurately and circumstances WILL change. It naturally follows then that any plan that emerges from the planning process has to have the flexibility to change and adapt as new information comes to light.*

*And this is where I’d argue that budgets are particularly insidious. The data and numbers are often presented (and interpreted) as facts rather than as representations and guesses. This is a growing problem with data-driven decision making more broadly. We forget that the data is often just a representation of something else (ie the amount of time someone spends on your website is meant to represent their level of engagement or interest in your products…as opposed to their level of boredom).


An approach to strategic decision making where only one future is considered (normally the one we prefer the most) and one plan developed is more than just naive, it is Reckless, especially in a world where technology is driving rapid and unpredictable change.

A better proposition, and an approach I see a number of organisations attempt, is to acknowledge that their future is unpredictable and to maintain multiple options that can be enacted if the right conditions emerge. The only issue with this approach is that it’s Reactive and relies on the organisations to be able to identify environmental changes in real time.

An even better approach is to acknowledge the inherent uncertainty that organisations face and take the time to consider multiple futures (or scenarios) during the planning process. Not only will this result in a better plan, it will provide decision makers with the foresight (or memories of things to come) to know if/when the plan is no longer suitable.

But the most Robust approach of all would be to consider multiple futures during the planning process and then have a suite of options you could draw on as conditions evolve and opportunities emerge. This approach not only gives decision makers foresight, it provides them with ready-made plans that can be put into action as required.

Another failed attempt at predicting the future

These are the foundational ideas of scenario planning, a strategic planning approach pioneered by Royal Dutch Shell back in the 1960s. It was famously used to predict and prepare for the formation of OPEC and assisted South Africa through its post Apartheid transition.

Interestingly enough scenario planning was my last ‘real job’ before moving to Melbourne back in 2010. For close to two years before leaving Perth I worked in Rio Tinto’s scenario planning and strategy team, helping the various business units develop robust plans and strategies for the future. And although a lot of my work since has had a futurist slant to it, it was only in the last couple of months that I’ve had the opportunity to work in the scenario planning space again.

Over the last two months I have been working with a state government agency to develop four 10-year scenarios of their future. These were finally delivered at their leadership team’s strategic offsite last week. Using the same video and sound driven approach I use for my keynotes, each of the scenarios was presented as mini movie with customised soundscape that transported participants into four very unique stories of how the future might unfold. We then provided participants the opportunity to ask questions about the future and work on tables to understand what each of the futures might mean for them.

Now this whole article has made my headline look a lot like clickbait. On one hand I’m suggesting that you can predict the future and on the other I’m telling you the future’s unpredictable. It turns out that the secret to predicting the future is to not fall into the trap of picking just one future. Instead of picking one future, scenario planning seeks to define the boundaries around the future, and then help you prepare for a future that will inevitably fall somewhere in-between.

What this means is I can’t tell you specifically what the lotto numbers will be on Saturday but I can tell you that each of the six winning numbers will be between 1 and 45, and no two of them will be the same.

Let’s check back next week and see if I was right.

Find out what makes you common, not what makes you unique

We live in a society that values individuality both in our personal and professional lives. Personal Branding and Unique Selling Propositions are all the rage, but there is at least one area where we are better off seeking out what we have in common with others – rather than what makes us special.

 
Technology.
 
If we look at most of the good apps and software available to us, they generally do one thing really well: Dropbox excels at making it easy to share files with others, Gmail allows us easily receive, manage and send messages, and although I’m not a huge fan, Microsoft Word does a good job of dividing up information into A4 size chunks and sharing them in a way that most other people will be able to access and open.
 
This is in no way an accident. The value proposition for software developers relies on identifying a task their software can do better than others, charge a very small amount of money for it (and probably throw in a free option), and do it a million times over with low marginal costs. The value proposition for almost every software or app developer on the planet is reliant on scale, and therefore commonality. In fact, the general rule for startups is that unless you can have 10,000 active users (which means 10,000 people who all want to do exactly the same thing) then you don’t have something worth investing in.
 
The benefits of commonality and using off the shelf solutions are numerous. 
 
  1. If you find a problem for which there’s already an established solution, then it’s likely you have an actual problem rather than an assumed problem.
  2. The time and cost of developing a solution is greatly reduced if someone has already gone ahead and done it for you. This in turn means that you can solve the problem and generate a return faster.
  3. The competition amongst developers within a particular specialisation means that they have thought far more about required functionality and usability than you have.
  4. The cost of maintaining the solution is greatly reduced because you’re sharing development costs across all users instead of just one.
  5. You can learn from the experience of other users before you. If you’re unique, then you will be making all the mistakes yourself. When you seek out commonality, you can learn from all the mistakes that everyone else has already made. This greatly reduces the risk of implementation and dramatically improves the value proposition.
 
So how is it that we reconcile our uniqueness with the need for commonality?
At a strategic level we need to be able to understand what differentiates our organisation from others. Delivering against our strategy is generally achieved through a series of objectives. Those objectives will consist of multiple activities and we can break down activities into a collection of tasks. It is not at the strategic level, but rather at the task level we should be seeking commonality with others.
 
The ability to find commonality with other organisations and identifying mutual technology opportunities is key to the value proposition of the Digital Champions Club. It allows members to identify new opportunities, reduces risk and leads to faster and more successful implementation. Members of the program explicitly commit to sharing the projects they’re working on and as a result, we now have a shared library of over 100 projects that have been investigated and/or implemented by members of the program. And perhaps 70% or more of those are ones where they could (or have) be copied by another organisation in a different industry with completely different objectives.
 
That’s the power of finding out what makes you common.

Are you ready to fail in 2019?

Are you ready to fail in 2019?

The beginning of January is a magical time of year. It’s the one time where we get to look forward to all the possibility and not have to deal with any of the failures. If you’re anything like me your social media feeds and email inbox will have been flooded with tips on how to achieve your goals to “Make [insert year] the best year ever”. More than any other month of the year, January is a time of immense optimism.

So it’s going to be a bit of a downer when I tell you that most of the plans you are making for this year will fail. In fact research suggests that organisations fail to execute 90% of the plans they make. And if you think this is just about organisations failing you’d be wrong. All over the place people are betting big on yours and other people’s failures.

One notable example is the gym and fitness industry that preys on people’s failed New Year’s resolutions to get in shape. Gyms lock people into long term contracts of 12 or 18 months that clients are expected to pay for even if they never end up going. Research by Finder.com.au suggests that unused or under-utilised gym memberships costs Australian’s $1.8 billion each year.

So to help you plan better for 2019 I’m not going to provide some rah rah advice on how to achieve your goals, but rather some practical advice on how to ensure that when you fail to achieve your goals or complete your projects that at least you do it well.

1. Make your failures small
Small failures are much more palatable than big ones. Using the analogy of a gym membership, it makes more sense to not use a one month gym membership than a 12 month one. Smaller projects (and shorter memberships) might be relatively more expensive but until you know you can achieve your goals it makes sense to make small bets first.

2. Make your failures unique
There is no point failing for exactly the same reasons as everyone else. Spend a little time finding out why other people have failed on similar projects and then build in contingencies for this from the beginning. This will not completely eliminate the risk of failure, but at least you won’t fail for reasons that could have been easily avoided.

3. Fail early
If you’re going to fail then ideally you want to fail before you’ve made a substantial investment of time, money and resources. To achieve this you need to try and identify the unknowns of your project and likely failure points so you can test them as quickly as possible. Once again, this won’t stop you failing but it will greatly reduce the financial, emotional or chronological cost of doing so.

4. Fail often
I’m not suggesting that you actively seek out failure but rather you should regularly put yourself in a position where failure is an option. In some ways failure is a game of odds: the more projects you start, the more improvements you attempt to make, the more likely it is that you will encounter failure. So rather than try and avoid failure all together, see that it’s an unavoidable outcome of creating valuable change.

All the best for your failures in 2019. May they be your best failures yet!

…and if some of the projects you’re looking to deliver this year are technology related, and you’re interested in doing them more successfully (and perhaps even failing a few of them really well) we are currently recruiting new members for the Digital Champions Club. The Digital Champions Club is a digital transformation program for small and medium sized organisations that develops the internal experts you need to deliver value adding technology projects. If you’d like to find out more about the program or to get some free advice on how to avoid projects failing, get in touch to book a free 25-minute consultation with me.

…oh and if you haven’t already seen it, you might be interested in downloading my latest white paper ‘When Technology Fails to Deliver’.

A Festive Cheer (an Ode to the Digital Champions Club scholarship winners)

For what is likely to be my last blog post of the year,
I thought I’d round it out with a little festive cheer.
And given that it is the most festive of times
I thought I’d have a crack of doing it in rhyme.

But this is not just any old festive cheer, oh no
It a special cheer for those who  are willing to ‘give it a go’.
This little hurrah, hurray, whoop, bravo and shout
Is for all of the applicants who recently tried out.
For one of the digital champions scholarships we recently awarded
But as you’re about to find out that as history has recorded
Not all could be successful in this endeavour
Even though their applications were all thoughtful and clever.

So [insert a drum roll] and let a hush descend over the crowd
As we stand on the roof tops and shout the winners’ names aloud.

The first of our new scholars is perhaps the only with a household name
They are the life saving, CPR training team at St Johns (of ambulance fame).

The second of the scholarships went to the incredible Summit Health band
Who support country GPs across this wide open land.

And finally our one and only full scholarship goes
To a little organisation of which few people know.
Suffice to say their application was more than just thoughtful and clever,
it was also engaging, creative and succinct
It was a unanimous decision with no questions whatsoever
To award it to Sarah, Julia and Marcus at the Contemporary Arts Precinct.

So rather than try and push this rhyme thing much more
I think it’s time I signed off and headed out the door.
But before I go let’s have just one more round of clapping and applause
This time for all of you out there who tagged, shared and posted for the cause.
The campaign was ultimately a success and many applications were received
(And given the short timeframes we were plenty relieved)
But at the DCC we know this wasn’t magic, chance or blind luck, our network was the key
So to all of those who spread the word
thank you, thank you, thank you…you’re all legends to me!

I hope to see you in 2019!

Simon

How to get adults to act like kids (in the best possible way)

On the weekend I took my seven and ten year old girls to their first ever music festival. Now, anyone who has regularly attended music festivals such as (the now defunct) Big Day Out, Falls Festival or even more adult orientated events such as A Day on the Green may question whether taking children to a music festival is such a good idea. Mainly because when adults attend music festivals, most of them or many of them end up acting like kids…and when I say this I mean it in the worst possible way. 

At their worst, kids act selfishly and without any real sense of responsibility. They lack the awareness to understand what’s going on around them and fail to acknowledge the impact their actions are having on those around them.  Fuelled by music, alcohol (and other illicit substances) and without social norms of their day-to-day environment to constrain them. This is how many adults behave at music festivals.

But this was a very different type of music festival. Created by the founder of Falls Festival, The Lost Lands has been built from the ground up as a festival for families. There were still big name music acts but these were interspersed with performances and other activities for kids. There were comedy shows, acrobatic performances, dance classes, a movie night and even a giant ferris wheel. Not only did the festival create an incredibly safe space for children, it also encouraged many of the adults to act more like kids…and this time I mean it in the best way possible.

At their best, kids are caring, trusting and generous. They aren’t hampered by cynicism or past baggage. Instead, they are filled with wonder, open to learning and want to explore and try new things. And this was how I saw every single adult behaving at The Lost Lands. They spent their time moving between the acts that they already knew about and the performances that interested their children. They tested their skills on games made out of old bicycle parts, got their face painted. At the same time the adults acted more like adults than at an 18+ event: they were thoughtful, helpful and incredibly respectful of giving others around them, especially children, space to dance and enjoy themselves.

There is a quote by Dennis Bakke that goes “If you treat people like adults they will act like adults, but if you treat them like children they will act like children.” But what if you want them to act like both? What if you want adults to act with the maturity of adults but with the openness and wonder of children?

And at this point we’re going to segue to from how organisers plan music festivals to how organisations approach technology (I’m approaching this from the perspective of technology change because that’s what I do, but I think this analogy is relevant to many facets of organisational life).

The traditional approach to IT was to treat people like children…and when I say this I mean it in the worst possible way. They weren’t to be trusted, couldn’t make decisions for themselves and just needed to do what they were told and eat whatever was put in front of them. Of course they generally just pushed their technology around the plate with a fork, they became stubborn about trying new things even if it was ‘good for them’. Some rebelled, started sneakily using new technology without asking permission, or if things got really bad they chucked a tantrum and left the organisation. Treating them like kids got them to act like kids at their worst.

But what if we could get people to act like kids at their best? To be inquisitive about new technology and new ideas, to play and explore, to share and collaborate with their friends in a thoughtful, caring and respectful way? How could we get our end users to see the wonder and get genuinely excited about technological change and create a culture that celebrates learning and growth? 

Much has been written about the difference between the leading and the laggard organisations when it comes to technology. But I believe even these organisations could learn something from The Lost Lands. And although the following list is not exhaustive, it provides some ideas as to how we can encourage people to better understand the role technology plays in our work and our lives by getting lost in the wonder of technology for a while. 

  1. Make it fun – If technology always involves change, effort or more work then it will always be challenging to get engagement.
  2. Provide enough time – People are busy. We need to give the gift of time if we want people to explore new ideas and understand their application.
  3. Provide a safe space – We don’t need to celebrate failure so much as acknowledging that failure is a necessary part of innovation. If we want people to innovate we need to provide a safe space, away from customer and client facing work, to test and potentially fail in.
  4. Give guidance – Make sure there are always people around who can provide encouragement, direction, advice and support. 
  5. Limit the rules – Not only do rules limit everyone to the standard set by the lowest common denominator, they imply a lack of trust and discourage a critical understanding of positive and negative behaviours. 
  6. Encourage diversity (in everything) – A diversity of technology, people and ideas means that you will be be exposed to new ideas, just by standing still.
  7. Be full of surprises – Constantly give people a reason to wonder (and wander)

 

Scholarship applications close in 48 hours

A few weeks back we launched the inaugural scholarships for the Digital Champions Club and now there is just a little over 48 hours before applications close. The scholarships are for not-for-profit and for-purpose organisations who want to access the support, accountability and a community of like minded organisations to help them implement their technology projects.
To spread the word and help make sure that this opportunity finds the right organisations we have been playing a game called #passiton. All that we ask is that you pass on this message to three people that you think might benefit from being a part of the Digital Champions Club. With so little time left this is perhaps our last opportunity to get the word out there. So if you haven’t already done so, please take moment to think about the charities, causes and other initiatives you would like to succeed and pass this along.
All the information about the scholarships can be found at digitalchampionsclub.com/scholarships
Thanks for sharing
Simon

The challenge of explaining what you do

I had an awkward moment with a close friend recently. I’ve known Harsha for more than a decade and she’s someone I’ve leaned on every now and then for marketing advice around the various programs I offer. The awkward moment arose because, after five years of telling Harsha about the Digital Champions Club, she still had to ask me what it was exactly that I do.

At the time I found it quite disheartening, that someone who is clearly switched on, someone who genuinely cares about me and what I do, someone who I’ve spent hours talking to about my work still didn’t have any real clarity about what the Digital Champions Club is or why it exists.

My initial response was a sense of frustration — initially directed outwards at Harsha’s failure to listen, and then directed inwards at my own inability to clearly articulate my proposition. So why is it that we struggle to convey things clearly?

I think firstly it’s because it’s hard to get out of our own heads. What I mean by this is it’s hard to explain things without the context of a whole bunch of other stuff that may also need explaining but that you aren’t aware enough to realise. As a result, the explanations which sound whole and well rounded to us are hollow and incomplete to others.

Second, I think the packaging can get in the way of the product. Our desire to create things that are unique, memorable and exciting brings us to use language that is unnecessarily complex and difficult to follow. Unless it’s meant to be a genuine surprise, perhaps it’s best that we dispense with some of the gift wrapping.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I feel like a bit of a dick talking about myself. Which means I generally don’t do it, and therefore when I do it’s all a little off the cuff and just kind of sounds a bit awkward, which in turn makes me feel like a bit of a dick…and the cycle continues.

So Harsha set me a challenge: articulate the Digital Champions Club in a way that people could actually understand and then share it with all the other people who, like her, are currently unsure of what it is I do.

I’ve been procrastinating on this for a couple of weeks because, apart from the dislike of talking about myself, it feels a little awkward to be openly broadcasting my inherent uncertainty and lack of clarity in a world where ‘experts’ are meant to have endless reserves of both.

Yet perhaps in a small way this is a form of therapy, so Harsha, after hours of struggle and refinement here it goes….

I support small and medium-sized organisations who are struggling to build momentum in the delivery of their technology projects (sometimes referred to as digital transformation). I do this through a combination of monthly coaching (to provide support and accountability), one day workshops (for deep learning) and peer-to-peer sharing (to reduce risk). Collectively, these are delivered as a technology-focused, continuous improvement program called the Digital Champions Club.

So how did I do? No, honestly, I’d genuinely like to know…and it really does still sound hollow and incomplete (or even if it doesn’t) feel free to download it my latest white paper “When Technology Fails to Deliver” which explains a whole bunch of the other stuff that goes around in my head.

P.S. I’ve already been back into LinkedIn to edit this…twice.

The missing advice on digital transformation

The other day I ran a transformative technology session as part of the Victorian Innovation Festival. During the session I asked the sixty or so participants who was currently involved of some type of digital transformation and about 50% raised their hands. From my experience this is about average these days, one in two organisations have some type of digital transformation agenda they are trying to pursue…and most of them will fail.

Victorian Innovation Festival

The exact rates of failure are hard to gauge, in fact the whole concept of digital transformation is rather murky (not least because there is no clear definition of what digital transformation is). But various research from ‘reputable’ organisations such as Bain & Co, McKinsey and HBR suggest that the chance of failure is somewhere north of 60%. This means you have a chance of beating your local casino playing blackjack than you do of running a successful digital transformation project.

This is probably why there are so many articles and research reports on how to make your digital transformation succeed (or more often than not, how to stop them failing). Yet having trawled through a large number of these I’m consistently surprised that one key piece of advice is always missing. It’s the piece of advice that when I speak, train or coach clients always seems to create the biggest a-ha moment.

And what is that piece of advice you ask?

Do the right projects in the right order…and this generally means starting with the smallest things first.

I think that this seems somewhat counterintuitive for many organisations (and consultants) when we have limited resources and we want to make impact fast then surely we should do the big projects first. The name making, game changing, future proofing type projects that will create the biggest bang.

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that the complexity of big projects means that they often overrun on time and cost and underperform on outcomes. The second is that people struggle with big, irregular type changes. Most digital transformation efforts have only a little to do with technology and a lot to do with people. And changing people ultimately takes more effort, more care and more time than changing the technology.

From a people perspective, small changes are what prepare people for medium sized changes, which are what prepare people for big changes. As my friend Owen McCall put it “you can’t just get a fat man to run a marathon,” but you might be able to get him to go for a walk around the block.*

*Now I appreciate that some people might think this is politically incorrect but these are Owen’s words not mine…and Owen would put himself squarely in the fat camp.

So the method I teach people when it comes to project prioritisation is called Rabbits and Rhinos.

Rabbits & Rhinos Matrix

Just for a moment, imagine you were a hunter out wandering the African savannah. You spy a rhino off in the distance and think that if you could just capture and kill the rhino your tribe will eat well for the next month. But as you and your hunting party creep closer, you realise the rhino is armour plated, has a massive horn on the front and over a short distance can run faster than Usain Bolt. Now you could continue to pursue the rhino and perhaps things turn out well or perhaps they don’t…and the whole project turns out to be a dog.

Alternatively you could start by pursuing the rabbits. Clearly rabbits are a lot smaller and there is a whole lot less to eat, but unlike rhinos there are hundreds if not thousands of them (by definition, they breed like rabbits) and they are far fewer risks in catching them.

*Note: The high return, low effort projects are called the Dodos because they are so easy and so valuable we should have already done them all and they should already be extinct. 

There is often a tension people face when choosing the rabbits over the rhinos. The tension is based in the feeling that we are so far behind and we need to catch up quickly (this is often a result of delaying the start of a digital transformation journey for too long). But desire alone doesn’t make change happen. Change ultimately happens because people want the change (there is a personal desire rather than just an organisational one) AND they also believe that they can (because the change is small enough to get their head around).

So if your approach to digital transformation doesn’t make change easy for people, well, you’re best off packing your bags and heading to the casino.

If you’d like to find out more about how you can drive incremental, bottom up improvements in your organisation through technology, head over to the Digital Champions Club.

What professional speakers could learn from the Rolling Stones

For the last nine months or so I have been working on a secret project. It would have been called a skunkworks project if I worked at Lockheed Martin, or a moonshot if I worked at Google, but as I work at neither of these places (and have a much smaller budget) I just called it Project Live.

Project Live is an (ongoing) experiment in the future of keynotes and live events. It was born out of a realisation that most professional speakers present cannot compete with the prerecorded virtual versions of themselves. Just like TED.com has a far bigger audience and reach than the actual TED conference, the incredible quality and unparalleled convenience of the online version means that live experiences need to evolve if they want to compete. This is not just a problem for professional speakers, it is also a massive issue for conference organisers. How do they compete against the convenience and quality of free TED talks and endless YouTube clips?

As William Gibson pointed out “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” This suggests that other people are likely to have already dealt with this same issue, and maybe they might have also found some workable solutions. So what other industries could speakers and event organisers potentially learn from? The most natural learning opportunity would be that of live music.

Live music has had to deal with the impact of Napster, peer to peer sharing platforms such as Pirate Bay, iTunes and more recently music streaming services such as Spotify. So how is it that musicians have responded? The answer is to go big on live performances.

Below are two images, the first is from a Rolling Stones gig in 1972, the second is from a gig from 2017. Notice anything different?

1972

 

2017

The big difference is not what is happening on stage, although Mick is somewhat spritely still for his age he can’t quite cut the moves that he did 35 years ago. The big difference is what is going on around it: the lights, the screens, the imagery…the experience.

Great music is no longer enough, if I want great music I can listen to the fully remastered high definition version on demand in the comfort of my own home. To entice people to come to gigs you need to provide an experience, an experience that is so big and so unique that people will be willing to forgo the convenience and fork out the money to share in the moment and say they were there.

And just like great music is no longer enough for musicians, great content is no longer enough for conference speakers (this is not to say that great content is not required, but rather that it’s the price of admission and you still need to do more from there). To be relevant in the world where everything can be streamed you need to be able to create an experience that cannot be replicated online.

Project Live was created from this idea. I ditched PowerPoint and started playing around with live video mixing software (similar to what is used in a Rolling Stones concert), I started replacing still images with HD video and started mixing my keynotes live on stage. Now that I’ve got this part largely down pat I’m now looking at producing soundscape elements and live mixing them along with the visuals to create a truly unique experience every time.

I’m not telling you this because that’s what everyone should be doing but rather that anyone who wants longevity in the industry needs to be doing something. I’m constantly inspired by other speakers such as Dr Jason Fox and Mykel Dixon who are constantly tinkering with visual, musical and other theatrical elements in their events. Although they are two of the hottest speakers in Australia at the moment they are also constantly pushing boundaries in both their content and their delivery.*

*And even outside the events industry I believe all organisations need to be constantly tinkering and experimenting if they want to ensure their future relevance.

Bell & Howell Overhead Projector

When I started Project Live at the end of last year it was based on a gut feeling, but in March I found proof that this was the future. I was speaking at a conference in Canberra and found an old Bell and Howell overhead projector from the 1970s, the same one that many of us might remember from back in high school. This is the same era as the image of the Rolling Stones pictured above. But whereas the Rolling Stones (along with most other live acts) have fully embraced what it means to give a live performance, professional speakers have limited themselves to a digital version of the overhead projector.

The future is here my friends…and it’s LIVE.

Happy trials

After nearly three months we finally returned from our Life Work adventure a week or so back. It’s taken me a little time to write about it because a) I’m still sifting through all the memories to find the hidden gems of meaning; and b) the day after we got back I took off to Perth for four days to help an old friend celebrate his 40th birthday.

Two and a half months up and two days back

One phrase that has been with me over the whole journey is plastered across the title of this blog. I found the phrase left in the comments section of either a Facebook or LinkedIn post I wrote announcing our imminent departure a few months back. It was left there, amongst all the general platitudes and well wishing by a friend of mine Georgia Murch. Now there’s a small chance that this was just a typo and that Georgia really meant to wish us “happy trails” but knowing Georgia I would suggest that it wasn’t.

Campfires

At the time I first read it I wasn’t really sure how to take it. When you announce a big trip like this you kind of hope everyone will be joyous and perhaps just a little bit jealous and although I always appreciate a good pun it felt a little bit deflating as well. Weirdly though, I haven’t been able to get the phrase out of my head for the last three months and looking back on it now I wonder if in fact it’s the best, and simplest, way of summing up the whole experience.

Let me assure you there has been no shortage of happiness…but also no shortage of trials. Here is an excerpt from one of Naomi’s Facebook posts highlighting just a few of the things we’ve had to endure during the trip (she assured me this was the abbreviated list).

  1. No time together without kids
  2. Sleep deprivation
  3. Arguing in the car about our next destination
  4. Kids fighting
  5. Stopping the car in the middle of nowhere, getting out of the car and refusing to get back in the car
  6. Mess, everywhere you look
  7. No wardrobes
  8. Stressful packing up and setting up days
  9. Eating crap food at theme parks/on the road because there is no alternative
  10. Drinking bad coffee because there is no alternative
  11. Being pooed on by birds
  12. Missing our dogs terribly and worrying about them after one ends up with a nasty injury, and they dig up our friend’s tennis court and a nice big hole in our hallway carpet
  13. Finding a pediatric dentist along the way to remove a splint after Miss 7 nearly knocks her front teeth out
  14. Miss 7 then proceeds to chip a front tooth on the bath tap
  15. Miss 7 goes to first aid after she flips out of a raft halfway down a waterslide called the BLACK HOLE!
  16. Miss 7 gets bitten by a horse which is distressed by 300 tourists trying to pat it and her being caught in the middle
  17. Miss 9 burns her hand while toasting marshmallows
  18. Miss 9 wakes up in the night and proceeds to vomit in the campervan
  19. Miss 9 sprains her ankle after doing 100 cartwheels
  20. Being stranded on the Gold Coast while our campervan takes a trip to the mechanic for 4 days
  21. The drone gets attacked by a sea bird and now lies at the bottom of the ocean
  22. Leeches
  23. Simon’s flights being cancelled/delayed
  24. Really bad showers
  25. Did I mention the dirt and sand in our beds.

And yet when I read over this list again none of this comes with an ounce of regret. Not only have we had the privilege of enduring these trials as part of a once in a lifetime adventure, I also have no doubt that experiencing these challenges has made all of us better for it.*

*Along the way I’ve been reading Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder and you could easily look at the above list as a list of disorder, things that are worth mentioning because they are both uncommon and challenging. The academic side of me that I’ve been trying hard to suppress over the last few months of blog posting would then want to talk about how the ability of each of us (both individually and collectively) to absorb and recover from each of theses trials has made us and our relationships stronger…but let’s not go into that.

So why does it take a trip like this to bring us all closer? Why couldn’t we have created such an experience without leaving the comfort of home? There’s no good reason for not doing it, but I can also tell you we didn’t. Perhaps it’s because that ‘in the moment’ conflict sucks. None of the above experiences were enjoyable at the time they occurred, their value is only when looked on in retrospect. Perhaps we just don’t have the energy for it, that after long days slaving away in the salt mines we don’t want to endure further trials…even if they are an opportunity for connection and growth.

Or perhaps we’ve just got really good at avoiding conflict in our day to day lives.

Not only do we live in more controlled environments that have eliminated many of conflicts causes, we have also become incredibly good at avoiding confrontation when challenges inevitably arise. We have smaller families living in bigger houses, we fill our lives with work and other activities, we go on resort holidays and lay on daybeds drinking cocktails out of coconuts…and we have a multitude of devices that require our constant attention. There are now so many other places we can go when the going gets tough that we can sometimes pretend that the challenges of human existence don’t apply to us.

But when you shrink your entire living space to something smaller than your dining room it becomes almost impossible to avoid these types of challenges. And once you can no longer avoid them the best strategy is to embrace them. For us that meant family gatherings around the campfire where each of us shared how we were currently feeling. We asked questions of each other to better understand what was going on and we collectively discussed ways of making things better.*

*In fact, we had one of our little gatherings the day after we got back (this time around a candle on the dining table) and much of the conversation was focused on how we can bring all that was good about our adventure into our day to day lives. The first challenge was how to deal with the incredible amount of unnecessary space in our house. To this end Nomes and I have decided to move out of the upstairs master bedroom and into one of the kid’s bedrooms so we can be closer to them. For their part they’ve agreed to continue to share a room for the foreseeable future (its relative luxury compared to sharing a bed in the camper trailer). In addition, the girls have also voluntarily committed to no screen time during the week in exchange for our weekly family movie (a ritual we started on the trip).

The very last questions I ask my digital champions at the end of a project, after everything’s been implemented and the feedback has been gathered is “Knowing everything you know now, would you do it again?”

And if I was to look back on the last three months and answer that question the answer would be an irrevocable “Yes!” In fact, Nomes and I have already been discussing how we could do a trip like this on an annual basis.

Rounding up the horses at night

So, as much as describing the adventure as a Happy Trial may not sound as appealing as drinking cocktails out of coconuts, I think the accumulation of experiences and where the journey has taken us is infinitely more valuable than any tropical holiday I’ve had in the past. And just because I really do encourage you to consider how you might swing an adventure like this yourself, how you might flip the life and work parts of your life for an extended period and enjoy your own set of Happy Trials, I will leave you with something a little more positive – a list. My list. A reflection on some of the incredible experiences and happy times we have had together over the last few months (and I can also assure that this list is abbreviated as well).

  1. The girls chasing waves in their best dresses and getting completely drenched
  2. Nailing all the rollercoasters at Movie World
  3. Rounding up a herd of horses at 10 o’clock at night in our dressing gowns
  4. Spending a day building a straw bale house
  5. Poppy catching her very first fish
  6. Three generations of Wallers abseiling off a mountain at sunset
  7. Playing story games around campfires
  8. Reading books for no reason except pleasure
  9. Driving my camper van Dennis for extended periods (being behind the wheel is one of my happy places)
  10. Jervis Bay at Sunset with the beach to ourselves
  11. Toasting marshmallows (even after Miss 9 burnt herself)
  12. The girls showing me up in their very first surf lesson
  13. Waterslides
  14. Following the locals recommendation, camping next to an isolated beach and being the only people on it
  15. Stews and other camp specialties
  16. Seeing the girls learn to love reading
  17. Our weekly family movie night
  18. Taking a detour and exploring where my Dad grew up on the Southern Yorke Peninsula in SA
  19. My camper van office
  20. Having the complete support of my team throughout the trip
  21. Seeing the whole team grow and develop in my absence
  22. Having so much time where it was just our family
  23. Having time to stop and reflect on where the world and where my work is heading next
  24. Getting home and starting back at work with renewed excitement and vigour
  25. The anticipation of getting to do it all again

 

Where’s Waller