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This time last week I was making my way to Brighton for Dots, the conference that leads the way in terms of what is described as transformation. In its second year, it’s bringing together some really great thinkers and, in many senses, demystifying the much over-used and over-hyped word. So, what was my experience of the day?

The Morning Sessions
First up was Adam Morgan from EatBigFish. A fantastic provocation to kick things off, he got us thinking about constraints and how they benefit transformative actions rather than inhibit. For examples, he chose Twitter’s 140-character limit, Google’s homepage interface (apparently based on the founder’s limited HTML skills), and the limitations of 8-bit graphics for the look of Nintendo’s Mario. Limitations, he argued, are an impetus for a better outcome.

We were left with three things to consider:

  1. Think about how you frame the question: make it a propelling one.
  2. Start sentences with, “We do that, if…”
  3. Create abundance – think differently about resources and how partnerships and coalitions can help.

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Adam’s talk was quickly followed by a conversation between conference curator, Neil Perkin, and Net-A-Porter’s Tess Macleod Smith.

The fashion brand uses a lot of data to develop its offering – the marriage of putting digital strategy at the heart of the organisation and customer experience at the heart of that strategy. Yet, surprisingly, Net-A-Porter uses print, a lot. Tess told us how, in a luxury brand setting, this demonstrates authority to the audience and delivers a real emotional connection. She descried the company as a software, or technical brand. They don’t consider themselves a retailer. This thinking is what keeps them ahead in the luxury fashion and retail game – data is the feedback loop here. Think Amazon, another company taking a similar approach.

Lesson? Don’t be afraid to take risks, for one. And collaborate around a shared vision – especially when working with external partners.

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Christina Scott, Chief Product and Innovation Officer at the FT, was up next. She talked about how transformation is easy, relative to how difficult it is to change human behaviour. One big insight, which I completely agree with, is that you can’t stand still or rest on your laurels. Always be learning.

Interestingly, at the FT it’s culture that is the starting point for transformation. Relationships are the things that hold companies together. This has been the foundation for the FT moving from print to digital to an ‘audience first’ mentality. Teams are trusted to do the right thing, to make the right decisions. Control is shifted away from the top and autonomy takes over. This is, as you might imagine, uncomfortable. However, this ‘mode’ allows for data to take its place, iteration to be the driving force for change, and the ability to test and learn the mantra.

Finally, Christina spoke about the most important lesson of all: don’t stop pushing, because if you do things will slip back to how they were.

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As the company behind Dots, it wouldn’t be fair if Brilliant Noise’s CEO, Antony Mayfield, didn’t get a chance to speak. To be fair, Antony knows his onions, and is an erudite and convivial chap. And Brilliant Noise is doing some fantastic work in the transformation space.

Antony talked about how transformation, like innovation before it, is losing its meaning. It’s really about changing focus, changing methods and changing values that add up to real transformative actions – and it’s the only sane response to disruption.

With a provocation that there are two possible futures, Antony took us through where he believes the world is heading. There is the stacked future – think IoT and connected experience delivered by a few companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple – and the distributed future that has its roots in technological platforms such as Blockchain.

Neither of these will work, he argued, without leaders: the people who reinvent themselves while they reinvent what’s around them. He talked about changing things fast, yet leaving lasting impressions. Transformation needs to be provoked. We should act, analyse and be aware, constantly determining where to efficiently spend our attention.

Transformation requires action. Permission can’t be waited for if momentum is to be kept going. At Brilliant Noise, Antony talked about a phrase used within the business: “Unless I hear differently…” which told everyone what someone is going to do, while leaving enough wiggle room to allow for suggestions, or cessation. I’m already using this on a daily basis.

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Steve Chapman, the author of Can Scorpions Smoke (Creative Adventures in the Corporate World), led the final session of the morning. He was there to help us make sense of the mess, and say yes to it.

Reiterating a theme from other talks, he felt transformation happened when we immersed ourselves in the fluctuations and embraced the anxiety. And because an organisation isn’t a thing, yet things permeate transformative thinking, it brings about unpredictability. Transformation is a process full of flaws.

A bit like humans. And we bring complications to processes. Instead, we should embrace complexity, an adaptable and adjustable sweet spot we would do well to pay better attention to. It will help us find the safe uncertainty that gives us intent but allows us to let go of control. How? Steve had six creative practices to grease the wheels of transformative thinking:

  1. Be mad, bad and wrong. You’ll only know what’s good, sensible and right if you do.
  2. Be obvious. Don’t try to be clever about the answer.
  3. Fail happy. Be glad you’ve learned something.
  4. Embody the transformation you’re trying to bring about.
  5. Make others look good. Don’t look for the glory yourself, and you’ll be seen as a leader.
  6. Embrace the mess. Say yes to it.

With head spinning, and brain working overtime, we headed off for lunch and an hour of trying to make sense of everything we’d heard and what it might mean to our own practises. Lots of animated chat on my table. So. Many. Ideas.

The Afternoon Sessions
As Phil Adams notes here, panels are hard. I’m not a huge fan, either. However, for once it worked in a conference setting. It was hosted by Stephen Lepitak, who edits The Drum, and he managed to get some decent and provocative answers from Amanda Neylon from Macmillan Cancer Support, Martin Gill from Forrester Research, and Christina Scott from the FT.

Discussions around the trend of agencies and clients working with startups came first. As large vendors have screwed up, so more nimble thinkers have taken their place. Agencies and brands can learn from this – and should.

Transparency is required, on both sides, and the process is hard work for all. There has to be a willingness to collaborate, and the wider business should be able to see what’s happening – too many projects like this get hived off to a ‘lab’, which is why they fail.

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Nick Price was a late addition to the line-up, after one speaker had to drop out. A futurist who founded Of Things Immaterial, he advised us not to accept the future we are handed, but to consider other possible futures. He talked us through the process of ‘backcasting’, to go out as far as you can and then to ask, “What happened just before that?” until you arrive at the present. Smart.

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Tom Hopkins, Product Innovation Director at Experian talked about the culture and politics of getting innovation and transformation wrong. How the undoing of a company is often through its own making, or own product. This is, often, because legacy models are hard to break, or move around.

Tom took us through the five things that cause innovative thinking and ideas to stall:

  1. Middle managers who want to protect their spot in the hierarchy.
  2. Financial people who want a ‘forecast’. This is a cultural issue, too.
  3. The Christmas Tree effect – how no one likes sharing other’s ideas so they layer on more and more baubles of their own.
  4. Research, the bane of many lives. Focus groups are just a way of offering opinions, ones that you don’t have to accept it.
  5. Strategy, the corporate kind, which ideas have to fit. These strategies need an outcome, something that’s usually unknown.

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How can a goldfish unlock potential?

That was the subject of Ciara Judge’s talk. At five years old, Ciara wanted to be a zoologist, having seen a goldfish out of the corner of her eye at a science fair her brother was exhibiting at. The belief that she would become one was never broken. It led her to becoming the global Young Scientist of the Year.

However, as Ciara was just 15 years old at the time, and female, she found she was labelled ‘The Science Girl’. She stepped back, looked at where she’d come from and the impact she’d made at such a young age and decided to do a, in her words, ‘proper transformation’.

“If the world wants to label you, why should you allow that label to be used?”

Now that’s a provocation! Transforming yourself is as hard – or perhaps harder – than any other transformative action. But Ciara did it, and went off to MIT and is in the process of building three startups, including PurchaseMate. She explained how her environment painted the picture of who she is, and that we all begin as that blank canvas.

The biggest thing I took away from this inspirational young woman was this: success is NOT a finite resource. And it’s neither the beginning nor the end.

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You wouldn’t want to follow someone as inspirational as Ciara. Unless you were Stuart Turner, that is. Stuart is the founder of Robots and Cake, which he described as “both excellent things”. Can’t argue with that.

Stuart wasn’t in Brighton, because Stuart is a quadriplegic and confined to his adapted home. So he chose to Skype in. And that’s just the start of how technology has changed both Stuart’s world and his worldview. Already inspired, he took it up several notches.

Stuart took us, with an incredibly witty talk, through his journey from 2009 when all he could do was roll over on a bed, to the moment he used Dragon Nuance to dictate Apple scripts to do his Google searches. If you can Google, you’re winning. The biggest change to his life was when his NHS Personal Health budget was relaxed so that he could use it to buy mainstream tech. And it got him back to work.

It’s also enabled him to buy drones, which has seen him reach out further to the outside world, even as he sits in his house. They have given back his control, which disability took away. Stuart called this ‘Empower Software’.

Telepresence is another technology creates an extensible self for Stuart. It’s been life-changing. A ramp into a building is one thing, but connected buildings – and the wider world – make it truly accessible to people like Stuart.

I could have listened to Stuart and his beautifully timed sense of humour for the rest of the day. However, there were two more talks to come.

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I was already a fan of What3Words before Steven Ramage took the stage. Well, I knew of it, but I didn’t really know the whole story. Steven is the Director of Strategy and took us through how the world can be transformed with three-word addresses.

Steven was also a very witty man. He started his tale by telling us he met a man in a pub who, when he found out Steven worked for the Ordnance Survey, told him he had a brilliant idea. It was enough to convince him to invest and finally to jump ship.

Which is great news for the 75% of the world that has a poor address system, or none at all. In those kinds of place that fact costs lives, people can’t vote, or bank, or access services we take for granted. That’s 75%. Or three-quarters of the world.

I’ll let that sink in.

Yeah, we have lat/long, but no one says, “Meet me at 51.359124/-0.171912. The only reference like this I know is 41°n 93°w because that’s a song by Wire (they wrote all the melodies Elastica borrowed) that was covered by My Bloody Valentine. Numbers are easy to forget. Words, though, are not. Words, as Steven reminded us, are what bring communities together.

Words are also what will give them an address.

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The final talk of the day was from Sam Conniff, co-founder of Livity, a youth marketing agency. And so much more.

I’ve heard Sam talk before, and he’s damn good at it. He started by summing up the entire day in a rapid-fire monologue that really captured all the salient points. But he was also there to talk about his new idea, the creation of the Chief Purpose Officer, or CPO. It’s almost Star Wars, although Sam described it as ‘the most important job in the future’.

Some may say that the CPO is essentially what the CEO should be doing, but I think that’s to miss the nuance of Sam’s pitch. Livity was fresh and new 14 years ago, and with the average life expectancy for a company at 15 years, he knows agencies are about to tread on his toes. Every brand has ‘purpose’ now, with a ‘youth’ focus. And so it’s time for Sam to transform.

Sam says a CPO will help businesses focus around communities rather than organising around economics. That’s because a purpose-driven business is not the same as CSR or social enterprise. It’s social innovation – one reason why the CPO role is so different from that of a CEO.

Sam says that social innovation will be as big as the lightbulb, or the internet. And only a Chief Purpose Officer can pull it off.

He asked the audience to decide whether he should follow up on his idea. I give him the big thumbs up. But then I would, because I’m trying to make my own little piece of the business world, Formation London, driven by purpose, as I believe this is what leads to profit.

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And so it was over. The day had whizzed past. I was actually surprised it was done and dusted, genuinely. Neil, and also Ruth from Brilliant Noise, had done a sterling job pulling it all together. It’s going to be on my conference calendar for many years to come. I’ll see you at the next year’s Dots.

Brilliant Noise has links to all the talks as blog posts, too. Go read another perspective on the day.

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