Hey dudes, many people think that doing good from their business comes only from enlightened inspiration. Or that tech-for-good firms can only be built by 20-somethings with a Masters’ degree in some physics part of academia (and a rich daddy). Are you one of the people that thinks this way? Then you are selling yourself short, because tech-for-good can simply be a strategy.
Building a tech-for-good firm is not something you can only do when you have made a fortune before or have rich parents. Building a tech for good firm is not something soft that is only inspirational when you can afford to. It is a business, and businesses are built from viable strategies, not from pet-projects! Building a tech-for-good firm is something every tech-leader can do, and frankly should do. Just follow your dream about a better world and mix it in with small steps. Do not treat your ‘for good’ mission as the soft sideshow of your business but strategize and manage it accordingly.
It is my mission to inspire incumbent tech leaders to adopt a tech-for-good mindset and to support them in executing better business against that mindset. Within this post I will try to explain you how to use your Business Model Canvas as a starting point for ideation about a feasible tech-for-good (sub-)strategy.
What is the Business Model Canvas
The Business Model Canvas is basically a full strategy board on one page, invented by Alexander Osterwalder in the early 2000’s. It brings back the complex world of business strategy into 9 levers, fitted to 4 main domains. It helps you in defining the value you create, the customers which you create that for, the infrastructure you require to create it and the financial structure behind it all.
The magic of the model is in its demystifying power. It simplifies the complexities of strategy. It makes it easier for all backgrounds in your team to grasp one harmonized concept of strategy. But because of its size it also pressures your business to cut back to the core of those 9 levers. No fancy wording and thick reports, just short sentences that break if you take out one more word. And the fact that you can draw it on one board makes it easy to discuss it in workshops. When reality changes and you need to make a change to one of the levers, the team is capable to check those changes directly in the overall strategy. Is the board still in balance or do you need to tweak it in a team discussion?
Ideating a tech-for-good strategy starts with empathy on involved stakeholders, that is where the canvas comes in
Design thinking is the approach to come up with new ideas for wicked problems. And let’s be honest, coming up with strategic additions to your existing business should always be treated as a wicked problem. Which direction to take, who to trust and which people to please? When hearing design thinking, many people only think about colorful workshops filled with sticky boards, tape and crazy glue. Off course that is part of the process, to be creative and come up with all sorts of ideas. But the power of the approach lies in the preceding analytical steps that make sure you build a proper frame for your creativity first. You try and get into the skin of the right target audience before you generate ideas to service them. You try and get a perfect view of the problem, know all the ins and outs of the wiggle room that you can play with later on. This part of design thinking, the empathy and definition steps within the approach, is exactly where your Business Model Canvas makes you jumpstart your process. You should get a clear definition of the span of control you have.
People you touch
The canvas gives a clear picture of the people you touch with your business. Customers, suppliers and partners are not just businesses, they are people to. The same goes for your own team off course. Investigate those people to empathize with their needs and acceptance of changes in your strategy towards tech-for-good. Empathy with those various stakeholders could very well come from personas. Many tech businesses have them on customers or users nowadays, but have you already tried to come up with an infrastructure persona? What is your archetypal supplier that you seamlessly work with? What kind of people are the ideal third party consultants that help implementing your product? How does your own employees fit into this picture?
When you have translated all human interaction in personas it becomes easier to compare them to your companies branding. Why do they attract to or fit within your brand? Is it because your brand is regal in managing the status quo (like IBM’s approach: “no one ever got fired for buying IBM”) or because it is more activistic (like Apple Computers’: “1984”)? Talking, thinking and investigating those kind of questions gives you a feel for who they are, beyond what they do for you.
If you are interested in archetypal branding and tech-for-good, be aware that I got a post coocking to be published in the near future so be sure to subscribe on my mailing list!
Products you use
The canvas also gives a clear picture of the resources you require to create your value proposition (not talking about people here, but things like OEM components, physical things etcetera). Investigate those resources to empathize with their possibilities. Are large firms involved here that have a specific branding that is important to keep in mind? Are specific products you use under attack from an environmental or social perspective? In other words, are the resources you use for infrastructure and customer-channels supportive or blocking for your plans towards tech-for-good?
Proposition you offer
And off course do not forget your value proposition itself. The software that you have developed supports certain functionality, stores certain data, has a position in certain process-chains, etcetera. The first question you should ask yourself is which of the 5 foundational strategies your software or platform technically can support? But equally important to ask yourself is whether that technical possibility is an already followed logical path forward or does it mean that you have to make a pivot? Or is additional investment required?
This empathy phase of design thinking, based on your Business Model Canvas, will help you to get a clear view of (bandwidth of) possibilities that could fit your tech-for-good plans. It is important to start this way, based in the foundations of your own company, so you do not end up with a great plan that alienates part of your business and drives you into a crises later on.
From your empathy, clear definitions based on your own canvas content set the potential for a tech-for-good strategy
Now that you have taken a good look at your companies personas it is time to shift into the next phase of Design Thinking your tech-for-good strategy. After empathy comes the definition stage. Definition is about creating a clear frame of reference within which you want to get into the creative mode to actually start getting to ideas. This means reading the empathy you have built on your canvas’ levers. But that might proof difficult, considering the fact that the perspectives could be rather different between customer and supplier, partner and employee. How to get that all into a vision on value proposition?
There is a trick for that which is linked to your business growth stage. Dependent on the specific growth phase that your business is in, you can decide to focus on specific components of the Business Model Canvas first and let others be dependent on that.
Is your business in Start-up mode? That means that you are still trying to pinpoint a repeatable business model based on a specific capability that you are trying to market. Since you do not have a confirmed core customer yet, and the partners in your infrastructure usually are still purely technical, your canvas is about the decisions you made during your last Pivot-or-Persevere meeting. The only thing stable in your canvas is the technical product underlying your value proposition. So your main focus should be exactly there, on your value proposition. Customers and infrastructure should be investigated in the tech-for-good mindset as potential in various categories.
When you are a confirmed Scale-up, believe it or not, your value proposition is not per se the most important thing you should worry about. It is all about the core customer. To get where you are with your business, you clearly were able to serve a certain group of people well. Continuing with that perfect fit between you business and the needs of that specific group of people empowers your growth. So you should treat an addition to your strategy with a tech-for-good mindset in that respect. Be sure it adds to the needs of your core customer. Or at least it should not put the relation under any form of stress to start with.
If the Scale-up rhythm has left your business and you are still growing but not that fast anymore, you are in Tune-up mode. This is the category with the broadest pallet to keep in mind. Oftentimes the reason is that your business became too complex and you need to get in touch with your specialty game again. But finding that mojo can lie in all parts of your Business Model Canvas. So you should get into detail on both the value proposition and the core customer but most actively you should try and search for potential added value from your infrastructure.
This difference in main attention for parts of the canvas means that you start with defining the room for ideation based on your main focus and then trim down that room based on the rest of the canvas.
An example helps: this Scale-up wanted to adopt a tech-for-good strategy
In the end this exercise should lead you to a clear frame that you could present to your team at the start of an ideation workshop. “We are going to ideate possibilities to experiment with as tech-for-good strategy, and it should fall within these perimeters…”.
Recently I was involved in an interesting scale-up doing a repurposing project. The company is involved in the whole Industry4.0 world of sensors, smart machines and IoT and they asked me to help them in adopting a first step in tech-for-good strategy. Being a scale-up (a little under 60% year over-year growth, 4 years in a row clearly does that trick) we started looking at the customer base first.
Customer focus drives the main question: what should be the focus of our tech-for-good strategy?
After some digging we eventually found that just sending out a survey would help us in pinpointing the tech-for-good value that is on the customers’ mind. The CIO’s and COO’s from customer companies, primarily in family-owned but innovative industrial activities, clearly came back with environmental impact as the main headache on their list. With this answer so clearly on paper, we started drafting a research question that helped us prepare for actual ideation. ‘How can we define a sub-strategy that helps our customers to positively impact the environment, that is adoptable by our infrastructure, agreeable to our value proposition and measurable to report from?’.
The room to manouvre comes from the other canvas’ domains
- Value proposition: the company sells sensors and consulting services to process data to a public cloud environment for sharing and analysis. So data is available in huge amounts to work with and linking data is their core expertise.
- Infrastructure: their platform technology is primarily dependent on Microsoft. Of the big tech firms, this is clearly a name that you can perfectly well link yourselves to in case of environmental targets. Their growing team of about 90 people surveyed for 77% to be interested in the subject of environmental improvement. So adding environmental control to become a pillar of interest for the firm will be supported greatly by its own people. On top of interest (because that is not actionable yet) a 37% showed willingness to put in additional energy to drive this new activities from the firm. The sensors that are sold are bought from various sources, usually shipped in from China These are hard to pinpoint as assets for the strategy, but they did not appear to be blockers either.
- As with all scale-ups, revenue pours in but money is always scarce because growth sucks cash. Cash is being tied up in stock on sensors as well as developers to build features before being paid.
Dream heavy, build lean, grow fast
Ideation leads to prototypes being tested
We literally drew pictures on these frames to ensure a good handover to ideating colleagues. And had a fantastic workshop afterwards. Two prototypes were tested eventually as a first step towards tech-for-good.
- Creating a report about changing trends in their market on environmental control based on the vast amounts of data they had in store;
- Setting up an additional consulting service to guide their customers in making better steps toward environmental control based on the data they had in store.
As a first step eventually the first idea became most successful. Setting up an additional consulting service appeared harder than ideated at first. It would require additional expert staff and current cash flow would not allow that for an experiment. The report idea on the other hand ticked all canvas’ boxes. It was feasible to setup the report once every few months with the 37% of staff that actively wanted to support. All cost involved during the first few editions are some online design and distribution efforts. It completely supports the existing value proposition as a content marketing effort and most of all, it answers to their core customer desire of becoming able to do more on environmental control.
And now start your own ideation to a repurpose
Adopting a tech-for-good strategy in your company can always be done. Following a methodical approach will put guardrails on your steps forward but eliminates the risks of making wrong decisions. With that, this lean approach to repurposing your tech business should eliminate the catatonic attitude of wanting but not daring to do anything. Founded in your own existing strategy you can start making small steps toward doing more good. And it is fun as well. Building dreams together with your team!
If you have questions after reading this, feel free to reach out of course.