Marks and Spencer as disruptive innovators

Marks and Spencer have been a mainstay of British retail for more than 100 years, so it’s hard to imagine them as disruptive innovators – but it turns out they were innovative all over.

More immigration and innovation

Michael Marks (born in 1859 Slonim, then part of the Russian Empire) moved to the U.K. in 1882, and within a few years had a market stall in Leeds. He was successful, in part because of a pricing innovation: he called his shops Penny Bazaars (“Don’t ask the price – it’s a penny!”) and allowed customers to browse with no pressure to buy.

Eventually Marks began a partnership with Thomas Spencer, who brought additional capital and good connections with manufacturers, enabling them to source goods directly from their suppliers.

Peter Drucker picks up the story:

World War I had profoundly shaken their country’s class structure… [creating] masses of new buyers for good-quality, stylish, and inexpensive merchandise such as lingerie, blouses and stockings – Marks and Spencer’s first successful product categories.

Marks and Spencer then systematically set to work developing brand-new and unheard-of core competencies. Until then, the core competency of the merchant was the ability ot buy well. Marks and Spencer decuded that it was the merchant, rather than the manufacturer, who knew the customer. Therefore the merchant, not the manufacturer, should design the products, develop them, and find producers to make the goods to his design, specifications and costs. This new definition of the merchant took five to eight years to develop and make acceptable to traditional suppliers, who had always seen themselves as “manufacturers,’ not “subcontractors.”

Peter Drucker – The Daily Drucker

A different retail experience

S4RB continues:

[After the First World War] M&S continued to grow and innovate. The company displayed its products on trays in the store allowing customers to browse. This was different to most other retailers who kept the products on shelves behind the counter… In the early 1920 M&S started selling what is now their most famous product: underwear. Today one in three women wear an M&S bra.

The history of M&S: This is not just a store, it’s an M&S store since 1884 – Blog at S4RB.com

Other innovations

There’s much more to write about: no-limit cash-refunds with receipt; a staff welfare department; clothes and cafes designed to meet the requirements (or exploit a loophole in) of post-war rationing; a survey of women’s legs to improve underwear design; the invention of ‘cold-chain’ supply so that meat could be sold fresh instead of frozen; the introduction of ‘sell by’ dates to products; some of the earliest sales of Indian and Chinese ready meals – and the Chicken Kiev; increasing emphasis on sustainability and responsible sourcing for clothing.

Slowing down

Innovation seems to be have slowed down a bit at M&S in the 2000s, but with any luck they’ll return to the habit and continue to flourish into the future. After all – it’s where I buy my pants.

Read more at Marks in Time: A History of Marks and Spencer and S4RB.com

Parallel processing: finding the right people

In computers, parallel processing is the processing of program instructions by dividing them among multiple processors with the objective of running a program in less time.

TechTarget

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Vision of the future

Computer processors haven’t actually got much faster since the early 2000s. The speed of an average computer’s CPU has hovered around 3 billion cycles per second (think about that for a minute) since the Pentium 4 in 2002.

Computers as a whole, though, have got a lot faster. This is in large part because of parallel processing – more processing units doing different jobs in parallel.

CPUs often have six cores where they used to have one. High-end graphics cards – processing high resolution graphics is about the most intensive work most computers do – can have thousands. And you’ll need them to run a 4K computer display (8 million-plus pixels) at 100 frames-per-second: each pixel requires a complicated set of calculations to determine its colour.**

Get with the program

We often call the things our organisations do ‘programs’ too. One way of looking at your team is a system running a set of instructions that together make up your ‘program’. You take your inputs, the system runs, and the combination of all the operations (a successfully operated ‘program’) creates a desired result.

There’s lots that you can do to improve a system like this – simplify or improve the quality of the inputs, write a more efficient set of instructions or script for each operation (having a script at all is a good start), identify and cut out unnecessary steps – and all of these things will make you more productive, and your life easier.

Once you’ve got good scripts, you can hand off parts of the operation to other people, and give yourself more time to focus on the intensive processing – and this will help a lot too, if you do it right.

But you’re a bottleneck. Everything. Still. Comes. Through. You.

The people you really need to find are people with the ability and the will to shoulder an entire area of activity – a whole process – entirely independently.

You decide what needs to happen and leave them with it. Pow. Now you can do something else – something entirely different – at the same time.

You’re parallel processing.

** = with apologies if I’ve completely murdered the technical analogy. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

In their hands

Make something people can use.

Put it in their hands.

See what happens.

If they’re eager to pay – attention, time, money – you’re onto something.

Watch them. Listen to them. Tweak it. Make more of it. See what they think.

If they tell their friends – and if their friends tell their friends – then you’ve got it.

What change do you seek in the world? Who are the people you seek to serve?

You’ve got it when they’ve got it.

You’ll know you’ve got it when you meet someone for the first time, and the thing you made is already in their hands.

Structure Counts: Information Architecture reading list and who’s who

I know almost nothing about Information Architecture, but I’ve been thinking a lot about structuring information recently.

Here’s the metaphor: Jacques Carelman‘s famous Coffee pot for Masochists.


See Impossible Objects at It’s Nice That


All the pieces are there, but it just. doesn’t. work.

We’ve all used badly put together tools, instruction manuals, software, doors. At best they’re slower and frustrate us. At worst, they cause us to lose out or harm us.

It’s the same with ideas. Whether we’re communicating simply to transfer knowledge or for emotional impact (your priorities may vary, but if you want to do either you really need to be doing both), the way they’re put together counts.

Let’s do a Zinnser on that last paragraph.

It’s the same with ideas: the way they’re put together counts. The structure of your ideas is crucial whether you’re communicating to transfer knowledge or to create an emotional impact, and really, if you’re serious about doing either you really need to be doing both.

Better? I think it’s a bit better. Must try harder.

So without further ado, here’s my Information Architecture Reading list:

Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond, 4th Ed

 by Louis RosenfeldPeter Morville and Jorge Arango


Love that polar bear

The introduction and first chapter that are included in the kindle sample are pretty compelling, but I can’t find an short quotation from it that doesn’t make it sounds boring, so I won’t.

Oh okay, I think this bit is cool:

[The] abundance and pervasiveness [of information] makes our lives better in many ways, but it also introduces new challenges. With so much information available in so many places, it can sometimes be difficult to cut through the noise to find the information you need and understand it once you have found it.

Information architecture (IA) is a design discipline that is focused on making information findable and understandable. Because of this, it is uniquely well suited to address these challenges. IA allows us to think about problems through two important perspectives: that information products and services are perceived by people as places made of information, and that these information environments can be organised for optimum findability and understandability.

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It’s possible that I like this book because it makes me feel like I’m in the matrix.

Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything

by Peter Morville

Big in Japan:

I’ve started this, and referenced Peter before. I thought I’d shared a link to a talk about the book on youtube, but can’t find the post, so here it is:

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The Information: A History, a Theory,  a Flood

by James Gleick

So far: fascinating. Need to think more about it to say how it’s helped and changed my thinking – watch out for a future post.

Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works 2nd Ed

by Ginny Redish

On the strength of the couple of chapters that Ginny shares for free on her website I paid £25 for this. It’s worth it for the first few chapters alone.

Don’t Make Me Think

by Steve Krug

It’s brilliant and funny. More from me about him here.

The Design of Everyday Things

by Don Norman

Look! It’s the coffee pot. This book is how I know about the coffee pot for masochists in the first place. It’s supposed to be brilliant, and it’s good so far.

Information: A Very Short Introduction

by Luciano Floridi

Stumbled across it on Amazon just now. Middling reviews, but Floridi directs a lab and straddles multiple chairs at Oxford; has well appointed office; wears tweed and high cheekbones). Might be a good starting point?

Two Websites

A Brief History of Information at The Register. At least one of my best tech friends reads this site often, so I expect this article is good. It’s on the list.

historyofinformation.com

HistoryofInformation.com is designed to help you follow the development of information and media, and attitudes about them, from the beginning of records to the near present. Containing annotated references to discoveries, developments of a socialscientific, or technological nature, as well as references to physical books, documents, artifactsart works, and to websites and other digital media, it arranges, both chronologically and thematically, selected historical examples and selected recent developments of the methods used to recorddistribute, exchange, organizestore, and search information. The database allows you to approach the topics in a wide variety of ways.

Pow.

Right, almost time to go – quit while you’re only five books behind and all that…

Surprise Bonus

Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places

by Jorge Arango

This guy is supposed to be great, and I like the cover. He’s an actual (bricks and mortar) architect who became an information architect

Your role (1)

If you’re leading an organisation or a team, a big part of your job is to help others to do their jobs.

The reference escapes me, but I’m pretty sure Peter Drucker used the phrase “to make the work meaningful and the worker effective.”

Making work meaningful is about vision. It means making sure people understand why what they do is important. What’s the point? Who are you there to serve? What difference are you making as a whole, and what difference will it make if a team member does this particular job and does it well?

Making the worker effective is about helping your colleagues to do their roles as well as they can. At its core, the best way to do this seems to be to equip them with useful tools. This means stuff like computers, vehicles, resources. It means equipping them with processes that work – “this is how we train a teacher to teach reading”, “this is how we respond to an email and process a sale”. And most useful of all, it means equipping your team with the tools to make decisions (often these come back to your vision and values) and giving them the information they need to make new tools.

There’s a hierarchy in there somewhere.

Easier tomorrow

Here’s a good way to build capacity: every time you do something new, open a googledoc (or your searchable, annotate-able editor of choice) and do the following:

  1. Give it a name that you’ll be able to find in future, like – Howto Make a Transfer from OurBank
  2. Use headings and subheadings to give titles to key sections
  3. Use an ordered list (like this one) to list the steps
    1. I like using subpoints too
  4. Auto generate a table of contents
  5. Put it in the place where you’re likely to look for it when you need it – a folder labeled ‘Howtos and workflows’ or the folder that contains other stuff relevant to the document

Then…

At the very least, the next time you do that piece of work you have spec for the job, saving you from having to waste time clicking around trying to remember how you did it last time. This is especially true in settings like Indonesia, where things like online banking are still far from ‘peak usability’. The document is a gift to your future self.

At best, you have a document that you can give to someone else – a team member or a new volunteer, who can follow it step by step and do the job so that you can do something new. Pow! You’ve developed the ability to do two things concurrently – or at least, you will have after a few tries with the document and a bit of back-and-forward commenting on the document.

Write several of these documents, give the formatting a bit of a brush up and you’re on your way to a manual for your key processes.

This is a riff on some of the processes suggested by Michael E. Gerber in his classic The E-Myth Revisited, which will get a post of ten of its own one day.

It’ll help you with all 4 of Mike Michalowicz’s 4 D’s from Clockwork: doing, deciding, delegating, designing.

P.S. If it looks like I missed a day, I didn’t – had to unpublish and republish to make a change.