“Unless you think about what you could become, you will continue doing a version of the same thing.”
We sat down for a conversation with Mark Wilson. Mark is a business strategy expert who founded Wilson Fletcher, an innovation consultancy that helps to transform digital companies through strategy and design. He has recently released a book, Futurestate Design, which aims to help entrepreneurs think differently about the future of their business. We spoke to Mark about planning for the future in an uncertain world, why strategy is so important, changes in the digital space, and more.
What do Digital Strategists do?
I think when you boil it down, my job is focused on helping leaders of companies turn their businesses into stronger digital businesses. I’m genuinely working with them to figure out what comes next, how they are going to invest in the months and years ahead, what they should be betting on effectively for the future, and then plotting out the route they take to get there. So, we always say that when you boil strategy down, it is very simple. It’s asking ‘where are we going?’ and ‘how do we get there?’ In my world, all of that is around digital business.
When a business comes to you in need of help with strategy, do you look 10 or 20 years into the future? What timeframe do you typically look at?
For the most part, I don’t think those sorts of long timescales are useful these days. If you’re building HS2 or something, then you’ve got to think on multi-decade timescales. But for most organisations, those timescales are too long. For people who are going through any kind of transformation, it’s very difficult for all of us to get our heads around what committing to a long timescale means and how great our role can be in it. In all of our design work, we use a three-year timescale, and most people can equate to this.
Everybody at a business is effectively investing their time and energies in getting to this future version of the company and needs to commit to this both emotionally and psychologically. We’ve gone through a pandemic and now this war in Ukraine is happening, which nobody was expecting to happen. That’s disrupted lots of industries that were previously in good shape. It’s changed the dynamics of banking systems, global trade and supply chains, and all sorts of things. So, in a window of that size, particularly in the digital economy, an awful lot can change.
You trained as an architect before becoming a digital strategist. What are the similarities between architecture and digital strategy? How did you make that transition?
At the time, there were lots of people in architecture who were moving into the digital domain. There’s an interesting combination of creativity and engineering that is involved in the design of any space or any building. You’ve got to think about context and aesthetics in both, but it’s also got to stand up. I think in many ways architecture is a multi-dimensional design discipline.
In architecture, you’ve got engineers, software engineers, civil engineers, landscapers and landscape architects, and interior designers. There’s a whole suite of people that get involved in the creation of buildings, and I think that’s very similar, particularly as time has moved on, to how digital businesses operate. Even to this day, I still think of what we do as architecture. I still think in many ways that what we do when we’re designing a company is very much what an architect does with a building.
At what point in this journey did you realise that you wanted to start your own business, Wilson Fletcher?
I’d been the director of a big multidisciplinary design company, and then that business was sold into a big group. As with many of those big group mergers, it ended up with most of the people in our business leaving. And that’s when we set up Wilson Fletcher. We had an anchor client at that time, who just started working with us on an interesting project and they wanted to come with us. It just went from there.
That first project was creating a commerce platform for a research company in California and helping them figure out first time how to sell and present millions of research reports to clients all over the world. That then set the pattern for what we’ve done ever since.
What is Futurestate Design?
It’s been a key part of our work now for many years. Our work is rooted in helping companies become digital businesses. Every business needs to optimise how it can run its business as part of the digital economy. That’s the world we’re in. That’s what we have to do to succeed as any kind of business these days.
What we realised is that most people are rooted in the things that help them run their businesses today. You find a lot of businesses that use data to help them, and obviously, data is one of the topics everybody talks about as being vital. And it is, but it can also be quite dangerous when you’re trying to think about what you should do next.
Because for the most part data can tell you what has happened, and what is happening now. To some degree, it can project forward and tell you what might happen next, but it can’t take into account unexpected circumstances and changes in the market. So, data is a kind of a current and a backward-looking indicator of how a business is doing.
The same goes for finance. If you look at a company’s accounts, you often see companies that are doing well on paper, but then when you get through the door, you realise that they haven’t invested in the future for a decade. And now they’re running towards the edge of a cliff because around them others are coming into their marketplace and their competitors have invested more in the future.
When you look at them on paper, they look amazing, but when you look at them in the reality of that company, they’re incredibly fragile. So, I think we realised over time that much of this was bound up in people’s inability to step out of today and to think genuinely about what their future could look like if they removed the constraints of the current business.
The pandemic, the war in Ukraine and inflation have all impacted businesses in an unprecedented way. How can businesses predict what their consumers will be like in the future when the future is unpredictable?
It’s one of the most difficult and interesting things to do. It turns out that you can get pretty close to predicting future consumers by looking at the range of things that are going on at any given point in time. The timescales are really important because if you ask me what people are going to be doing in 10 years, I’d say that’s a fairy tale to try and predict.
When you think about the future customer, what we need to do is we need to start imagining the things that they’re doing more broadly in their life, what kinds of behaviours we can imagine, what they will become comfortable with or receptive to because of the things that they’re doing now.
A great example from the last couple of years would be the shift to virtual GP appointments. It was forced on everyone, but now many people when surveyed say that they prefer that as a method of a first consult with a GP. It’s quicker and more convenient, and you don’t need to be in a waiting room.
You say tools that businesses use such as data, commercial results, looking at what competitors are doing, and even market research can inhibit them. Some people might find this to be a bold statement. Why do you think this?
There are trends reports and things published all the time about where particular sectors are going and how consumers are starting to behave. When you’re following those sorts of visible trends, it is inferred that everybody’s going to end up in the same place because they’re all following the same data.
Now, if there’s one thing that businesses need to be in the digital economy, it’s distinctive. Businesses need to be able to stand out because they’ve got to build a market position in highly competitive marketplaces. And they’ve got to be unpredictable.
To build some space and distance from their competitors, they have to do things that aren’t the same as theirs. Now, if everybody’s following all of the same trends, advice, and all of the same patterns, and they’re all speaking to the same customer groups about the same sorts of topics, then they will inevitably end up in the same place. That, for me, is where the greatest dangers lie.
What would you say in response to a business that might ask: ‘Why can’t we just imagine a strategy with the tools we have right now?’
You’ll end up making a version of what you are now. It’s very difficult for anyone to have an accurate perspective on yourself, this is a human thing, but is also true for businesses. Businesses tend to be bad at looking at the future and understanding what they need to do. It’s like yourself, you don’t sit there when you’re on a supermarket website saying ‘I just wish in a few years they’ve made this happen’. You’re just there to do your shopping.
Typically, you get this kind of weird echo chamber and feedback loop from existing customers who want you to serve them with something really good. If somebody had said to you, a few years ago ‘Would you like to go and stay in a stranger’s house when you travel?’ or ‘Would you like to call an unlicensed taxi to the side of the road to pick you up and take you home at the end of a night?’, you would have said no.
Many services have had a profound impact on how people are behaving and have had very disruptive impacts on lots of industries. If you ask people, whether they wanted them at the time, they’d have said no. I think that’s the thing that ‘future design’ is trying to unlock.
It says that the future customer is not the one that you have today. Even over a year, their attitudes and what they are willing to and interested in buying from you are going to change a lot. So things that they don’t do today, they will be receptive to in different ways in the future.
With the emergence of NFTs and the Metaverse, the digital space is changing rapidly. Is there anything particularly exciting happening in the digital space?
I’m absolutely not going to say the Metaverse. One of the challenges of being in the digital industry is that there’s always something that’s going to change everything. And we get about three of them a month. Of course, most of them don’t change everything. I think there are going to be big shifts in how money is moved around the world and how business is conducted with cryptocurrencies. But I think that’s going to need a lot more government regulation.
The Bank of England has just been given this edict to create a safe digital currency and I think that’s going to bring about quite a lot of change. I think it will enable all sorts of new services.
So, if you think about how the property process works in the UK, buying and selling a house is still one of the most painful things that anybody can ever go through. It really shouldn’t be that hard. And, if some of those systems were connected up better and money was moved around in more modern ways, and contracts were handled in more modern ways to work with things, I think the world would be a much better place.
I also think we’re going to see fanatical behaviour around the metaverse – augmented reality and the full VR environment will start progressively having an impact. I think that the mingling of the digital and the physical world in real-time is going to be the most exciting phase of all of that work.
What advice would you give to a business owner who feels their business is stagnant?
I think the first step is to recognise that the issue exists. That’s exactly why I’ve written the book, as a compact, easy read. Anybody who’s in any kind of business should be able to pick it up and recognise aspects of themselves in it. Our role is to come into a business from an external view, to help people get past something that is baked into them and their business that isn’t working, and try different exercises that force them to think differently.
Another really good and simple one that has worked quite a lot is asking them ‘How do you run that service without any humans?’ By posing those sorts of questions, what generally happens is that by the end of it, people are going to open up. They might think ‘If we automated that process, it wouldn’t make any difference to us and we’d save a load of time’. At the end of asking these questions, you end up with everybody looking at what they do currently in a very different way.