The Northern Powerhouse promised growth, it’s now time for big businesses to create it

Stephen Chapman's picture
by Stephen Chapman

The government won’t lead the northern revival. Big businesses will, so writes Lee Chapman, from design consultancy, Market Gravity.

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In 2016, politics has been busy doing what it does best. Talking the talk.

Last year was unprecedented. Challenge is no longer coming from competitive businesses and disruptive start-ups, alone. It’s coming from consumers, governments and other forces, too.

Talking the talk is no longer enough for business leaders.

A new breed of business is emerging, prepared to challenge to the dominance of London and rethink the way they operate.

They want to base themselves in the North of England, not because it is cheaper, but because it gives them a competitive advantage.

Whether big or small they have escaped the attention of the capital’s business media, but in 2017 they have a huge opportunity to power a northern revolt against the pull of the south-east for both talent and investment.

Many have already created growth for the nascent Northern Powerhouse. They all have a new model.

This new breed have rebuilt their businesses around the movements – not the technology – reshaping our society.

The fast-changing world we now live in has created a huge pool of unmet needs. And who better to respond to them than big businesses? They have an unfair right to win, and collectively they could give the region one, too.

These large organisations have everything needed to deliver positive change at both pace and scale.

Is the Northern Powerhouse already starting to show cracks?

But it’s not as easy as it sounds; doing so requires a new way of thinking about the challenges in front of them and a new way of tackling them. Those that have realized this haven’t simply learnt from the past, they have written a new version of the playbook.

The Northern Powerhouse promised growth. Here are a few plays for big businesses to start creating it.

  • Love the problem, not the solution

Don’t fall in love with the product you have built. Or more importantly, don’t fall in love with the possibility of what you can build. It’s a trap – you can very quickly start to believe that you’re changing the game, when you’re really rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

If you are going to fall in love, fall in love with the problem. Get that right, the ideas will follow.

To do this, get closer to the customer than your competitor, by looking at their world in the way they do. And when it comes to the ideas, they can be generated in the morning, visualized in the afternoon and tested with customers in the evening. By reducing that product cycle from 12 months to 12 hours, you make it a little easier to fail.

Trust me, you will fail.

  • Forget projects or programmes, think ‘missions’ and ‘squads’

A team is like a ship. No single barnacle will slow the ship down. But once they’re attached in large quantities, the ship becomes harder to steer and slower to move.

Similarly, as teams increase in size, so do the number of steering committees and status updates, reducing that team’s ability to move, at speed, in a clear direction.

Instead, organize your business around autonomous group of people – known as squads – who take on a mission as a mindset. Allow them to self-organize, force them to time-box and encourage them to think as a start-up would. It’s do or die.

  • Ventures require profit, not features 

This is a simple reality. Whilst it is tempting to focus your venture on developing killer features, doing so runs the risk of killing your chances to deliver them.

Businesses need a clear focus on the path to profit for their new ventures. Rather than waiting for the feature delivery schedule to make the decision for you, kill the killer features and stay focused on the processes that can be designed to rapidly launch new propositions and experiences.

This is where you will find growth.

  • Move from innovation teams, to an innovative business

Great innovation is not defined by how clever, resourceful and mission-led you are but how clever, resourceful and mission-led you make your teams.

It’s time to stop investing in your innovation function and start investing in developing functioning innovation in every department of your organization.

There are simple ways to build excitement and ownership of new propositions and ventures. None of them will need to be signed off by the finance department. None of them will require technology build. None of them will take more than an hour to set-up. The only thing stopping you doing it is you.

  • If technology is the answer, what was the question?

Focusing on a desire to be ‘the first bank to launch X’ or ‘the first retailer to talk Y’, will give you the greatest chance of becoming another bank or retailer that ‘also ran’.

Today, the to-do list – sorry, kan ban – of many new venture teams is spearheaded by a piece of technology. It is easy to think that is the answer to the million-dollar question. There is only one problem: everybody else has been asking the same question.

Technology has distracted us from entrepreneurialism. Businesses need to focus on the path to profit as much as the path to launch. Innovation should deliver growth opportunities for your business and value for your customers, not just new technology features.

Lee Chapman is from design consultancy, Market Gravity.