Believe in Better

On Saturday evening we went to hear my good friend Lauren Currie speak at the University of Dundee. Lauren is one of the people who’ve inspired me on my journey in the world of design over the last decade, so it’s always a delight to see her.

When she introduces herself on stage she’ll typically say, “I’m Lauren Currie and I believe in better”. It’s a simply phrase, but one that sits at the core of everything she is and does.

Lauren has this ability to make you look at the world in a different way, to see the things that aren’t working, and then to do something about it. All with a focus on social change and making our world better.

It’s become a mantra for me too over the past few years. It’s why I do what I do. Why I get involved in the things that I do. It’s a question I ask of myself each and every day – are you really making things better today?

Let me explain.

My world is the world of business. It’s where I’ve spent the last 30 years of my life. For several years I’ve been trying to find my ‘thing’. Where can I make most impact; how can I help people the most?

It was staring me in the face, and it was my son & business partner Andy who helped me to see it. You see, I’m an accountant. Always have been and always will be. An accountant with an ability to communicate often complex things in an easy to understand way. An accountant who’s embraced the world of design and who believes in better.

That’s why we setup our accounting business last year. We could see that the world of accounting wasn’t delivering what customers needed. Accounting needed to change and we were up for the challenge of leading the way.

We’re now 9 months into the journey and I believe that we’re making a difference. But there’s still lots to be done. We’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Do you believe in better? How can you use your skills and experience to make a positive difference? I’d love to hear your thoughts….

Let’s talk about paper

It’s been a week of talking about paper. Specifically, organisations that continue to insist on printing & sending information to customers, whether they like it or not.

In 2018 there’s really no excuse for doing that. The common refrain is, “well, we’ve always done it like that”. However that doesn’t mean you should be.

Last weekend I recorded a video about accountants posting financial statements to their clients for signing, without any explanation of what these statements mean. It’s a practice that many accountants have used for decades, but what we found in our research before we launched Ashton McGill was that clients really dislike this. They often don’t understand what they’re being asked to sign, it feels cold and impersonal, and there’s no attempt to explain or educate.

That video generated a lot of interest and people shared their individual stories with us. We got a bunch of enquiries on the back of it, and so for we’ve won 3 new clients as a result. There’s a message there for the luddites who insist on continuing to send stuff out in the mail……

The second example this week was a local college whose finance department insist on posting paper invoices out to customers. This seems to be a practice that many education institutions still use. They also expected us to phone them to make payment. I mean, really?!? Their process couldn’t have been less customer-friendly if they had tried.

And yet we see this sort of thing time and time again. Systems designed around the needs of the organisation, without any thought for the user or customer. Systems that are never reviewed, they just do it that way because……..well, because that’s how they’ve always done it.

Surely we can do better than that? You have my email address, you know my name, company, and our physical address (because you insist on mailing stuff there!), so why not email me a copy instead? It’s costing you money to post documents to me. Not only the paper cost, the ink, the envelope, the postage, but also the cost of someone’s time to do this.

Then I’ve got to do something with the paper documents. I’ll sign them if I have to (assuming I understand what I’m signing!), scan them, then email them back to you (see the irony there?) before shredding them. What a waste of time.

So, come on. If you’re the recipient of this type of behaviour, then insist they change (unless you like receiving mail!). And if you’re printing, stuffing envelopes, sticking on a stamp, then mailing them – ask yourself why? More importantly, ask your customers what they want.

We don’t need to print. Not only will it save you time, it’s also better for the environment. It’s time to be better.

Where do good ideas come from?

I had lunch earlier this week with an old colleague. He currently works for a global business, gets paid well, but feels no joy in the work. He’d love to setup his own business, but doing what? He just doesn’t know.

We spoke about different ways to start the idea generation process. When I worked at the University of Dundee a few years ago, we did some work with Stanford’s BioDesign programme. It’s designed to create new businesses in the healthcare field and at the time their process had created over 120 new ventures.

The first stage in the BioDesign programme sees students being immersed in the clinical environment (Stanford University Hospital), where their only job is to identify problems. Over a six week period they are tasked with finding 200 ‘needs or problems’. Things that don’t work, where staff or patients are experiencing frustration or worse.

They are taught not to think about solutions, simply to find things that don’t work. In the Design Thinking model this is what we’d call the Discovery stage, where empathy is vital to understanding how others experience a situation.

So I shared this story over lunch. My friend loved it and has decided to start noticing things that don’t work and writing them down. I suggested creating a Google doc or Evernote file so that these ideas are captured and can be shared. You see, idea generation is rarely a solitary endeavour. It involves conversation, sharing ideas and collaboration. The more diverse the people you share them with the better.

The other thing I’ve done recently, with thanks to running coach and writer Mario Fraioli, is create something called a Spark File. Not only do I use it to capture needs or problems, but also interesting articles or ideas for blog posts.

The notion that you can’t be creative or come up with ideas is a fallacy – it’s just that many of us don’t know how. The creativity that we had as children has been taught out of us, so we think we can’t. But maybe we just need to be shown a different way?

How do you come up with ideas? Any tips you’d like to share?

Mind your language!

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a day working with two of the world’s best designers. It was an inspirational day, learning from people at the very top of their profession. In sport it would be like being able to spend a day training with Lionel Messi or Eliud Kipchoge (one for the runners!).

During my years of working in and around the design profession, I’ve noticed that with the best designers, everything they do is thoughtfully done. Right down to the words they use.

Designers are more likely to use open questions. Instead of saying, “do you think we could do X?”, they’ll say, “How could we do X?”. It’s a subtle but important difference. The answer to the first question could easily be “No”, whereas the second question invites discussion. Good design is about conversation.

On that day in question, there was a word & phrase that our world class designers kept on using. They were even committed to print on our agenda! What were they? Let me tell you.

The phrase was “How might we…..”. Every question or discussion was prefaced with these three words. How Might We is an actual design technique developed by IDEO to turn challenges or problems into opportunities for design. Each of these words is there for a reason:

  • How invites us to be curious, to be inventive and to imagine
  • Might suggests there could be multiple ways to solve this problem
  • We encourages collaboration

So from now on, whenever you’re faced with a challenge or a problem that needs solving, use these three words. How might we…..

The other word that was used a lot, particularly in the breakout sessions in the afternoon, was Argument. After being set the challenge “How might we…” do something, we were then told to ‘have an argument’ about it within our groups. Not a discussion, but an argument. I’d never seen this approach used before, and will admit that when I run workshops I ask my groups to have a discussion.

I guess the reason for telling us to have an argument, is to encourage people to speak up and have different views. Often a discussion ends up being led by the strongest of the group. I saw this happen at a workshop we did at the University recently – you’re left wondering what ideas weren’t shared and about the possible solutions that never emerged.

However, giving us permission to have an argument, to share our views no matter how diametrically opposed they are, makes sure that we get everything on the table. It was incredibly clever, and I’ll be stealing it for my own workshops. In fact I’ve already tried it a couple of times!

In our busy lives, it might seem inconsequential to spend time thinking about the words we use. However, until the robots take over then we’re designing with and for humans, so using the right language in every situation will make a big difference in the outcomes we achieve.

Do you ask open or closed questions? How might we help you change? Let’s have an argument about words in the comments below!

Making life easier

Dundee’s a great place to live, we’re well connected by road & rail (just need to work on air!), which means that most of Scotland is little more than an hour away.

These days I prefer to take the train wherever possible. It’s less stressful than driving, and it means that I can get some work done, or catch up on reading and writing whilst I travel. Or, like last Wednesday evening, have a nap – you can’t do that if you take the car!

Travelling means that you’re going to be using a variety of services to get from A to B, and last week it struck me how much easier my life is today compared to even just a couple of years ago thanks to well designed services.

Here’s the story of my day.

5.15am Got up far too early, although anything after 5am now feels like a lie-in – that’s what marathon training does for you!

6.20am Get in the car, drive to Perth. Decide to try and park at the railway station itself – save a long walk later when I get back (I have an easy run to do this evening!).

6.45am Arrive at Perth Station. Plenty of parking spaces. Walk over to the parking meter to find that they now use the Ringo app, so I can park without any of the hassle of putting cash in the meter. Lovely!

6.50am Grab a coffee from the new Costa. It’s not Gordon Street Coffee, which is nestled next to the entrance to Glasgow’s Central Station, but it’s a big step up from the manky old station cafe!

6.55am Collect tickets, which I’d bought online on the Trainline app

7.00am Get on the train, get the MacBook out, hook into the free Scotrail wifi, and get to work!

8.20am Arrive at Glasgow Queen St, having got a tonne of work done, including a blog post on business partners, which I not only wrote but also posted whilst travelling, as well as engaging with commenters on social media!

8.30am Walk to Tinderbox in the Merchant City. Grab a flat white and fire off a few more emails.

9.15am Order an Uber from my phone.

9.20am Uber arrives. Have a great chat with the driver on my way to the east end. Turns out his wife’s family are from Dundee and he used to run a shop in Invergowrie!

9.27am Arrive at Rogart St. Uber takes the fee automatically and I access the app to leave a 5 star recommendation for the driver, thank him for his banter, and leave him a tip.

9.28am Realise there are two Rogart Streets (separated by a big building) and I’m in the wrong one! Phone Angela, let her know, then walk round. Google maps let me down (although maybe it was me, not paying attention….)

11.30am Finish a great meeting, call an Uber.

11.35am Uber arrives. Chat to my driver, John Paul, on the way into town. He offers we some chewing gum and asks if I’d like to charge my phone. I learn that he’s ‘running his own business’ with Uber as it gives him more time with his 6 year-old daughter. He likes Uber, it makes it easy for him and he doesn’t have to deal with drunk idiots.

11.50am John Paul drops me at Buchanan Street. I message Diane to let her know I’m on my way for lunch.

12pm Arrive at Princes square for lunch with the lovely people from Xero and several of their other accounting partners. We talk about all sorts of stuff, including many of the apps that make up the Xero ecosystem. These apps enable us to tailor Xero to each client’s specific needs. Compared to the inflexibility of Sage this is a total game-changer!

2.40pm Send a DM to Craig to let him know I’m running a little late for our coffee meeting.

3.05pm Arrive at Wilson St Pantry back in the Merchant City. I’ve had too much coffee today, so order a Red Bush tea. Craig orders peppermint tea. Rock ’n roll! I’ve known my namesake Craig McGill for the best part of a decade now. Most of our chats these days are online via twitter or LinkedIn, so it’s good to catch up in the flesh. The hour or so we spend goes by in a flash. I leave feeling energised and inspired.

4.41pm Catch the train back to Perth. Reply to a few emails (thanks to the free wifi again), then get my headphones out, pop on some City & Colour, and then snooze until we get back to the Fair City.

5.45pm Walk out of the station to my car. Jump in, head home, then get out for my run.


Now just imagine what my day would have been like five or so years ago.

Firstly, you could never get parked at Perth Station! Then you’d need a handful of pound coins to park, assuming you were lucky enough to find a space and a working parking meter.

Forget getting decent coffee.

Then the taxi experience. The last time I jumped in a black cab in Glasgow (May of this year), the driver had dropped the F-bomb at least a dozen times before we’d even made it past George Square! And the taxi was mingin’.

I know Uber aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you take their culture and behaviour out of the equation, the concept behind the service is pretty damn good! Every time I’ve got in an Uber in Scotland the service has been significantly better than the traditional taxi experience.

Then the train. Free wifi is something that we take for granted these days, but it makes a huge difference to the travel experience. I’m always grateful when I get connected.

Even the simple messaging tools that we have today make our lives easier – twitter, whatsapp, even good old texting make a difference. I grew up in Perth, and met my wife Joanna there when we were at school (1986!). As you may know, Perth has two public parks known as Inches – the North & South Inch. One day back then Joanna and I had arranged to meet at the statue at the Inch. Only she’d assumed the South and I’d assumed the North. As hormonal teenagers, we both thought we’d been stood up! No text messages in those days…..

So life is undoubtedly easier today in many ways, and businesses like Uber, Airbnb and even Scotrail are succeeding by focusing on making their customers lives easier.

So here’s my question for you – what are you doing to make your customers, or users / visitors, lives easier?

Dogs & Love Hearts – the Barnett Formula

One of the things I do is run workshops on Customer Experience. We do an exercise where I get participants to tell stories about good & bad experiences they’ve had. Over the past few months one name has come up again and again when it comes to good experiences – Barnetts Motor Group.

Barnetts are based in Dundee, where they have dealerships for Vokswagen, Mazda and Volvo. They also have a Volkswagen dealership in St Andrews, Fife.

I had two people in Aberdeen workshops recently tell me about their experiences buying cars from Barnetts, and how both now travel to Dundee to get their cars serviced. That’s pretty amazing – Dundee’s over an hour from Aberdeen!

I wanted to find out what makes Barnetts so good. A quick email to a contact got me an introduction to Paul Barnett, son of the founder Bob Barnett, and the current Managing Director. Paul replied quickly with a few dates and times that he could meet with me.

Last Thursday, I spent a fascinating afternoon at Barnetts, learning about how they run their business, and their relentless focus on creating a great experience for their customers. What came across loud & clear was Paul’s passion for the customer, along with his attention to detail. That was replicated in many of the people I met as we walked around the Barnetts base at Riverside.

Two stories capture their ethos beautifully for me.

The first is about Love Hearts. Every service desk has a tub of Love Hearts – the mini packs, not the full-size ones – below the counter. That’s done on purpose – it’s all about the element of surprise. If they’re on show, people expect to be given some, whereas when they’re hidden, it’s more of a surprise and people appreciate the gesture more. As we walked around, Paul checked that each desk was properly stocked, asking the staff member how many they’d given out that day. He explained that the mini-packs were chosen on purpose – he didn’t want to be giving out big packs of sweets, whereas the mini packs are just the right size for parents not to be concerned about the sugar level.

The second story is about dogs. Man’s best friend is welcomed with open arms at Barnetts. There are water bowls and dog chews provided at every dealership. How to deal with a customer that comes in with their dog is part of the induction process, which includes the following question:

A family comes in to the showroom – mum, dad, child, and dog. Who do you speak to first & why?

What do you think the answer is? Let me know below.

I spent a fascinating couple of hours with Paul. Much of what I learned, I’m keeping to use in my talks and workshops. I’ve given you just a little glimpse with these stories. The biggest message is that Paul leads from the front. He sets the standard, it clearly comes as second nature to him to behave this way. It’s also a daily challenge to get his team to think the same way, one that he relishes, and that’s delivered fantastic results for the business – Barnetts Dundee are Volkswagen’s most profitable dealership in the UK, and Volvo is in the top 3.

That speaks volumes for this kind of customer-focused approach.

Controlling the controllables

At the Athens Olympics, GB won 2 gold medals – Sir Chris Hoy in the Kilo, and Sir Bradley Wiggins in the Individual Pursuit. Fast forward four years to Beijing, and Team GB won 8 cycling golds, with the first being a memorable win from Nicole Cooke in the Ladies Road Race.

It was repeated again at the London Games in 2012. In 8 short years GB Cycling had gone from nowhere to the best cycling nation in the world. We’d do it AGAIN at Rio 2016. So what was the secret?

Dave Brailsford became Performance Director at British Cycling in 2003, taking over from Peter Keen who’d begun the revolution back in 1997. Brailsford has become famous for his ‘marginal gains’ approach –

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

However, there’s another principal that Brailsford adopted that’s had less airtime, but which has been just as important in our rise to the top of the cycling world. It became known as ‘controlling the controllables‘.

Cycling is a tough sport. Possibly the hardest sport in the world. While footballers play for 90 minutes, once, maybe twice in a week, cyclists in a Grand Tour like the Tour de France race for up to 6 hours a day for 21 days. Brutal.

In bike racing, particularly on the road, there are many factors outwith your control. You can’t do anything about them, so Brailsford’s approach was not to worry about them. Instead he focused all of his energy on the things he could control – the riders training, equipment, nutrition, clothing, their recovery and so on. This is where the ‘marginal gains’ approach came from.

When it comes to business, then we can also spend lots of time worrying about things out of our control. That’s wasted energy that could be better spent focused on the things we can control. Those will be different for each of us, but should probably include the people we hire, the way we look after them, our customer experience, the way we communicate.

What are the controllables for your business?