Sharing my experience of attending the World of Business Ideas Conference

Blog post by Stef Brown, Head of Product.

On the 5 and 6 June, I and a few hundred other attendees took part in the World of Business Ideas (WOBI) Conference at London’s Excel Centre. This is the first time a WOBI conference has taken place in the UK and its theme this year was ‘exponential’ specifically around exponential rather than incremental approach to change.

Over the two days we heard from nine guest speakers.

Before going into what they said, I think that how they said it is interesting. Each speaker delivered their message in very different ways: economist Dambisa Moyo spoke for 90 minutes with neither notes nor slides but keeping her audience’s attention throughout via smart pacing. Academic and business strategist, Michael Porter, delivered a two hour lecture with slides that challenged and deliberately discomfited his audience.

Unable to travel due to pregnancy, Randi Zuckerberg used Facebook Live, the promotion of which led to more than a few eyerolls around the room, and resulted in the disconnected situation in which her only view of a few hundred strong audience was the MC. She did offer the interesting aside that unlike many silicon valley ‘names’ she does allow her children screen time. However, this takes the form of a digital allowance with her young son allowed two hours of screen time each week that he can choose to use in one go or divide into parts.

Psychologist Susan David, Organisational Consultant Simon Sinek and branding expert and business change consultant Martin Lindstrom all delivered their presentations in a TED-style, unsurprisingly given they’ve all spoken at one or more TED event.

David began with a deeply personal story of why resilience matters to her and her family while Lindstrom stopped his narrative and stepped off the stage thirty minutes before his allotted time ended to take questions from the audience before returning to complete his presentation. A fluent and practiced speaker, he demonstrated the value he attributes to customer feedback, giving himself the opportunity to tweak his presentation to respond to immediate feedback. He began his presentation by giving example of the value of customer research by citing examples of his company working with Swiss, the airline, bringing their teams out to see their customers’ literal journeys. This made me think of the observation sessions in which our teams watch how customers go about their jobs and how this leads us to better understand how to support them in those.

David’s and Sinek’s ideas occupied similar ground to each other. David said that ‘being positive is a new form of moral correctness’ and argued that this occupies too much of our time. Instead she proposes that trying to present as always positive can become a problem when it exacerbates a situation that requires resilience. She instead promotes a four step process: ‘recognize your patterns; label your thoughts and emotions; accept them; and act on your values.’

Sinek’s presentation followed and to many attendees he was one of the main draws of the conference. This time he spoke about the ‘infinite versus the finite’ in which the responsibility of leadership is to prepare the organisation for the next leaders and to create an environment in which people work at their best and feel safe. To the obvious surprise of some attendees he spoke about leadership at the practical level, less the innately charismatic leader and more it being a ‘teachable, learnable, practical skill’.

This in part was echoed by management expert or as he prefers ‘management renegade and bureaucracy buster’ Gary Hamel and Stephen M. R. Covey. The first proposing we value our collective contributions to our organisations over our collective compliance to our organisations’ structures. I found it interesting how many of the activities he proposed to deliver meaningful change are already being used in government. Read Scottish Government’s blogs such as those produced by the Digital Identify team to see an example of strategy being crowd sourced.

Stephen M. R. Covey spoke more directly of public sector organisations when he said, ‘what profit is to the private sector, trust is to the public sector’. He asked which organisations represented measured engagement, my hand was among less than ten that went up in a room full of several hundred people. He then asked which organisations measured trust, this time just two hands went up. He predicts that within 15 years this will be a common measure. I was surprised by the length of time he forecast but perhaps this speaks to our position as a public sector organisation working with our customers and already recognising the value of reciprocal trust.

Think of our recent open day in which we invited customers to Meadowbank House to see first-hand how we work. Think too of the Keeper’s autumn campaign last year in which faculties invited us to meet their members and hear their experience of not only registering applications but more widely of working in conveyancing. Covey would describe this activity as leading to a ‘trust dividend’ resulting from a high trust environment. Similar to Sinek he also described trust as a behaviour that can be learned and developed. He challenged us in the audience to identify an action plan focussing on four core behaviours that build trust. I chose, and the phrases in inverted commas are his, the following:

  • ‘demonstrate respect’ – picking up on some of Susan David’s points, showing care for others and avoiding being ‘efficient’ with people.
  • ‘clarify expectations’ – being clear with colleagues; ‘don’t assume that expectations are clear or shared’.
  • ‘listen first’ – ‘listen before you speak’ and ‘don’t presume you have all the answers – or all the questions.’
  • ‘keep commitments’ – ‘say what you’re going to do, then do what you say you’re going to do.

When speaking with colleagues and customers I’m trying keep to these behaviours that display my values and the type of colleague I want to be.

I’ll finish this with Porter, in many ways his presentation was the most challenging and the one I most enjoyed; although on the former Moyo, who spoke on the six headwinds of change including natural resource scarcity and environmental concerns, ran him a close second. Porter’s presentation was centred on the premise that, ‘business is the only institution that can meet needs at scale while creating wealth and prosperity.’ I disagree with this but one of the benefits of attending an event like WOBI is that it leads you to develop your critical reasoning, producing your own counterarguments in conversations with other attendees and reiterating your values while providing a precis to colleagues.

What I don’t dispute is Porter’s call to action to business, which had people murmuring and shuffling in their seats, that a tepid corporate social responsibility statement or philanthropic giving target doesn’t reach far enough. Instead he argues that ‘shared value’ offers the biggest strategic opportunity for business by addressing society’s needs via business. That’s to say generating both social and economic benefit, and he cited examples such as Vodafone and M-pesa, the mobile payment system used to transfer money across Kenya.

His lecture was one in which we weren’t just nodding and taking notes but one in which were regularly asking ourselves, or at least I was, how might this apply to our own environment. Consider his view on strategy or ‘long term choices’. He described these as a system in which there is no such thing as a good marketing or operational strategy: the only strategy is the overarching company strategy with all of these areas contributing to it. In reading back my notes on the train I thought of our approach to KPIs in which we identified and published our targets across all of RoS teams and outputs.

Many of the speakers cited others in their presentations. Most referenced Carol Dweck’s work on choosing and committing to a growth mindset at both an individual and organisation level valuing learning and demonstrating persistence amid setbacks. I’ve thought a lot about this in the weeks since the conference and it’s helped me frame some recent sessions I’ve hosted with colleagues. Similarly during mentoring sessions I’ve found myself referencing David’s ideas and videos and I’ve returned to my notebook to re-read my notes from Covey ahead of meetings both in-house and with vendors and external organisations.

One of the benefits of attending a conference like this is immediate: listening to speakers who care fervently about their work and want to share it with you in an accessible, usable way. Then there’s the reciprocal benefit of returning to work and sharing it, and debating points, with colleagues.

Lastly there’s the long term benefit in which some of these ideas, not all will resonate, take hold and ‘bake in’ to how you approach work. I’m somewhere between two and three at the time of writing this.

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