Here’s our idea – let us know what you think

We’ve been working on this project for a few months now and here’s where we’ve got to. Below is something like a marketing description, but it also indicates the functionality we’re looking at for our proof-of-concept website. It’s still work-in-progress, but let us know what you think. (It won’t be called ‘New think tank’ of course, that’s just a stand-in name – suggestions for that are welcome as well).

[New think tank] connects people and organisations to improve social policy.

[New think tank] is a social network for the people and organisations who use and provide public and voluntary services. With the [New think tank] community, you can conduct policy and research work that’s credible, affordable, and timely.

Credible.

The [New think tank] community is made up of people who use and provide public services. They’ll help you understand what’s happening at the frontline, and to develop practical and popular proposals. This will help to give your organisation credible answers and a stronger profile.

Affordable.

Because it’s online, [New think tank] is a very cost-effective way to conduct policy and research work. Through [New think tank] you can share intelligence, recruit and work with partners, and even find funding for projects.

Timely.

[New think tank] enables you to conduct policy and research work quickly and easily. You can instantly test out ideas for a new research project and invite people to participate in it, invite suggestions for a policy statement or consultation response, or source relevant case studies for a report or news story.

With [New think tank], you can develop and deliver a project from start to finish – you can even commission a new project in minutes. Here’s how:

Create a profile – for you or your organisation, then connect and communicate with others. Share news and publicise events. You can import your profile from other social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, and even login using your profiles from these networks.

Test out ideas – post questions, start discussions and propose projects. The most popular ideas and projects get featured most prominently. You can also follow and comment using other social networks.

Conduct projects – start a project and invite others to participate. Create an open or invite-only forum and assemble a virtual project team. Post questions and surveys, or draft and edit reports collaboratively.

Find partners – recruit other organisations to partner with, or find funding for a project. Host forums to manage projects, store and share useful documents, and easily track project activity wherever you and your partners are.

Share findings – publish and promote your projects. Use the site as a hub to share your findings and recommendations. Automatically send updates to and from other social networks, and use the community to disseminate your work more widely.


What it is (nearly)

I had a conversation today about this project where I spent a fair bit of the time explaining what it isn’t. For example:

  • It isn’t a think tank, commonly understood, because it won’t have the infrastructure or staffing or resources associated with think tanks (indeed this is a critical part of the business model);
  • It isn’t a competitor to existing think tanks, because we’re looking mainly at a market that doesn’t commission research at the moment;
  • It isn’t a research supplier as such, because the point of our approach is that charities and other provider organisations often have much of what they need in order to conduct policy work already (credibility, experience and expertise, relationships to stakeholders etc).

I don’t mind having to take this ‘isn’t’ approach – though it does make what we’re doing sound more negative than I’d like – but obviously it begs the question of what this is.

One of the difficulties with innovation (if I can call this an ‘innovation’) is describing what you’re doing in a simple, easily-graspable way for others, when by definition it’s something new, and at the same time as you’re still exploring for yourself and potential customers what the ‘is’ is. This is why you find yourself using more ‘isn’ts’ than you’d like (and hedging these often makes it even murkier: “Well, not exactly, it isn’t quite like so-and-so…” etc etc).

One way that anyone developing anything ‘new’ tries to get around this is to compare their ‘it’ to some existing products and services (‘it’s like x but for y’). Or they cite examples of things we’d all like more of and then suggest that their product or service will produce these things more cheaply and easily. We’ve done both of these at various times here. We’ve suggested that it’s like ‘Sourceforge [but] for social policy‘ and that we’d like what we’re doing here to support the production of many more user-led Spartacus-like reports.

Both of these approaches keep some of your options open – but only for a while. (And after all, what does it really mean to claim, as thousands of entrepreneurs must have done over the past few years, that they’re developing ‘the new Facebook, but for [insert niche but potentially profitable audience here]’? And if it’s so much like Facebook, minus of course the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in functionality that Facebook and its investors have made, then why wouldn’t your target audience just use Facebook instead?)

Inevitably you begin to approach the point when you have to say ‘this is what it is’, in order to give potential partners enough to provide you with an honest response about whether it meets a real need they have – in short whether they’re in or not. But you resist this because you also have to give something up: the idea that your project appeals to everyone or could ever appeal to everyone. Promise and potential (which are nice things that everyone can buy into) has to give way to practical appeal (which of course means a much smaller audience of actual buyers). In this sense, the more you define what it is, the more you make it something that isn’t for some (probably most) of your potential audience.

We’re getting nearer to this point – but we’re not there quite yet.


Good for charity

Here are four potential uses or scenarios for our new think tank. Remember that our approach is based on policy and research work being led by frontline public service practitioners and service users, primarily through an online community/social network. These scenarios are designed to give our potential partners and customers (starting with charities) a more tangible idea of the benefits that we think our approach could deliver. Some of the benefits derive from working much more closely with practitioners and the public, which is not something that think tanks do that often or that consistently. Other benefits stem from using an online community, social media etc to do research and policy work – and sometimes it’s a combination of the two. Let us know what you think.

Scenario #1 – A service provider charity wants to understand the gaps in provision in its sector. The charity commissions new think tank to produce a research report on unmet needs among users. Because the research is produced by and with users and practitioners, it includes genuine new insights. The research receives widespread media coverage and sparks ideas for a new service. The charity establishes a ‘virtual advisory board’ of service users to inform the development of the new service.

Scenario #2 – A campaigning charity wants to develop fresh ideas for a new strand of its policy work. The charity commissions new think tank to produce a ‘manifesto’ on what future policy should look like for its sector. The charity uses the new think tank platform to draft the manifesto collaboratively, with the participation of its operational and policy teams as well as service users and other campaigners. This provokes considerable public debate, and helps to promote the charity as a thought leader.

Scenario #3 – A charity wants to develop a response to a government consultation. The charity commissions new think tank to host a private, invite-only forum for its service users, stakeholders and peer organisations. This leads to ideas for a joint campaign. The charity is able to present itself with policymakers as a leading organisation in its sector, but also as a good collaborator.

Scenario #4 – A small charity is interested in commissioning research but lacks experience. The charity works with new think tank to scope its research project. Because it is based on ideas and suggestions from a large, knowledgeable community, the charity’s ITT is centred on a unique and interesting research question. The charity also receives suggestions for good researchers and partners for the project. The charity seeks support for the project through a crowd funding proposal on the new think tank site.

What other benefits do you think could be delivered through our approach? How else could our approach be used? Equally, what might be some of the downsides or problems of our approach – and how could we mitigate them?


Finding the One Thing

There’s an argument that really succesful businesses are successful because they have a single-minded and uncompromising obsession with One Thing. I read about this on Jason Cohen’s excellent A Smart Bear blog a while back and it struck me as pretty convincing at the time. Then I forgot about it – until this week.

Jason makes the point that what many businesses, especially start-ups, think is their competitive advantage usually isn’t. Virtually everything can be copied by competitors, and anything that can be copied will be copied. The only real competitive advantage is that which cannot be copied and cannot be bought. It requires unwavering devotion to the One Thing that is (a) hard, and (b) you refuse to lose, no matter what.

For example, Jason notes that Google has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on their search algorithm and that this remains the single biggest focus of the company even today, a decade after they decided that was their One Thing. Their homepage continues to reinforce this message – it’s remarkably clean and clear, with the focus remaining absolutely on the central search box. The very first version of the homepage is pretty much identical, in fact today’s version is even cleaner than the original, despite everything else the company now provides.

Not only does this focus mean that your primary energy is always directed into your competitive advantage, the argument is that it makes pitching much stronger but also easier. We’ve been holding workshops with charities on this project to get their initial reactions to the idea (we’re targeting charities as our initial target customers). They haven’t been marketing seminars – they’ve been genuine customer insight workshops – but of course in introducing the idea we’ve presented a list of potential benefits of our proposed approach (having public service practitioners and service users lead policy and research work). These benefits have ranged from more credible and practical research, to more cost-effective projects, to better dissemination of outputs (because project participants will have a natural incentive to also help promote the results). But Jason makes the point that hanging your hat on just one advantage that you can own completely is stronger than diluting your message across many advantages. Also, why try to defend 10 points when you only need one or two to make your case?

I realise now that this is what we’ve been doing – albeit certainly not disastrously (I hope), just as a natural and inevitable part of the process of developing an idea from scratch in open dialogue with potential customers. But it’s meant that the offer hasn’t been as clear as it needs to be, and also that we’ve lacked a strong focus for the ‘product’ (or rather, that what we thought was the focus may not actually be the focus). It’s also meant that we’ve effectively been trying to appeal to everyone, and everyone has been telling us they like the idea (which is nice, of course) – but perhaps the definition of a successful One Thing product or service is that it doesn’t appeal to everyone, instead it appeals only to a section of the market but in a very strong way (that is, strongly enough to build a sustainable business from).

I knew we’d reached the stage in developing the idea that we had to make some important (albeit not irreversible) decisions, like what we were proposing specifically and so what the starting ‘product’ is. Then we got some useful challenge from a contact in local government who likes our idea but suggested we needed to simplify the offer a lot in order to make it explicable to customers, and he was right – and it was this that reminded me of Jason’s article and so here we are.

The result was that we had a really good discussion today where we may have begun to focus in on our One Thing. What’s interesting to me is that no-one mentioned this One Thing in any of the workshops, at least not explicitly. No-one said this was their greatest need or priority from policy and research work, and no-one said that they were being let down by their existing suppliers (including think tanks) because they weren’t delivering this One Thing. And yet it feels like it could be a unique competitive advantage that could position us nicely. And it’s not what we thought it might be either – it wasn’t on our list of potential benefits at all. But suddenly we can see how all of the other things we’ve been talking about could possibly hang off of this One Thing, and the way that it could play to our potential strengths and circumvent some of our weaknesses (or at least make them less important to the customer).

Of course, we need to kick it around a lot more – and that’s before we take it out to potential customers and partners to see what they think, and really begin to work on how it’s achievable and how we can deliver it. But that’s a decent and welcome conclusion to the first chapter of our project and, hopefully, a good start to the next chapter as well.