Beating existing hierachical systems

I just got my pre-ordered book from Dan Bigham, Start at the end: How reverse-engineering can lead to success. Dan is the brain behind one of the most exciting and innovative sporting stories in recent memory; how four friends from Derby took on the world’s national teams at track cycling’s individual and team pursuit, and won.

In the book, Dan argues that…

‘Every hierarchical system based on performance contains some element of complacency, of lazy thinking and of vested interest. That means these systems can be beaten.’

Dan Bigham

Dan suggests taking the reverse engineering approach of committing to an ambitious goal, identifying precisely what it takes to achieve it, identifying where you are now, and creating a plan to bridge the gap.

Reverse engineering

Reverse engineering is a process that can be used to learn anything given enough time. The goal is to make a big jump in performance based on a target endpoint. 

  1. Set a goal
  2. Take it apart – know precisely what it will take to achieve that goal
  3. Assess your resources – what you have and what is missing
  4. Develop your tools needed to bridge that gap
  5. Set the plan into motion – creating positive feedback loops
  6. Deliver the performance

Once you have achieved your goal, and if you choose to stay in the same environment and team, you need to move to continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is the pursuit of minor incremental improvements to keep you at or above your previous goal. A famous example of this approach is Masaaki Imai’s book Kaizen (Kai = ‘change’, Zen = ‘for good’):

  • Teamwork
  • Discipline
  • Organisation
  • Standardisation
  • Quality cycles

To make continuous improvement work, there needs to be a feeling of psychological safety. A culture of risk-taking and creativity is developed through the freedom for team members to make mistakes. This fearless culture empowers employees to contribute ideas and feedback, knowing they will be taken seriously.  

What gets measured gets managed

“What gets measured gets managed — even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organization to do so.

Peter Drucker


Goodheart’s Law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.


Campbell’s Law: The more a metric counts for real decisions, the greater the pressure for corruption, the more it distorts the situation it’s intended to monitor.


“Quantitative measures of performance are tools, and are undoubtedly useful. But research indicates that indiscriminate use and undue confidence and reliance in them result from insufficient knowledge of the full effects and consequences. Judicious use of a tool requires awareness of possible side effects and reactions. Otherwise, indiscriminate use may result in side effects and reactions outweighing the benefits (…) The cure is sometimes worse than the disease.”

V. F. Ridgway


“It’s Not About the Result, It’s About Awareness.

The trick is to realize that counting, measuring, and tracking is not about the result. It’s about the system, not the goal.

Measure from a place of curiosity. Measure to discover, to find out, to understand.

Measure from a place of self-awareness. Measure to get to know yourself better.

Measure to see if you are showing up. Measure to see if you’re actually spending time on the things that are important to you. (Make sure to measure backward, not forward.)”

James Clear

Advanced HE’s flexible learning framework

Flexible learning is about student choice, putting learners at the centre of the learning experience and providing them with the flexibility to access learning opportunities around the different areas of their lives. To deliver this requires balanced pragmatism in delivery methods and institutional agility in the structures and systems used by the university to provide choice in an economically viable and sustainable way.

Flexible learning in higher education | Advance HE
Advanced HE Flexible learning framework

According to the HEA’s flexible learning framework, a choice should be offered to students in how, what, when, and where they learn through the pace, place, price, and mode of delivery.

“When well supported, this positively impacts recruitment, retention and progression; widens participation; and offers opportunities to learners of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities.”

Advanced HE


An undergraduate degree is 360 credits. A postgraduate degree is 180 credits. One credit is equivalent to ten notional learning hours; an undergraduate (UG) course should take a maximum of 3600 hours and a postgraduate taught (PGT) degree a maximum of 1800 hours. Current rules on the maximum duration of study for UG studies is eight years and five years for PGT; this means that the pace of study can be anywhere from 90 weeks to eight years at UG and 45 weeks to five years at PG based on a maximum 40-hour study week. Most university courses currently run off 32 weeks a year for institutional convenience, but the pace could be altered considerably to fit the student.


The place where learning is delivered or received is becoming more flexible. Traditionally courses have been offered on-campus with students travelling to the lecturer and their facilities. The Univerity of London began offering courses by correspondence in 18, posting out study materials, and asking students to attend in-person for the exam only. More recently, these correspondence courses have been replaced with online learning. As work-based learning becomes essential and workplaces increasingly partner with universities for higher education, this provision is being delivered in the workplace or other facilities where specialist equipment or experiences are avalible. 


Most mature students see higher education prices as the most significant barrier to enrollment. Changes to funding have seen considerable drops in part-time student numbers over the last ten years. The Augar report made suggestions to address this, and the Government is set to enact many of these, including a part-time postgraduate loan that allows students to study flexibly. Many part-time postgraduate courses have begun to offer flexible payment options, including per module, per term, or annually.


The OECD lists the mode of study as the student’s study load, whether full-time or part-time, but may also refer to distance, a mixture of on-campus access methods, or various work-based learning options. HESA, the higher education statistics agency, lists up to 16 different modes of study, categorised primarily for funding purposes, including: 

  • Full-time – according to funding council definitions or other
  • Sandwich – thick, thin, or other
  • Part-time – regular, released from employment, or not released from employment
  • Evening only
  • Open or distance learning
  • Writing-up – previously full-time
  • Continuous delivery

These modes aim to provide students with options to access study that fits their need and availability.

Sign up to view the full framework on the Advanced HE website.

Strategy: point a, point b, and the line between

A strategy is a plan to achieve a goal that will provide the organisation with a competitive advantage. Generating a strategic plan begins with identifying the organisation’s purpose through a mission statement, a vision of the future, and a set of objectives as performance targets. 

Once the direction is decided, the internal and external environments are analysed to assess the current strengths, weaknesses, and competitive environment. Tools like Porter’s five forces model, PEST analysis, and Resource-based view (RBV) support the generation of this internal and external map. 

A clear picture of the environment allows the organisation to make choices about creating value and achieving a competitive advantage. Areas in which a company can choose to find an advantage include:

  • Undercutting competitors on price through economies of scale or reducing costs.
  • Differentiating products to make them more attractive to specific market segments. 

The final strategic stage in how the organisation can achieve the identified competitive advantage is an implementation plan. The tactics of how the strategy will be carried out are created and documented. The means to carry out the tactics will be listed, and milestones draw up to measure progress.  

If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.

Yogi Berra

Many companies do not take the time to think through these stages. Simply documenting where they want to go, where they are now, and a plan to move from point a to point b can dramatically improve performance. 

Strategic management process

  1. Mission & Objectives
  2. Analysis
    1. Internal
    2. External
  3. Strategic Choice
  4. Strategic Implementation
  5. Competitive Advantage 

Mission, vision, and strategy

I am currently working on an updated plan for how the university will move forward with flexible learning. The last fourteen months have dramatically accelerated the plans I drew up in 2019, and so it is time to be more creative and ambitious. 

Thankfully we put into place three separate statements to help generate an online learning strategy: 

  1. Mission Statement – Who my team are, what we provide, who we serve, the benefits we deliver, and what is important to us.
  2. Vision Statement – A previously ambitious and unique idea of the university we want to create.
  3. Value Statement: Our beliefs about how work should be done, our standards, culture, and aspirations.

The mission statement has remained the same; we exist to move the university to a hyper-flexible delivery model that uses technology to redefine the student experience. The vision statement, however, like most universities strategies, has changed dramatically. The forced move to online learning has moved us past ambitious five-year plans and started creating conversations about what is possible, what is desirable, what works, and what future we want to make. 

The external work has moved forward too. Suppliers like Microsoft and the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) vendors have developed the tools available to universities, making them easier to use and adding functions to support emerging practice. The demand for online learning has grown as people have spent more time at home and working and collaborating via a computer screen; their views on learning have changed.

There are three main tasks for the vision statement:

  • Consolidate the existing flexible delivery.
  • Build on that good practice to make it better; more interactive, personalised, and accessible.
  • Think up what game changers might look like in the new university landscape.

Writing a strategy is about creating a plan for how we deliver a mission and a vision. If you have not updated these three documents recently, it might be time to start designing the new normal.

eCommerce Benchmarks

I have been following Dynamic Yield since it was purchased by McDonald’s in March 2019. Dynamic Yield works with over 350 global brands developing online customer personalisation. The tech firm has an excellent newsletter covering marketing, data analytics, and digital personalisation. It offers several free services on its website, including case studies, a learning centre, and an eCommerce benchmarking tool. 

Dynamic Yield provides monthly eCommerce benchmark data for seven key markers. The data can help companies keep track of what is going on in their industries, identify strengths and weaknesses in their eCommerce platforms performance, and aid the creation of marketing plans. The data is aggregated from over 200 million monthly users and 300 million sessions from Dynamic Yield’s customer base.

The benchmarks and their 12-month global averages:

  1. Device Usage – % of traffic per device: 65% mobile, 32.17% desktop, and 2.83% tablet
  2. Conversion Rate – % of completed purchases by visitors: 3.21%
  3. Add-to-Cart Rate – % of items added to cart after product page view(s) by visitors: 7.16%
  4. Cart Abandonment Rate – % of items left in carts and not purchased by visitors: 70.83%
  5. Average Order Value (AOVs) – Average dollar amount per order: $130 
  6. Units per Transaction (UPTs) – Average number of products bought per order by visitors: 2.87
  7. Average Transaction per User (ATPU) – Average number of transactions made per visitor: 0.09

Each benchmark can be filtered by device, region and one of eight industries. The data is updated monthly and includes the last twelve months worth of averages for identifying trends. The Conversation rate and Cart abandonment rate KPIs also have detailed explanations, strategies for improvement, and additional resources. 

You can find Dynamic Yield’s benchmark tool on their website. 

Time-limited project approachs

Today, I was asked to do a last-minute presentation on my teams approach to course and module design for online and flexible programmes. The main aim is to get the right people in the room and create space to take them through a practical approach based on what we know to work and addressing what has gone wrong in the past. 

In the presentation, I focused on three key characteristics of the approach;

  1. Parkinson’s law where work expands to fill the time allocated 
  2. Capabilities Maturity Model, where we formalise and optimise the process to reliably and sustainably produce required outcomes
  3. Design thinking, a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test.

Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. The more time we allocate to a task, the more of it we waste, the less time we assign, the more efficient we have to be, cutting out anything that is not essential to getting the job done. When a deadline is far away, we tend to spend some of our available time in active procrastination or giving away the time to other demands. It is only when a delivery date approaches that we ruthlessly trim anything non-essential to complete the task and constrain our activity to what matters. Restricting the delivery time allotted to only what is needed to complete the task creates focus.

Once we have trimmed the time, we need to use a defined series of actions to help get the outcome required. Process maturity refers to the extent to which the process is managed, defined, measured, and controlled to ensure a reliable and sustainable development each time the process is used. As a manager, I need to know that no matter who is assigned to a project, I can have confidence that a certain level of service and quality is achieved; a mature process with frequent feedback loops supports this. The Capability Maturity Model has five levels;

  1. Initial: Unpredictable and reactive – each individual runs each project based on their own with little standardisation
  2. Managed: Project management – projects are dealt with in a systematic and organised way
  3. Defined: Proactive – standards and process are provided across all projects
  4. Quantitatively managed – Measured and controlled – metrics are used to monitor and improve performance and provide a predictable level of quality
  5. Optimising: Stable and flexible – feedback loops offer continuous improvement and the ability to be agile and innovative.

Design thinking is a structured approach to product development and provides the process that the capability maturity model fits around. There are three broad phases; First, you understand the problem, explore possible solutions, and then finally materialise the selected outcome. Within these three phases, there are six main activities;

  • Understand
    • Empathise: carry out research such as interviews and observations to understand the user or client and their stories.
    • Define: use the research to write a clear definition of the problem. This might include user personas that use cases.
  • Explore
    • Ideate: Divergent thinking is used to generate as many possible solutions without judgment. Then, Convergent thinking is carried out, with each idea evaluated, and the best is chosen. 
    • Prototype: A version of the solution is created to test the idea with the user or client. This might be as simple as a paper prototype on a series of slides or a one-page document, or a quickly generated but fully working minimum viable product.
  • Materialise
    • Test: The prototype is put in front of users to refine and validate the proposed solution. 
    • Implement: The solution is built and delivered to users.

To illustrate the approach, I used three examples;

  • Example 1: Google’s Design Sprints
  • Example 2: The universities Course Design sprints
  • Example 3: My teams adapted ABC Module Design Workshop

Time-limited approaches to projects work as they create focus. A mature process optimises the time available, and divergent and convergent thinking produces better ideas. Testing the solution allows a design to be refined and validated before it is released.

Limiting delivery times and defining the process is effective once working, but the transition creates challenges. The first is that those implementing the changes need to build credibility, so they are trusted. Most people know how they want to solve a problem and can be resistant to a design process they see as unnecessary and overly structured. Finally, most people are busy but are unpracticed at estimating how much time something takes to complete; they tend to panic when they see work in clearly defined packages and want to ‘just get work done.

Linkedin Learning’s Workplace Learning Report 2021

Linkedin released their 5th annual Workplace Learning Report today. The findings are collected from Linkedin’s learning and development survey, completed by over 5,000 professionals across 27 countries.

65% of L&D pros have a seat at the exec table, up from 24% last year. This increase is mostly due to the need’s for remote working during the pandemic. 57% of L&D professionals say learning & development as moved from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘need to have’.

The focus of Learning and Development in companies in 2021 is upskilling and reskilling, with 59% of companies saying this is their priority. The need for new skills can be partly attributed to the digitalisation of many roles. According to the World Economic Forum, 85 million jobs will be displaced, and 97 million new jobs will be created globally by 2025 due to computing playing a larger part in many businesses. The pandemic has accelerated many companies plans for digitisation and the training staff to take advantage of the new technologies. Leadership and management (53%), Virtual onboarding (33%), and Diversity and inclusion (33%) are the other most common priorities. The two most essential skills are resilience and digital fluency to address the pace of change. 

The skills gap created by increase technology in the workplace has lead companies to focus more on internal mobility, giving employees extra motivation to engage in learning and development. 51% of UK companies now say that internal mobility is more important now that pre-pandemic. To support internal employee progression, 39% of L%D professionals are currently identifying skills gaps in their organisation, and 33% are developing tools to help develop programmes targeted at upward or adjacent moves of employees within the company. The report suggests that employees at companies with high internal mobility stay almost twice as long; an average of 2.9 years for low internal mobility companies and 5. years where internal mobility is high. 

Community is becoming a crucial part of learning programmes. At Linkedin learning’s internal programmes, learners who used the platform’s social features watched an average of 30 times more content. This mirrored in the feelings of Learning and Development professionals in the survey. 84% said that learning is more engaging when done with other people, 94% said that it is more successful, and 95% said it helps create a sense of belonging. 

Linkedin Learnings own programmes have seen a 58% increase in users in the last year to 25 million global users; each user is watching on average twice the number of hours. Generation Z, born between 1995-2010, are the top uses of Linkedin Learning, growing 2.5 times the number of users in this bracket, and they are watching 50% more hours.

The five most popular Linkedin Learning courses for learning and development professionals:

  1. Instructional Design Essentials: Models of ID by Joe Pulichino
  2. Articulate Storyline Essential Training by Daniel Brigham
  3. Instructional Design: Storyboarding by Daniel Brigham
  4. Converting Face-to-Face Training into Digital Learning by Daniel Brigham
  5. Measuring Learning Effectiveness by Jeff Toister

Finding a startup business model

Many startups fail because of a lack of research. Founders assume that customers want to pay for their product and scale before knowing their business model works. The ‘Growth at any cost’ approach encouraged in Silicon Valley has led to some spectacular collapses when a company’s business model has not been adequately tested before it scales. 

The most dramatic recent example of a startup scaling before it has a solid business model is WeWork. The office space startup launched in 2010, and by 2019, the company had an estimated value of $47 billion, helped by an $8 billion investment from Softbank. The company never made a profit but instead focused on a massive expansion of locations without learning if their model worked. The collapse came when they attempted to transition from startup to established company with an IPO in 2019. Potential investors got to look at its finances and compare WeWork to established and profitable real estate companies such as IWG.

A startup is not just a smaller company. Traditional product development ‘Waterfall’ methodologies work for existing companies with a known market and low tolerance for failure. A startup model with ‘agile’ product development is needed when you are unsure about what you’re selling and who you are selling to and need to repeat the design and development process many times until you find something that works.

Startup: A temporary organisation in search of a scalable, repeatable, profitable business model. Steve Blank

A startup is a company in search of a customer, product, and business model. The Customer Development Model can be used to make this search systematic and reduce the risk of failure.

The Customer Development Model

  1. Search Mode
    1. Customer Discovery – translate the startup’s vision into a testable business model hypothesis.
    2. Customer Validation – Test the business model for repeatability and scalability.
  2. Execution Mode
    1. Customer Creation – Establish the market, product position, and demand. 
    2. Company Building – grow the organisation to support executing the business model.

The Build-Measure-Learn Loop can be used in the Search Mode to learn from customer feedback when developing products and services. The build phase of the first iteration of the loop creates the simplest customer-ready product known as a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

Minimum Viable Product: The version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort. Eric Ries

The Build Measure Learn Loop

  1. Build a product from a plan
  2. Measure the product to generate data
  3. Learn from the data to create the next plan

A company should validate their business model and customer before any significant money is spent in the Execution Mode. If the business model hypothesis fails, the startup can pivot to a new idea until a scalable business model is found.