‘Version One is better than Version None’ – in conversation with David Nour, author of ‘Co-create’
It is important to not just understand customer journeys, but to co-create solution experiences with them, as this best-selling author explains.Madanmohan Rao
David Nour is Founder of the innovation and leadership consultancy Nour Group. The company’s website has a number of downloadable tools such as the Co-Creation Canvas and Customer Experience Journey. His most recent book is Co-Create: How Your Business Will Profit from Innovative and Strategic Collaboration (see my book review here). His other books are Relationship Economics, ConnectAbility, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Raising Capital, and Return on Impact.
The author shows how co-creation should happen internally, across organisational silos, as well as externally between a company and its customer, business partners, industry members, investors and even media. Co-creation is a journey to a transformative business model and culture; it is more than a partnership, alliance, transaction or event.
David joins us in this chat on the importance of co-creation, customer experience journeys, the challenges startups face, new trends in innovation, and mindsets for tackling failure.
Edited excerpts of the interview:
YourStory: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new examples of co-creation you have come across?
David Nour: Most examples I’ve come across continue to be co-creation opportunities with customers. For example, DeWalt has a community of 10,000+ customers who provide insights into their needs, while DeWalt gathers product, packaging, and marketing feedback.
Lego Ideas gets its community of active users to vote on their creations, which ultimately become products that Lego sells worldwide. DHL hosts Innovation Workshops with customers in Singapore and Germany; Parcelcopter, a delivery drone concept could change its business model dramatically.
Unilever’s Open Innovation is a well-known effort to partner with startups, academia, designers, and individuals to identify critical needs and co-create solutions from the community. Lastly, Launch Forth is a cool environment that I’m fascinated by.
YS: What is your current field of research in innovation?
DN: I am spending a lot of time and effort thinking about the future of work and the intersection of strategic relationships. In Co-Create, I wrote about the Hollywood Talent Model where few people actually work for an organisation (the studio in that case), and yet, they come together from a vast array of deep domain expertise (behind and in front of the camera) around a common mission or vision (could also be an enemy), and accomplish an outcome over a 2-3 year period.
The only future job security anyone has in that industry is the quality of their work, and the breadth and depth of their relationships! I’m starting to see more of that in our companies, where you don’t have to be an employee to create huge impact, and more and more people care less about the business card you carry than they do the outcomes you create.
Separately, I’m fascinated by MARS (Machine learning, AI, Robotics, and Space), in how they will all impact the future of work and how we live and play.
YS: What are the most common reasons people confuse co-creation with collaboration? How can these perceptions be overcome?
DN: Great question. I believe that collaboration for the sake of collaboration is often a waste of time. We do a lot of collaboration today with little to no results. Co-creation is all about outcomes and results.
We are going to create something together where (a) neither one of us could get there alone, (b) the end result is dramatically stronger than anything we could have created on our own, and (c) we will have equal parts commitment, communication, and compensation into both the journey as well as the destination.
Collaboration also seems to be episodic (with a definitive start and stop), whereas we see co-creation as an ongoing, living, breathing effort. The only way to overcome these perceptions is to begin from a solid and strategic relationship foundation.
It will be very difficult to “co-create” with complete strangers or those with whom you only have a transactional relationship. Real and lasting co-creation can only come from those who have already established a solid base of trust, commitment, and mutual demonstrated vested interest.
YS: What are your findings with respect to co-creation by government or non-profit organisations?
DN: I don’t work in the government sector, so can’t cite any there. My perception is that due to the sheer bureaucracy involved in so many government entities, it would be difficult to think and lead differently for many.
In the non-profit sector, I am optimistic about hearing American Cancer Society launching a venture fund to back startups who are tackling strategic cancer treatment innovations, if not disruptions. Our Health NXT peer roundtable of health practitioners, executives, entrepreneurs and investors, along with our fund to likewise, back seed-stage ventures is an interesting test lab at the moment as well.
YS: What are the typical challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their company from a startup to a mature company?
DN: There are so many: smart capital; attracting and retaining the right talent both when the business needs them, as well as it its various life stages; gaining market validation (paying customers); the entrepreneurs understanding their fundamental strengths and where they need to shore up those strengths with other leadership competencies and an advisory if not a fiduciary board.
In terms of addressing these challenges, it is critical that the entrepreneurs think of their startup in terms of lifecycle phases: formation, validation, and scale. In formation, they have to fundamentally focus on proving the business model - are they solving a real problem and are they focused on the willingness and ability of the right buyer profile to pay them for it.
In validation, it is all about customer acquisition beyond the initial few - ideal if the startup expands geographically or across multiple product/service lines to validate the market-product-need fit. In scale, it is all about critical mass. You need very different skills, capabilities, mindset, skillsets, and resources in each phase.
YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?
DN: In 2019 and beyond, it is all about adapting - I don’t necessarily think the two points above are diametrically opposed or there should be a trade-off between the two. If the innovator has a vision, I believe the only way they will get there is to adapt to various headwinds and market turbulence, while leveraging the tailwind to accelerate getting there.
YS: Who are some of the co-creators you admire the most today, and why?
DN: Dr. Jim Kim, former President of the World Bank, and his life’s mission to eradicate poverty; Alan Mullally, former CEO of Ford, for co-creating the turnaround of an American icon; and Jeff Bezos, with the multitudes of markets he’s disrupting.
And of course you can’t ignore Elon Musk; he’s brilliant in how differently he seems to think about MARS (Machine learning, AI, Robotics, and Space) and so many co-creators he has worked with to extend his reach and the outcomes he continues to create.
YS: How would frameworks of frugal innovation and lean startup connect with your framework?
DN: Resources (time, effort and capital) are a luxury; when they are seen as scarce (my definition of frugal), innovators will do anything not to waste them. Lean is all about agility, speed and iteration. Co-create is about iteration-innovation-disruption and adapting to constantly different needs.
I think of all of them as tools in a leader’s toolkit to apply at the right time, with the right relationships, to get unstuck. Think of it as the various models we have seen in strategy or change management - they often lead to similar outcomes, just very complementary and with different paths to get there.
YS: It’s one thing to fail with a product, and a bigger dimension to fail with a company. How should innovators regroup in these two situations?
DN: Mature companies in mature industries are perfect execution boxes; it is very difficult for them to innovate. It is ideal if a visionary executive identifies a series of low-hanging fruits to tackle for innovation opportunities in pilots and prototypes to gauge their full potential, preferably outside of the company.
Also, within the company, I have learned that if failures are seen as learning moments, they are much more constructive, productive, and forward-thinking in moving the company ahead. I am a big believer in failing fast, failing forward, and failing cheap. That is a lot easier to do with a product or a service.
YS: How was your book received? What were some of the responses and reactions you got?
DN: Very well, thank you. Co-Create is increasingly getting into more people’s vernacular. They realise that in the future, they cannot succeed going at it alone and that they must evolve to remain relevant – as individuals, as a team, and as an organisation.
As such, audiences are very receptive to co-creation as a strong enabler of that evolution. Some of the stronger responses have been to the Customer Experience Journey, Strategy Visualisation, and Storytelling as a new leadership and corporate competency, and the Co-Create Canvas. Readers are trying some of the ideas in the book and are finding its practical, pragmatic nature to be refreshing and impactful.
YS: What new projects or initiatives are you working on now? What are the challenges and opportunities you face as an innovation and strategy consultant?
DN: In our core business of speaking, consulting, coaching, and executive education, I have seven more books in my head; I just need an extra 24 hours in each day for the team to research the key ideas that I am fascinated by and want to pursue for us to be able to intelligently write about them.
Our Cohort Community is focused on attracting world-class consultants, speakers, authors, advisors, and trainers to join us to overcome some of the fundamental flaws in our current business model: not scalable, episodic, and active income.
So we are trying a very different talent model there. I wrote about the Hollywood Talent Model in Co-Create and we are actually applying it to stress test those flaws with business models that are the anti-thesis of them.
For example, Health NXT is focused on innovation in the siloed, stifling, outdated healthcare ecosystem. We are trying to attract health practitioners, executives, entrepreneurs, and investors willing to think and lead differently in this evidence-based industry that is badly broken.
International Meeting Managers (IMM) is another one of our divisions that we are transforming into Immersive Memorable Moments with learning expeditions. Our challenge there is to co-create a compelling story that we can get in front of the right mindset buyers. All great, all really exciting, just not enough hours in the day!
YS: Do you also invest in startups or mentor them? What are your findings in this space with respect to ability to co-create?
DN: We invest in health tech startups from our Health NXT Fund. I unfortunately don’t mentor startup founders as I have found them to be unable or unwilling to invest in real coaching/mentoring (unless they are well funded and their investors realise the value).
What I do see with startups is that they are so focused and determined to solve the market problem they are after with brute force, that the finesse of co-creation eludes them. There are also intellectual property challenges that get in the way of real innovation between two organisations.
Lastly, I learned years ago that Startup + Startup = Zero. It is ideal if startups can co-create a new vision with a more established organisation that already has a strong market validation.
YS: What is your next book going to be about?
DN: As mentioned earlier, I have seven more in development at various stages. Books typically take three-four years in my head to fully bake. At some point, you have read, researched, spoken, consulted, coached, talked about a topic sufficiently enough that you feel like you have something to say.
I am fascinated by a number of challenges and opportunities I see in the market. I am currently reading a lot and having some fascinating discussions with thought-leaders around the future of work and the intersection of our strategic relationships. I am really curious why so many senior executives who have accomplished a great deal are suddenly walking away from it all.
I still believe the exceptional customer experience journey has a lot to be discovered. I am intrigued by the closest of strategic relationships - those that superstar athletes, Hollywood A-listers, and the utmost senior execs surround themselves by. There is no shortage of fascinating ideas, but just enough hours for the research team to dig into them sufficiently, and a credible angle for us to explore a unique lens if not a narrative.
YS: What is your parting message to startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?
DN: I recently heard a fantastic definition for brilliant - something so obvious that no one has thought of before! Find an obvious market need and solve it. Stay focused. Surround yourself with bright, committed people who want to believe you today and believe in you as you execute.
Keep in mind that version one is better than version none, and progress trumps perfection every time! Good luck. We’re all cheering for you.