A few years ago the pioneering technologist Erik Hersman introduced me to an idea that I have since used in virtually all my teaching and consulting.

Addressing a group of senior managers in the car industry in Kenya, Erik said that their greatest breakthroughs were likely to come from "whitespace projects" - proactive employee-driven projects that fall outside of formal roles and responsibilities.

The three criteria for these projects when they start are: 

  1. Roles are undefined
  2. Strategy is unclear
  3. Budget is non-existent

"Whitespace innovators don't wait for funds, or supporters to get going on a project", Erik explained, "they start, and hope to attract the resources as the project gains momentum". This approach lowers the costs of failure, and concentrates resources on projects that have traction. 

Consistently innovative companies like Google, 3M, Atlassian, Ideo, Ogilvy, and more all make time for this kind of proactive experimentation, and in each of these companies you will hear about how many of their greatest breakthroughs have come from projects developed in the whitespace of their organisation. Employees are allowed a certain amount of time to work ideas that excite them, with the only requirement that they share the outcome of their work with the organisation. It can lead to a more engaged workforce, and a more agile organisation. 

An organisational chart, where the blocks represent formally defined roles and the lines represent formally defined relationships and hierarchy.

An organisational chart, where the blocks represent formally defined roles and the lines represent formally defined relationships and hierarchy.

Finding Whitespace

If we look at an organisational chart, the formally defined roles and responsibilities are inked in neat black lines of reporting. We call the gaps between those lines, which is what actually fills most of the organisational chart, "Whitespace". 

Whitespace is unpredictable, chaotic, and creative. And so as companies grow, it seems necessary to fill in all the whitespace - to replace it with policies, procedures, rules, and regulations to control it. For a while this can improve productivity, reduce costs, and increase predictability in the business. But as we so often see with over-regulated organisations, it can also become stifling - resulting in a demotivated workforce, a decreased ability to respond to threats and opportunities, and ultimately, mediocrity. 

While it is the manager's role to deal with blackspace, it is the leader's role to deal with whitespace. Whitespace is where company culture lives and where the interesting and unexpected stuff happens. It is the space in companies where we are allowed to make autonomous decisions, to be leaders in our own way, and to tinker and experiment, to tackle a problem or pursue an opportunity. Leaders need to protect it, and encourage a culture in which the whitespace is used to the benefit of the company.

The Whitespace story of BRCK

An early BRCK prototype. Rough and ready. 

An early BRCK prototype. Rough and ready. 

That Erik Hersman happened to be the person who introduced this concept to me is not really surprising. Erik has an incredible track record of founding innovative companies and projects that inspire technologists around the African continent and help the world think about African innovation differently. 

His most recent startup, BRCK, grew out of one of Africa's most admired software companies, Ushahidi, which he also co-founded. I asked Erik for the backstory. 

"BRCK was actually a whitespace project within Ushahidi. It had no funding for the first 9 months, no real buy-in from anyone besides me - or at least, not enough for anyone to commit to doing anything on it -  and we had no real idea what it would become".

Even though the idea started without funding, the early protypes of BRCK started costing money, and Erik ended up drawing a total of around $2500 from Ushahidi's operational budget to pay for parts. This is a paltry amount considering the level of funding many tech startups demand before they're prepared to even start working on a product.  

About 9 months and several prototypes later, Erik was confident that the BRCK could be a great product and he was ready to get the next level of funding. "We had an Ushahidi board meeting where they asked 'what is Ushahidi doing that is new and interesting?', to which I pulled out a BRCK v4 [see image] and put it on the table, and said 'this'." The prototype was impressive, and the board immediately unlocked a further $30k for the next version of the product, which in turn raised $172k on Kickstarter.  

One last piece of advice for would-be whitespace innovators from Erik: "Traction is more important than anything. People say 'ask forgiveness, not permission'.  This is true, but only if you have traction to ask forgiveness on". 

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AuthorDave Duarte
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Social Media channels are full of opportunities to connect with people who can help you along personally and professionally. But just like in the real world, the trick to good networking online is being aware of the other person’s needs and being clear about how you can add value in return.

There is a misconception that the key to social media is having lots of connections. Time and again the most influential people online remind us that it isn’t the number of connections you have, but how engaged they are. To put it another way: it is better to be the best connected that the most connected. 

Jared Leto Influence.jpg

So what can you do differently? Well, rather than putting all your effort into building new connections online (or growing your following) rather find ways to add value to your existing connections. Share articles that you think they’d find interesting, respond to their public updates on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest or whatever network best suits your goals.

If you do this, you’re much more likely to get people responding to you when you decide to put your thoughts and ideas out there. And so, as if by magic, your network starts to grow as more people see that it is worthwhile to be connected to you on social media. 

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AuthorDave Duarte

What if Advertising wasn't something you saw, but something you used? 

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The first phase of digital marketing was about display advertising online. Then marketers started using search and social data to target that advertising more precisely. That’s where most advertisers currently are. What comes next is that targeting is hopping off the screen and into the lives of consumers, from smart phones to smart things. Digital marketing is getting real. 

We mostly experience the internet through our various screens - computer, mobile phone, tablet, and TV. But  besides screens there are many other input and output formats for the internet. For example, using a web connected plug you can turn home appliances on or off in response to some online event - like your first tweet of the day, for example. The “Internet of Things” is what we’re talking about here. And it’s really exciting for marketers and consumers alike. 

For example, I recently started using the FitBit Flex step counter. It’s a bracelet with a motion tracker in it that connects to the internet. I use it to track my daily activity and compete with other friends who use the device. This is pretty cool, but what is even cooler is that I also earn Vitality points with my health insurer, Discovery, based on my daily FitBit step count. Discovery also have a tracker on my car that tells them precisely how well I drive. Now, I don’t open much commercial email, but because the emails Discovery sends me contain personal data based on the way I live and act in the world, I don’t hesitate to open that mail every time. I don’t want email, I want me-mail! 

Shopperception does in-store behavioural analytics. 

So already we can see how valuable personalised consumer databases can be in marketing, and many companies are getting into social media for that very reason. But one of the most common questions anyone who works in social media gets asked is “what is the value of a Facebook Like”? Well, I suspect that retailers will soon be able to calculate that figure precisely. Facebook already uses facial recognition technology that can identify when a picture of a person is posted.  How long until retailers have cameras connected to Facebook’s facial recognition database? It is only a matter of time before we can start tracking individual shopper behaviour from social network to store. 

The reigning champions of consumer data collection, Google, are also investing in creating physical objects connected to the web - cars, glasses, and now a debit card. The Google Wallet card will be able to deliver shopper incentives at the point of purchase, as well as give consumers and marketers useful data about how they shop. They could, for example, find out if you go and make a purchase after seeing an online ad they showed you. 

Besides these rather serious data-driven examples, I love how ad agencies are using connected objects to bring advertising to life. I enjoy following the Joburg Zoo’s “Live Tweeting Badger” that uses web-connected sensors to send tweets based on what the badger is doing at that moment. I was also amazed by the British Airways billboard that connects to flight and weather data to point out where visible planes in the sky are headed to. 

This is a new form of advertising that brings together Marketing and Making. Agencies like R/GA, Inventionist and South Africa's ThingKing are leading the way. If Marketing is getting closer to IT through the web, then this new form will also bridge the gap between Marketing and the heart of the business - its products, services and operations. 

So rather than virtualising more, the big trend to look out for in 2014 will be all the cool ways that the internet is used to make real-world objects smarter. For marketers the challenge will be to use this in ways that benefit consumers and improve the way people shop rather than simply creating more clutter. And we can finally move from interrupting what people are interested in, to being what people are interested in. 

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AuthorDave Duarte
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