What we think
It’s time to start running legacy organizations like the upstarts that challenge them.
Tesla is the fastest-growing stock in the automotive industry, has the safest car ever tested, and is run by a software engineer. Apple's profit-per-employee is 2.5 times higher than Microsoft’s. The five-year-old start-up AirBnB is threatening the hospitality industry. Centuries-old educational institutions are moving to Coursera, a massive open online course platform. Square is upending the multi-billion-dollar point-of-sale industry. Amazon's market cap is 3 times Target's in spite of the fact that Amazon operates at a loss.
Something is up.
In the face of this disruption, established corporations are trying to overcome decades of organizational gravity weighing them down and preventing them from competing effectively. They are slow when they need to be agile. They are measured when they need to be bold. They are fail-proof when they need to be adaptive.
They don't have to be that way.
We believe that every organization can live up to these standards by adopting a new way of working. Like the operating system that runs your mobile phone, companies need an upgraded organizational operating system that's designed for a digital world.
Over six years of working with leadership teams at startups and end-ups alike, we've found that this shift in practices can best be understood through five nested domains:
These Ps are already present in legacy operating systems. Most companies have a People department or function, Processes they employ, even a core Purpose or mission, and all have Products or services that they bring to market. The epiphany isn't that these domains exist, but rather, that the world’s fastest growing companies are approaching each one in a fundamentally different way from their predecessors.
In addition to examples from our own work, we look to a few beacons in our ongoing development of this System.
A sampling of companies with a digital operating system:
Undercurrent can help your company become a digital company.
We've been refining our methods, practices, and intellectual property for years to arrive at a set of remedies for common ailments, and we're actively seeking co-conspirators that want to create an ever better future with us. It’s a big job, but it begins with simple, proven first steps.
When you're getting on a spaceship, it’s important to know who’s getting on with you. Over the years, we've designed a daylong process that quickly establishes a shared vision of the future, an understanding of the things in our way, and a set of next steps that puts us on the path to transformation. We host these sessions at one of our many secret offsite locations around the world, or in our purpose-built workshop in Soho. Participants leave with a working knowledge of the Digital OS and some new muscles for strategy and prototyping.
Today, changes in what's possible create and destroy markets at hyper-speed. By the time you've managed to coordinate calendars and schedule your annual corporate strategy retreat, yesterday's emerging player has turned into tomorrow's reason that you're going out of business. Exaggeration? Sure. Except when it's not.
Undercurrent's approach to business strategy looks a lot more like agile product development than traditional long-term strategic planning. Just as a product team searches for product-market fit, so too must a strategy team search for validation of a way forward.
Determining where to play is the first step, during which we try to determine likely futures based on trends in habits, behavior, constraints, culture, competition, and the adjacent possible. Then we figure out how to play, examining the ecosystem of the industry, inclusive of startups and end-ups, to determine what choices, priorities, and objectives could result in an ever better future for our client and the community at large.
Opportunities – whether they be innovations, investments, partnerships, or acquisitions – are identified, concepted, and prototyped, in rapid collaborative sprints. We do whatever it takes to get to a clear articulation of where to go next, as quickly as possible. Because the faster you can start, the sooner you can validate your direction. In this age of strategy it's not about time to market, it's about time to proof.
Adopting a Digital OS is difficult, because legacy organizations have decades of muscle memory: people that prefer to manage rather than make, processes designed to reduce risk rather than find opportunity. Changing that overnight is impossible.
That's why we think about Digital OS almost like viral medicine. How can one small dose – designed to fit your DNA – take hold and begin to spread? We make this change possible by building and managing internal Digital Operating Units (DOUs). Inspired by skunk works and in the spirit of Spotify's squads, DOUs are small teams of three to ten people with unparalleled making skills. Like a new startup, they can quickly make hundreds of small bets at a scale where "failure" is simply the exhaust on the way to truly groundbreaking products and experiences. What's more, their speed and success becomes the flame that attracts other teams to a new way of working.
Shifting the work from partners to in-house, customer-facing employees can be an uncomfortable change. It can be scary. It can feel risky: at first blush, it seems costly and a proposition full of new liabilities. We manage that risk by sharing best practices across all our clients. What's working for one Fortune 100 might work for you too. Getting started with a DOU is a two-step process on the road to recovering agility, speed, and confidence.
We attract top-level talent and establish guidelines, operating agreements, and workspaces that allow world-class makers to do what they do best: rapidly improve interfaces and build experiences that earn their keep by consistently proving their value in the hands of customers.
We provide active daily management of the DOU, including product direction/management, user validation, team guidance, budget control, and adherence to the overall vision. We manage interactions with internal and external partners, and oversee all operations, including scaling up the team to double down on success or meet new challenges.
We conspire with some of the world's most interesting and influential organizations.
That said, we find almost every company fascinating when we pull back the curtain. We don't have a hard time getting out of bed to talk about Commercial Distribution Finance, and the same people that work on high fashion also work on hamburgers. But we're not here to convince; we choose to work with clients that already see the world changing around them, and want to eat it before it eats them.
Since 2009, across 45 engagements, Undercurrent has helped GE harness digital technology to transform its business, working toward a new organizational operating system that is fast, adaptive, and open.
Our projects span payments, marketing, product innovation, and customer service. With an emphasis on rapid iteration and unlocking user value, we're redefining the digital future of financial services.
For 3 years, we’ve worked with Sonic to put digital at the heart of the customer experience. From bespoke social software, to job specifications, to training, to budgeting, to content development, we've helped push their marketing department into the digital age.
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Working with the senior communications team, Undercurrent helped to design a strategic approach to developing an authentic and personal online presence for employees at all levels.
We have helped the world’s largest brewer embrace digital as a way to build customer engagement across channels – not just TV and on-premise – with particular emphasis on consumers’ mobile behaviors, app development, and open data.
We created an online brand strategy that enabled the historic luxury brand to re-establish its leadership role in the market, grow customer relationships, and expand into new international markets.
We worked with the leadership team at one of the most influential site networks to think through the future of their digital brand and the role it can play in hearts and minds of content creators and audiences.
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For almost seven years, Undercurrent has helped influential organizations transform in service of an ever better future. Our consulting practice promotes change through workshops, strategy, and our own brand of skunk works. Our ventures practice believes that startups and end-ups have much to teach each other, and helps to play a part in that transfer. We are an island of misfit toys – comprised of theorists, technologists, reformed corporate jockeys, ethnographers, hackers and planners. Join us.
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212 431 4808
Undercurrent’s organization is reflected in GlassFrog. It tracks its resources in 10,000ft. Its new business pipeline flows through Pipedrive. Email, calendars and files are kept on Google Apps and Dropbox with some help from Boomerang and Mailbox. Team conversations happen in HipChat. Flickr keeps our high-resolution photos and most of us use Twitter or Medium to share their thoughts. Our weekly newsletter is shipped on Mailchimp and this site is built using Squarespace. Our notes go on Post-its. Oh, and we’re all total geeks for Keynote.