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Blockchain and Design Sprints: Complex Problems Need Structured Approaches

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A Fresh Tilled Soil & BTblock Collaboration

Is Blockchain An Appropriate Technology For Today’s Product or Application Problems?

Given the recent volatility in the crypto space, there is a growing sense that the underlying distributed ledger technology (DLT), or blockchain, is poorly understood and possibly too complicated to be considered an appropriate solution for today’s problems.

It has been our experience that blockchain can be an ideal solution when the problem is well understood. Failing to understand the problem and forcing the solution, however elegant it might be, on the customer is never going to work. In this critical regard, blockchain is no different from any other technology.

To value any technology you must first understand the customer problem you’re solving.

This is where the Design Sprint comes in.

Created as a tool to separate assumptions from facts, the Design Sprint is an ideal bedfellow to blockchain technology. Blockchain solutions will not solve all problems. Applying the rigor of the Design Sprint problem identification gives you the confidence to decide which bets to place instead of guessing.

McKinsey’s Matt Higginson describes the current situation, “Organizations must start with a problem. Unless there is a valid problem or pain point,
blockchain likely won’t be a practical solution”.

“Also, Occam’s Razor applies”, adds Higginson, “It must be the simplest solution available. Firms must honestly evaluate their risk-reward appetite, level of education, and potential gain. They should also assess the potential impact of any project and supporting business case”.

Let’s discuss how to determine the relevance or appropriateness of DLT in applications and products.

Are We Forcing A Sophisticated Solution On A Simple Problem?

In 2018 we saw companies and media outlets preaching this technology as the holy grail for all industries so in a sense, yes, there were firms forcing a sophisticated solution on a simple problem. Caution is justified. However, with the right use case, the application of DLT is certainly the best technology for the problem.

A recent MIT Technology Review article (“In 2019 Blockchains Will Become Boring”) made a very salient point about the future of DLT. “After the Great Crypto Bull Run of 2017 and the monumental crash of 2018, blockchain technology won’t make as much noise in 2019. But it will become more useful.” In our opinion, this speaks to how in the year(s) ahead, pundits will stop hyping blockchain up and instead focus on where it makes sense for DLT deployment.

Does Your Organization Need A Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT)?

To borrow a consulting term, maybe. If you’ve read the countless articles from the past 12 months you’re probably aware of all the advantages that DLT has to offer for dozens of industries: streamlining supply chains, cutting out the middleman, “millions” in cost savings, greater transparency, increased security and oh so much more.

However, while these selling points definitely make this technology appealing and worth investigation, let us be clear, not everyone needs a DLT implementation in their business. The first necessary step to make on your quest for the DLT “holy grail” is to evaluate via the following decision tree whether your business is a candidate for a DLT implementation. The one below is simple and should be used as a good guiding point to help you answer fast the most crucial question: “Do I need to be looking into this?”.

A decision path explaining when to use block chain technology

Specific Non-Crypto Applications

While Bitcoin and cryptocurrency may have been the first widely known uses of blockchain technology, BTblock addresses a wider spectrum of use cases for DLT implementations.

Supply Chains

“One of the main applications where we see DLT as having the greatest impact is with Supply Chains”, says Brian Gale, Partner at BTblock. “Take recent salmonella outbreaks that halted to the romaine lettuce market as an example. A DLT platform combined with other technologies (i.e. IoT sensors) could be a game changer for pinpointing the origin of a tainted head of lettuce”.

Walmart and Carrefour, two leading global food distributors, are using IBM’s Food Trust to solve such a problem. The impact of having an immutable shared ledger that tracks the entire supply chain of a perishable food product has profound ramifications for food safety, decrease in waste (viz., think about how much romaine was wasted while they worked this out), reduction in paperwork, reduced delays in delivery and a host of other benefits for both farmers, distributors, and final consumers.

Customs and Border Control

Another great example is the digital supply chain of global trade. Maersk, one of the world’s largest global container shipping companies, partnered with IBM to create TradeLens. Using blockchain smart contracts, TradeLens enables digital collaboration across the multiple parties involved in international trade. The benefits from a blockchain application in global supply chains range from the opportunity for reductions in transit time, paperwork errors, reduce steps for tracking shipments to the potential to save millions of dollars annually.

Despite some early pessimism, the TradeLens project started in 2019 with promising news after Saudi Arabia concluded a pilot scheme linking its cross-border trade platform FASAH with TradeLens. Also, Canada’s Border Agency announced also revealed it would pilot TradeLens to streamline its own customs procedures with Port Authority of Valencia in Spain.

BTblock leverages Design Sprints to understand problems facing companies that are moving vast amounts of material and data across their supply chains. When these companies choose to create greater market transparency with reduced complexity and lower costs, there is a serious consideration for using distributed ledger technology.

Practical Approaches To Establishing Readiness

The Design Sprint Hybrid Model

Our approach takes the traditional Design Sprint five-phase methodology and adds blockchain subject matter experts to the team of key stakeholders from within the client organization. By adding the blockchain domain experts, we’re able to answer DLT questions while the Design Sprint is running — think about it as embedded research. We call this the Design Sprint Hybrid Model. This model, lead by an objective facilitator, allows our clients to identify areas of opportunity that address organizational challenges through the lens of DLT. The Design Sprint process puts a premium on answers so it’s inherently practical by nature.

The process is also very tangible. Because the Design Sprint emphasis is on prototyping and validation we will often have numerous POCs underway that then lead to a product pilot. This way teams can quickly validate, or invalidate, an idea and move on to the next stage.

In a recent collaboration between Fresh Tilled Soil and BTblock, we worked to find a way to track and verify data through an extended supply chain. Knowing the status and condition of every product on your supply chain from raw materials to distribution is critical. In this case, blockchain’s immutable ledger is a natural fit. However, with any new technology, a necessary comfort level first needs to be achieved.

Don’t Ignore The Feasibility Questions

We want to caution readers that a Design Sprint doesn’t answer all questions. To evaluate any type of technology, product or solution for an organization, it’s important to answer these three questions first:

  1. Is it cost-effective to implement?
  2. Will it help you meet your business goals?
  3. Does it improve on existing business processes?

While a Design Sprint can answer questions of desirability, you’ll need to also answer these above questions, which focus on viability and feasibility. Long-term sustainability cannot be answered exclusively by a Design Sprint, hence these questions.

Besides the three questions above, when bringing any technology to market, ease and simplicity of use are of the utmost importance. User experience matters. Think back to the last time you downloaded an app and a clunky interface forced you to abandon it. Trying to force a technology that is confusing will bring with it resistance among users to adopt or change previous behavior.

Having worked on more than 700 products over the last 14 years, we’ve seen hundreds of examples of companies bringing products to market that succeeded in tackling a pain point, but failed at delivering a product that people wanted to use or pay for. If we succeed in creating solutions that solve real user problems, the technology will deliver on its promise.

Pairing Expertise With A Prototype Mindset

Design Sprints act as a catalyst to bring the right people in the room and build consensus around the potential application. There’s a structured quid pro quo in these sessions. Each expert brings value that when applied to the scientific approach results in a 1 + 1 = 3 outcome. The blockchain experts generally will not have the same level of domain expertise as the client to apply DLT to a complex manufacturing process and the client domain experts cannot simply study up on blockchain and then apply it to their situation.

Having both blockchain/DLT and domain experts in the room enhances the chances of producing a substantial implementation that will engage end users and
drive adoption.

The Blockchain or DLT is a complex concept. It is not something that can be easily worked through by the right team in a one or two-hour meeting. Even the best group of experts need time to analyze, explore, critique and prototype a working concept. For example, in our kickoff Design Sprint with BTblock we spent extra time on day two examining how it would work to apply blockchain to a process where there are multiple rounds of batching in a supply chain and source traceability is a challenge. When we tested the concept with stakeholders they informed us that this was the challenge that had stopped others in the industry from doing something similar but when presented with the concept that was developed in the sprint, they saw a path forward that had not been there before. Hybrid Model Design Sprints facilitate these sorts of breakthroughs.

Prototyping and testing is a critical step in the Design Sprint process because it allows stakeholders to imagine a specific possible solution applied to their problem. Blockchain prototypes, specifically, allow validating stakeholders to quickly conceptualize a rather complex solution and also see the “What do I get?” with a tangible example. The testers in the Design Sprint described above not only expressed interest in gaining access to real-time data but began to imagine how access to this data would have a direct positive impact on other areas of business.

Note from one of our facilitators: “There is often a skeptic on the client team. It could be someone who has been at the company for many years and knows the business and the stakeholders well. This person is often concerned that five days isn’t enough time to achieve the outcomes the client is seeking. If the Design Sprint is well executed, then by the end of Day 2, even skeptics will make a point of coming back into the room and will be deeply invested in the process and outcomes”.

The Customer Breaks The Tie

In conclusion, we’re excited to see Blockchain gain some traction while reminding readers that it’s not a panacea for all problems. The most encouraging trend we see comes not from the supply side, but from consumer demand. Despite cryptocurrency volatility, a new report by a blockchain-focused research company, Clovr, asserts that there has been a spike in people using cryptocurrencies to send remittances. This growth is in part due to the high costs incurred when using more traditional methods to make cross-border transfers. We anticipate similar demand-side adoption in other industries soon, especially given the potential advances in safety, security, and privacy that DLT can enable, all qualities customers rightly prize.

When product leadership decides whether to invest in new technology, they have to consider the customer. If the customer desires the technology, then every effort should be made to determine feasibility. This desirability, however, does not confer feasibility. Product leaders should be quick to abandon applications where there is no incremental value. In many industries, the necessary collaboration may best be undertaken with reference to the ecosystems starting to reshape digital commerce. If they can do all that, and be patient, blockchain has tremendous potential to emerge as Occam’s right answer.

BTblock is a blockchain & cybersecurity consultancy firm founded by seasoned entrepreneurs who have a strong track record of creating value through the building and sale of successful businesses. BTblock enables ideation, validation, implementation, and bringing new innovations to market.

Fresh Tilled Soil, was the first company to apply the Design Sprint process to Enterprise level problems with Intel’s RealSense Technology. Today we support companies like FedEx, Keurig, LendingTree, and Tripadvisor through product discovery, user experience, and interface design processes. We’re excited to see DTL technologies added to the current mix of market-changing innovations.

Authored by Jill Starett, Brian Gale, David Garrity, Tammy Kahn, and Richard Banfield.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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