Farmers talking with laptop

Four reasons why co-creating with your customers drives business performance

We’ve noticed that the past decades have seen a significant and positive shift in philosophy with product design and development. It used to be that entrepreneurs and designers would be reminding themselves of Henry Ford’s quip – “ If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” If in doubt, the product development team knew best – and through their own creative brilliance, they could deliver the best solutions.

Then came the focus on technology, with the oft-cited Skunk Works example. Engineers and product teams craved big budgets and siloed spaces, where they could deliver fast-paced and radical innovations to unleash on the market.

None of those philosophies are wrong – but we think they are both incomplete. And we’re encouraged to see more and more organisations and entrepreneurs recognising the power of bringing customers into the product design and development process from the earliest stages.

We see the impact of customer centred design at Rezare each week. So we’re encouraged to see the wave of articles giving the fantastic advice – go and develop with your customers. It’s good advice! When this advice is partnered with strong technological capabilities and agile processes – good things happen.

Many of the articles just conclude with an encouragement for you to go and talk to your customers. Go to their world. Meet them. Understand them.

But two key questions are often neglected:

  1. Why should we go and talk to our customers?
  2. How should we go about it?

In this blog, we’ll cover the first question – why is it important to go and talk to our customers?

At Rezare Systems, we’ve discovered four key reasons why designing meaningful interaction with your customers can drive fantastic product development.

  1. Your customers are the ones who will use the product.

    We know this sounds obvious – but it is deceptively easy to get so focused on your product, you forget about the people who are going to use it. The result? A focus on technology and design, and a product that may have all the latest features – but is incredibly difficult for your customers to use.

    And – the vast majority of the time – your product development team are focused on solving somebody else’s problem. Agritech firms are designing products to be used by farmers – and many the engineers aren’t farmers in their spare time. Left unchecked, this results in many assumptions – rather than a best-fit solution.

    Designing meaningful interaction with your customers as you develop brings them to the heart of your process, and reminds every member of your team that they are the ones who will use the product. This means their voice and their needs must be listened to and integrated into your product design.

  2. Designing with your customers increases your speed of development (and reduces wasted development time).

    If you work in product development – you know the importance of speed. It is essential the product gets to market as quickly as possible, without compromising your value proposition. The longer the product stays in development, the more expenses rise, and the greater stress this can place on cash-flow.

    One of the greatest threats to the development process is dead-end development. Each sunk labour-hour into developing features that don’t make it to launch is a costly endeavour, adding wasted time and resource to the development journey.

    When you bring your customer to the heart of your development processes, you don’t’ spend time building things that aren’t valuable. Instead, you only focus your development on features that you know are valuable and meet a real customer impact. How? Because your customer is with you, every step of the way.

  3. Co-design identifies little moments that lead to big success.

    At Rezare Systems we like to explore hinge moments. These are the seemingly-small discoveries about the users’ problem and process, that result in big success when integrated into the product.
    Most products live and die on small moments of value – which we only discover when we’re interacting with our customers along the journey.

    Case in point – one online marketplace was seeking to redesign their interface. They involved customers for the journey, and discovered a meaningful insight – customers like to buy products when they can receive instant answers to their questions or offers from the buyer. In short – they want velocity to their communication.

    So, the marketplace decided to add a small little feature. Each listed item had a little indicator that would also show if the seller was online. This would mean that any questions or offers would be responded to faster.

    The result with this little tweak? 4% more contact by users, 10% more contacts using the chat function, and an increase in revenue for the company.

    Discovering these hinge moments can be critical to the success of your product, and trying to find them without your customer’s input is like spitting in the dark.

  4. Designing with your customers builds trust and loyalty

    Bringing customers into the product design process sounds scary. What if their – or our – ideas are bad? What if we can’t solve their problems? What if we discover that our current solutions aren’t great solutions?

    All of these things can happen. However, research from the Delft University of Technology in Holland highlighted that co-design with your users results in higher loyalty between your customers and your company – regardless of the result of the journey.

    In short – users enjoy being involved in designing the products they are going to be using. They appreciate their wisdom and experience being drawn on, and often they enjoy seeing the inner-workings of your company.

    We’ve found forming these relationships with a range of users often results in ongoing insights – as they provide feedback on problems and products long after any formal communication. They talk to their friends about their experience, and often look forward to the next engagement

We believe the above four reasons are compelling enough for you to consider moving to co-design with your users. 

But – how do you do that?

Our next blog post will provide you with six key actions for designing powerful conversations that deliver meaning and value for your product design process – and a great experience for your users. In the meantime, if you have any questions about designing with the customer in mind, and how this might help with your idea, product or service – get in touch with us here.

Going round in circles

I’ve just finished refilling my Ecover washing up liquid bottle at work. Here in our shared office facilities our landlord is trying to get us all to go green and so has invested in a large returnable drum of Ecover from which we can all recharge our plastic bottles and avoid yet more plastic into land-fill.

My eco-crusade doesn’t stop there. In the past month we’ve stopped buying milk from the supermarket and I’m now popping into our local dairy farm on the way home and refilling glass bottles from their state-of-the art milk dispensing machine (at twice the price I might add).

Now I haven’t done the carbon calculations on any of this but what I do know is the amount of plastic we are getting through as a family has reduced significantly with just these two simple changes in habit.

At a time when Greta Thunberg is making waves across the Atlantic (literally) and movements like Extinction Rebellion are on the front pages, we simply cannot ignore the fact that the planet is in crisis.

So what does this mean for agriculture?

Those who have far better crystal balls than I do are suggesting that the future of business and the economy will be in what’s known as Circular Design. Unlike our current linear way of living (design, consume, throw away – or at best recycle), Circular Design is based on the rationale of there being no more waste, only the recycling of nutrients with a goal of arresting resource depletion and exploitation. Global sailing icon Ellen MacArthur is one of the big names leading the charge.

If the recycling of nutrients and a sustainable approach to our use of natural resources is the ambition, then agriculture must be central to the mission. And that’s the bit as someone in the agtech sector that excites me.

In an increasingly data-driven world, the opportunities for machine learning and AI to help us rethink the way we do things are growing by the day. As producers of food we are already seeing the norms of food production being challenged – impossible burgers, vertical farming and insect protein to name three. Whether these are truly “circular” I can’t say but they do signal the start of a revolution that is challenging what the farming sector has done for generations – and to traditionalists it feels uncomfortable.

But the truth is there isn’t a future in comfortable. We have such an existential crisis in an environmental sense that the rule book must be ripped up and those that tear the hardest are likely to win out.

To me that means adoption of smart, data-driven tech is an obligation not a privilege. It means we need to start collecting data on farm as a matter of urgency to begin to understand the complex dynamics of food production and resource use, and to deploy the best minds and technologies to redesign how we produce what we eat, how we consume it, and how we recharge the environment throughout this process.

We have such an existential crisis in an environmental sense that the rule book must be ripped up and those that tear the hardest are likely to win out.

Myriad projects could and should emerge that can establish the best production systems optimised by machines (sounds scary but isn’t) that calculate the “circularity” of the on-farm choices being made and that could be tied to market incentives for those that are indeed truly circular.

Imagine a future where data (privacy compliant of course) from your car, home and elsewhere is all linked up to the decisions you make about what you buy. In other words, the way in which you acquire and consume a product (food and non-food) is a dynamic calculation based on its own production history and your subsequent behaviours with it. Your “circularity” could become a badge of honour.

Governments the world over must incentivise the farming sector to make a step change. It is not good enough (in fact shameful) that something like 75% of the UK’s farmers do no electronic data recording at all. That might be fine to run an individual farm but it’s a collective disgrace when you look at the lost opportunity in a sustainability sense. Instrumenting farms and gathering good data is essential.

So as I take my refilled bottle of Ecover home via the milk dispensing machine, I can’t help but wonder what things will look like in five to 10 years from now. If it’s more of the same then we will all have failed. But if I and my children become more enthralled by sharing on social media how “circular” we are rather than obsessing about Snapchat streaks and Instagram likes, then that might suggest the tide has turned.

Or to put it another way, MacArthur won’t be the only one going round in circles!

Five reasons to attend Ag Innovations Bootcamp

The Ag Innovations Bootcamp returns October 1-2, 2019.  Hosted by Rezare and Fieldays Society, this bespoke training opportunity for New Zealand agricultural businesses offers a curated learning journey to grow your business capabilities.  The two-day bootcamp covers new product development, understanding your customers, business model development, creative problem solving and a whole lot more.

We know there’s no shortage of training opportunities out there, so you could be forgiven for wondering: “What’s so special about Ag Innovations Bootcamp?”

To answer that, here’s five reasons why attending the Ag Innovations Bootcamp will be one of the smartest investments in your innovation leadership and problem-solving capabilities.

  1. You will learn a valuable, value-added skill

    The Ag Innovations Bootcamp will teach you the fundamentals of the framework of Human Centred Design and Agile, and how the two frameworks integrate to create better customer-driven solutions at a faster rate of learning.

    These innovation frameworks are backed by rigorous research with innovation leaders IDEO and management consultancy McKinsey & Co each publishing their findings on the impact of embracing design into the heart of your organisation.

    Their insights? Companies pursuing design-thinking at the core of their business out-performed industry revenue benchmarks by over 100%; and design-driven organisations deliver a total return to shareholders 80% higher than industry benchmarks. Increasing their innovation capability using the model taught at Ag Innovations Bootcamp had the impact of increasing revenue and growing efficiencies, delivering a better end-user experience and a better business result for their organisations.

    In addition, research revealed companies utilising design-thinking de-risk their product development and increase their relationship with end-users.​ We want to stress this point – learning to innovate better is not about becoming riskier. It’s about seeking to de-risk your organisation by leading the charge towards the unknown future rather than reacting to changes that will head your way.

    Over the two days you’ll learn the fundamentals of these innovation processes, and gain a foundation to begin to implement these into your business.

    But it isn’t all theory, because…

  2. You will learn by doing

    Learning the theory of Human Centred Design and Agile is great – but you know what’s even better?

    Learning HOW to do it.

    Ag Innovations Bootcamp is built on the principle of Action Learning – we learn by doing, and we do by learning. Over the two days you will hear about case-studies, models, frameworks, tools and approaches and you’ll also be getting involved.

    You’ll be building things, interviewing people, refining problems, creating prototypes, pitching ideas, playing with canvases, practicing collaboration, iterating, clicking on new websites, downloading new apps, eating good food and learning together.

    It’s not two days of being talked at. It’s two days of listening, talking and doing – ensuring you are engaging with and trialling out the processes, not just hearing them.

    This means when you head home you’re going back as a beginning practitioner, as someone who has dipped their toes in the water of innovation and who can begin to adapt these frameworks to your own organisation.

    We want Ag Innovations Bootcamp to be an investment that makes a difference in your innovation leadership. That’s why we also create the space for Traction Conversations…

  3. You will apply your learnings back to your environment

    Ag Innovations Bootcamp is designed to pull you back to the space where the rubber meets the road. We have regular time for Traction Conversations – where you can question and wrestle with the application of your learnings with the expert facilitators in the room.

    Perhaps you’re questioning how the framework can be applied to your situation? Or you’re wondering how you can interview your end-users when they’re geographically diverse or don’t want to talk to you? Perhaps your management team doesn’t value innovation or you’re wondering whether this whole thing is just a fad?

    We don’t shy away from these conversations – we encourage them. It’s in these questions learning moments occur and we get to co-create together how these valuable frameworks can make a real-world difference in your context.

    The Rezare team connects every learning moment with your organisation and provides intentional space for you to voice your doubts and questions. This is where the magic happens and where we see the light-bulb moments really begin to spark.

  4. You will learn in a diverse community

    At the last Ag Innovations Bootcamp we were delighted with the diversity of our attendees. We had managers from agricultural banking services, developers from ag-tech start-ups, members of large industry bodies, with dairy, beef, sheep, deer and crops all represented.

    We love this. Why?

    Because in diversity, really good things happen.

University of Chicago sociologist Ron Burt’s seminal research explored this concept, mapping out the personal networks of a large electronic company and discovering who submitted the best ideas for improving the organisation.

His results were staggering. The most innovative ideas (as rated by the senior leaders) were thought-up by the managers who had the broadest networks. Managers who created ties across the organisation were most capable at generating new solutions and solving complex problems.

This was supported by research done by InnoCentive, the online innovation broker. When reviewing their InnoCentive success stories, they discovered that, on average, physicists were more likely to find solutions to chemistry problems than chemists and chemists were more likely to find solutions to biology problems than biologists.

At Ag Innovations Bootcamp, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with people from across the agriculture industry. You may be working with a scientist or an app developer from areas you’re unfamiliar with. That’s great – because as you work together and share together, you’ll start to unlock problems and see your business with a new set of eyes.

5. You will grow your toolbox

The strongest innovation practitioners have a solid understanding of innovation frameworks and an ever-growing innovation toolbox. These tools help them adapt to changing situations, facilitate new discoveries and add value across a range of business contexts.

At Ag Innovations Bootcamp, we guarantee you will learn a wide range of tools you can begin to use within your own context.

You’ll learn about new digital tools for capturing ideas, rapidly prototyping digital solutions, crafting beautiful presentations and mapping value. You’ll learn how to use familiar digital tools – such as Microsoft PowerPoint – to create rough testable website prototypes.

You’ll acquire new techniques for generating ideas from your team, engaging in meaningful conversations with your users, listening deeply to customers and ways to create powerful insights from the noise of data you collect.

Your toolbox will grow with new note-taking skills, physical prototyping practice and the ability to craft interview guides focused on discovery and connection.

These tools are clearly explained and then you are coached through the process of using them in context – allowing you to experience them in action and bring them back to your own work situation.
5.

The Ag Innovations Bootcamp provides opportunities for networking and enjoying the laughter and connection that comes with creating.  Our experienced facilitators give you space to bring other work questions to a team of experts.

If these five reasons have sparked your interest and you’re keen to begin developing your innovation skills click here to find out more about the Ag Innovations Bootcamp and register your attendance for October 1-2, at Mystery Creek.

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Time to demonstrate sustainable delivery of human nutrition

As the debate about the carbon footprint of livestock farming rages on, I was encouraged to hear a very persuasive presentation from Professor Michael Lee recently.

Michael heads up the team at UK-based Rothamsted Research’s North Wyke site, a world leading centre for farm-scale ruminant livestock production research.

In the past couple of years, North Wyke has had considerable investment in facilities to support its work and it really is an impressive mix of cutting edge science and pragmatic farming knowledge.

So what was Michael saying when it comes to global warming and livestock production? His argument is many of the figures being bandied about are an oversimplification of a complicated subject. But golly did he do a good job of distilling down the key points. It is true he suggested that when you look at simple measures for global warming potential (GWP) such as C02 equivalent/kg of meat product then the much maligned beef and sheep farming systems do fare rather poorly.

But does one kg of beef have the same nutritional value as a kg of chicken? The answer according to his analysis (actually that of his colleagues Graham McAuliffe et al. he respectfully conceded) is no. And here’s why:

Recommended daily intake

The North Wyke scientists have looked at the recommended daily intake (RDI) nutritional requirements of us humans and mapped this across the nutritional content of the different forms of meat (and systems) to produce a nutrient index based on 10 encouraged and two discouraged nutrients. Then they have compared the typical measure of C02 equivalent/kg of meat with a new measure of C02 equivalent/1% RDI and this rather turns some of the analysis on its head.

As the graph below shows, beef which performed rather poorly from a GWP perspective on the old measure (see top chart), comes out best on the new one. That is to say, for every % of RDI we need in our diet, beef production produces fewer kg of C02 than even chicken!

And while lamb might seem to be lagging even in the new analysis, by looking at arable land used to support the various livestock production systems, lamb does best with chicken again performing rather less well than ruminants on the RDI measure.

The point is not to crash the cause of UK poultry (or even pork) production but to point out that ruminant bashing doesn’t stack up on a RDI basis when measuring C02 equivalency. And while human consumption of plant-based products (as opposed to meat) might be even more sustainable, North Wyke’s work provides a strong argument for grass-based ruminant systems on non-arable land, and that’s even before all the negativities associated with potentially ploughing up swathes of pasture land for arable production and releasing tonnes of sequestered carbon.

So why as a technology provider am I interested in this? Well, if here in the UK rewarding farmers for preserving (even building) “natural capital” is going to become the big game in town, then we need some ways to measure it. Right now, to my knowledge, there isn’t a livestock recording software package out there that measures performance based on (for example) delivery of the human RDI index. This seems an enormous opportunity to start creating a tangible link between human nutrition (society), farm productivity (economy) and the environment through an empirically-based approach. Indeed, these were the three pillars of sustainability that Michael opened his presentation with.

Our own pureFarming livestock recording platform is already a feature-rich white-label tool for organisations helping farmers measure, record and monitor livestock performance but how much better could we make it if we added a new set of sustainability metrics to link on-farm production with the delivery of a healthy diet? That would be bringing farmers closer to meeting the needs of the consumer in a scientifically rigorous way.

I feel a project coming on! Anyone?

Talking with a farmer

How do you build empathy with your agricultural technology customers?

Customer Empathy will be well-known to anyone who has heard about design thinking. So too, for that matter, anyone who has attended an Ag Innovations Bootcamp. Customer empathy is fundamental to creating great design that meets people’s needs. So how do you do it?

Empathy or sympathy?

Often “customer empathy” can sound a bit soft and “fluffy”; and rural professionals won’t want us to “empathise” with them, will they?

It’s easy for us to mistake empathy for sympathy. Both words involve understanding.

  • Sympathy involves understanding emotional or physical hardships, and then offering comfort and assurance.
  • Empathy builds personal understanding of what others are feeling, and the ability to put yourself “in their shoes”.

Embrace what you don’t know

Design practitioners we work with exhibit a similarity – they cultivate a “relentless curiosity”.

You’ve experienced this yourself, with someone who took a deep and genuine interest in your work or hobby. They listened attentively and asked thoughtful follow-up questions. They made you feel as though you were the most interesting person on earth!

Too often, when we venture into the field to talk to customers, we try to validate our own thoughts. We are the experts. We ask questions to qualify the customer, and to quantify the value that our solution will offer.

But what if our intended solution is not what the customer needs? What if there is an opportunity for something even better and more interesting?

Prepared questions will help you start a conversation. Deep listening and genuine curiosity will help us learn more than we could imagine.

Many beats one, and one beats many

How many customers do you need to interview? Will one or two be enough?

It would be nice to think so. Interviews take time to arrange. They take a lot of time and energy to carry out, and they often involve much travel. You can’t usually interview agricultural workers on a city street with a clipboard.

If you interview too few people, it can be hard to distinguish the important from the frustration of the hour. We know that diversity is an essential to high performing teams and great decisions. Seeking diverse views will also help you to create better products or services.

Plan for at least five interviews. You should find both commonality and the breadth of variation between your interviewees.  If you’re finding great diversity (or your first interviews don’t fit your early adopter profile), you may need to find more.

If you need to interview that many, should you consider a focus group instead? Could you get a group of customers in a room or on a Skype call and make more progress?

We don’t recommend this.

Focus groups have a different dynamic to one-on-one discussions. They good for uncovering trends and areas of concern. Detailed insights into the jobs your customers are trying to do are less likely to surface.

Will all users share their experiences and frustrations in a focus group? You may only hear personal experiences from the extroverts. There’s also the risk of “group think”. People may agree with well-expressed comments from others, regardless of their personal experience.

Make the effort to interview customers as individuals, or at most in twos.

Go where they are

In our experience, there is some value in bringing farmers or rural professionals into a meeting room or board room. They are less prone to interruption, and you have more wall space for Post-It notes and diagrams.

Yet you miss seeing the actual environment where they work and will use your product or service. You may also miss the environmental influences that affect the tasks they are trying to do.

Being on the farm or in the customer’s work environment allows them to pick up equipment and show you how they use it. They can point and describe the flow of animals, the pressure of people and machines. You can observe the frustration of sunlight on displays.

Most important: when you bring an end user into the boardroom, they become an amateur designer. This might be valuable, but it also becomes easier to talk in general terms. You may map general processes and forget to delve into experience.

Go to where your customers and end users work. You’ll gain richer insights and higher fidelity than you ever could in the boardroom.

Do we really know what’s coming?

One of the questions I am often asked is: “How does farming in NZ compare with the UK”?

Right now I think it’s a slightly loaded question with all the Brexit talk – subsidies and all that. But in reality given the context of the question is usually in the knowledge I head up a UK-based subsidiary of an NZ agri-software business, what many are really asking is: “How will technology change what we are doing, and is NZ ahead of the UK”?

Now this is a harder question to answer. I guess at a high level I would say adoption of technology in the NZ dairy sector is some years ahead of the UK, but equally, there are big advances in UK arable and hort which one might say are further ahead than NZ. One thing I would say is that NZ farmers are, more typically, open to change and innovation and less wedded to the way it is.

But I think there is something bigger going on than simply comparing one country with another. Sure NZ is a focus for our sector just now because of the way it has, in a generation, turned itself into a very globally focused and innovative economy; one that tops the global rankings for ease of doing business (and one that I would say punches well above its weight, and that’s not just the All Blacks!). No. I think we are witnessing the early stages of an utterly transformative period in global agriculture.

And that’s why I ask the question: “Do we really know what’s coming?” By this I mean, how is technology (and maybe digital and data in particular) going to change the sector?

In short, from where I sit, I would say those of us in the tech world do have a good hunch about what’s coming and the potential impact it will have. But I am not at all convinced the “average farmer” (which is a horrid term) does.

To me it is inconceivable that a farming business (whether in the UK or elsewhere) will be in any way competitive without the use of data-driven decision support tools in the future. The level of accuracy and objectivity that data will deliver (and we are seeing this already) simply puts subjective observation in the second tier of good decision making.

That isn’t to say good husbandry and farming experience have no place in the future (of course they do – I know some brilliant, intuitive and innovative farmers) but those who apply that experience with the latest technological tools will become the Premier League while others languish in the lower divisions.

Give me an example I hear you cry? Ok! A couple of weeks ago I sat down with the CEO of an innovative dairy cow data capture company (based in the UK) that is effectively putting Fitbits on cows. The volumes of behavioural data they are collecting from those animals is now substantial. But it’s what they are doing with it that so impressed me.

By using clever algorithms to understand normal and outlier behaviour of animals they are achieving two great things. The first is the ability to provide alerts flagging animals that are not exhibiting typical behaviour. In other words, “go look at those ones, that’s where you should prioritise your time”.

But the second is what really excites me. Who’d have thought that by analysing cow behaviour data it would be possible to identify lameness, mastitis and other disorders days (even weeks) ahead of when the clinical signs might be observed? I don’t care if you are the best herdsman in the world, it is hard to compete with decision support from data that is identifying things well before they are ever observable by the human eye.

This “power” has the potential to transform the way we run our farms. The application of digital technology will not only potentially save time and labour, it will enable better focus on meeting market requirements, predicting and avoiding problems, and increasingly importantly, be able to provide a substantial evidence base to back and improve welfare standards and all sorts of other production areas currently under scrutiny.

But this future is a far cry from where many on our farms sit currently. Sure there are those that are the early adopters, but I think there is a large majority who simply don’t see this massive change coming, or if they do are in denial.

There are many analogies over the years of where technological change has been transformative and where at the time many did not see it coming: Henry Ford and so on. But it’s the sheer scale of change from tech-driven ag that I think we underestimate at our peril.

The upside is that all this talk of agriculture being a high-tech industry that our children and students should be enthused about is not just talk. It is absolutely true. The more we can find demonstrable examples of great (even cool) innovation, the better it will be for our farming sector, not only because we can farm better, but because we can also excite the right people into the industry.

In my 25-plus years in the ag world in the UK and NZ, never have I felt there is a better time and more opportunity for non-farming people to get involved in the industry, whether that’s in agribusiness, science or on the farm.

And if, as I suspect, we see a reasonably aggressive scaling back of direct farm support in the UK (assuming we Brexit!), that could open the door to a new generation of tech-driven farmers, unencumbered by the past and able to deliver from the potential of the land and associated technology alone. They will be the new competition.

Can’t see it coming? The iPhone is only a little over 10 years old. Things will look very different a decade from now in agriculture. That’s really not very far away. Are you on the train or is it leaving without you?

New grass establishment

#EvokeAg – Making the agritech ecosystem visible and discoverable

We recently attended and exhibited at EvokeAg, the new agrifood international technology event specifically for the food and farming community hosted by AgriFutures Australia.

EvokeAg brought together more than 1100 attendees from across the Australian and wider agriculture and agritech industries, including 100+ attendees from New Zealand and a substantial contingent from Israel. The event featured over 100 speakers from 20 countries, but importantly there was opportunity for all participants to share and be involved.

What was big?

Presenters, panels, exhibitors, and discussions covered a wide variety of topics. A few themes emerged:

  • The start-up and investment ecosystem – more about this below;
  • Irrigation and monitoring systems such as Lindsay FieldNet and Wildeye irrigation monitoring;
  • Automation and robotics (Robotics Plus, Yamaha, Bosch, and more);
  • Data collection, analysis, and the application of artificial intelligence. Comments like “Data is the new gold” abounded.

I’m not personally sure that data is the new gold. I think data is more like an ore that needs to be mined, processed, and refined to extract the real gold. Or maybe data is more like electricity – its intrinsic value is established from use, rather than collection.

Its all about the Ecosystem

We think that the biggest impact of EvokeAg is its impact on the agricultural innovation ecosystem. The event brought together a diverse, fragmented, and sometimes vaporous ecosystem of people and organisations and made it concrete and discoverable in the moment. Examples of groups brought together included:

  • Start-ups and new agritechnology players;
  • Investors, incubators and accelerators, and trade partners; and
  • Research and development organisations and funders.

Making connections

A particular genius of this event was the way that conversations and interactions were facilitated.

  • Braindates, facilitated by an app for discovery and bookings, brought together participants with shared interests, making it easy for those who did not know each other to connect.
  • Careful layout of the food stations, with plenty of tables, seats and leaners for eating encouraged fortuitous conversations, as did the set of food trucks outside providing lunch and evening food around a grassy courtyard.
  • A good blend of exhibitors, lounges, and a “start-up alley” encouraged attendees to look around and interact. Brad and I nearly lost count of the number of people who stopped by the Rezare Systems stand, took a seat and had a relaxed discussion.

The challenge for AgriFutures (the organisers of EvokeAg) and the wider industry is how to capitalise on the positive ecosystem effects to drive growth and innovation. The #growAg initiative announced at the conference, along with AusTrade’s Agriculture 4.0 focus should make a big difference. We’ll play our own part as well – continuing the conversations with those who met with us, and offering an Ag Innovations Bootcamp in early June, an in-depth workshop on design and customer engagement in agriculture, suitable for both start-ups and established Australian agribusinesses looking to innovate.

 

Person in field stares at the sky

Three steps to your agritech product vision

You’re creating the future: a product or service that does not yet exist. How do you ensure your team is on the same page? Do you tell them how they will build it? How it will work? Or do you paint the picture of how it will make people’s lives better?

Your investors and partners are the same. Your product vision is the core of your business vision, so you want key people to understand and love it. Still, formalising your product vision seems like another chore in your busy schedule. You might even fear your idea will lose some of its magic in the harsh light of the day.

A clear representation of your vision:

  • Helps you communicate the vision to your team, your partners, and potential investors. You can be confident that you’ve passed on the key elements and not missed anything out.
  • Inspires others! People who believe and buy-in to your vision will go above and beyond the call of duty to make it a reality.

Here are three keys to get you started on composing your agricultural product vision.

Start with the users

Identify who your intended users are and are not. What problems will you solve for them? How much do those problems matter to your intended users? Are you tackling their problems or forcing your own solution?

The Einstellung Effect is a psychological term. It describes how we can fall in to the trap of applying a familiar approach or solution to problems. When all we have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is a great reminder to us to fall in love with problems, not our solutions. Your agritech product vision should describe the problems you want to solve.

Think big

The eventual picture is larger than your first release. Think about what your vision looks like over the next three, five, or even ten years.

At the same time, your first product release (or releases) don’t need to fulfil the entire vision. Break the plan into bite-size chunks that you can achieve and learn from them on the way.

Trace weak signals and trends

Take a view about the way we will solve problems in two to five years. You’re creating the future, so yesterday’s rules may not apply.

I’m not suggesting divorce from reality. Ensure you have time and space to read, research, and test. Seek to understand how people might work in the future, and how your product might contribute. If your product is a service (to some extent all are), how might it fit with the ways your users want to communicate?

Your product vision is not a product specification. It’s not an elevator pitch either. Whether it is a story or bullets in a slide deck, it’s the way you bring your team and partners with you on the journey. It should help them pull together and solve the problems that count.

As your Agritech product vision evolves, there is one more thing to do: communicate relentlessly. Share your vision with your team and your partners. Evolve it based on what you learn.

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Product team (source: iStockPhoto)

5 tactics of an effective agritech product manager

Why are relatively few agritech products achieving adoption at scale when billions of dollars are being invested internationally every year? New start-ups appear almost weekly. And established companies are shifting from small innovations around the edges to major projects that sit at the heart of business plans.

Yet for all this activity, few product ideas seemingly “make it”.

We work with many agricultural companies – start-ups and established organisations – to help them develop smart digital products and services. In our experience, there’s a strong correlation between a business’s approach to product management, and their success in developing meaningful products or services that get used. The choice of product manager, the scope and objectives of their role, and their level of skill and authority, drives the success (or otherwise) of the product or service development.

The CEO or a Project Sponsor may define the overall business outcomes and vision, and project managers may be concerned with product budget and timeline, but the product manager is at once the “voice of the product” to the business, and simultaneously translates the “voice of the customer” to the development team (this part of the role is also called product owner). They decide the detailed problems the team will try to solve, the relative priority of those problems, and when the solution is complete enough to be put into the hands of customers.

Here are five tactics an agritech product manager can use to be more effective in their role:

1.      Allocate your attention

A product manager juggles many tasks. They must understand scope, be able to prioritise effectively, understand how the team is delivering and what is planned. It’s incredibly hard to do this if the product only gets a small time-slice of your attention.

You won’t be able to effectively manage your product by turning up for a fortnightly sprint planning session. Product managers need to be able to spend time with both stakeholders and the development team. They participate in customer interviews, review the product in showcases put on by the development team, and are deeply involved in product planning workshops.

2.      Build stakeholder relationships

New products and services are built at the intersection of customer or user desirability, business viability, and technical feasibility:

  • Does this product solve a real problem for its users, and can they readily get the benefits?
  • Are customers willing to pay for a solution, and is this solution sufficiently “better” that they will switch?
  • Does this product or service meet the objectives and fit the strategic direction of the company?
  • Is there a business model that makes sense for the company and which could be profitable?
  • Can it be built to operate as envisioned, at a cost the company can justify?

Effective product managers really understand the needs of their users and customers – their behaviours and the problems the product is trying to solve. They use observation and interviews to inform their opinions and seek data from the existing tools or products that customers use.

Product managers must also build trust with the business, effectively communicating how the direction and priorities chosen for the product meet the objectives of the business.

3.      Discover, don’t assume

It’s very tempting to build technology products and services the way corporate computer systems were developed in the past: envisage a solution, document it as a set of requirements, and set the development team to work. When the developers and testers are done, roll out the solution (or pass it through to sales and marketing).

Effective product managers know that detailed customer needs are emergent, and so too must be the solution to those needs. They make use of product discovery activities: carrying out interviews, running experiments, and building prototypes. They know that testing an idea by building a prototype and validating that thinking with real users may not only be an order of magnitude quicker and less expensive than building software, it avoids the huge waste of developing robust, performant, tested software that does not address the real problem.

Software and hardware will still need to be built, but continuously using discovery activities to understand and address customer problems reduces the risk of building a great solution to the wrong problems.

4.      Prioritise value

If customer and user problems and the solutions are emergent, how can you effectively manage the work of a development team (or teams)? How do you decide what gets released to customers, and when?

Effective product managers decide what discovery and development tasks are the highest priority to work on at any point in time. They pay great attention to the “product backlog” – the set of problems waiting to be worked on, ideas waiting to be tested, and validated ideas waiting to be turned into production software. They may visualise these using story maps, or as items on a Kanban board.

This is not “project management”, seeking to most efficiently have all the tasks completed on time and within budget. Rather, the product manager is making value-based decisions about which tasks or stories (feature sets) are the most valuable to do now, and which can be deferred (and might never be done if sufficient value can be delivered to customers and the business without them).

Product managers consider value on multiple scales:

  • Which stories deliver the most value to customers and end users?
  • Which stories help the company achieve its objectives (revenue, customer acquisition, or other outcomes)?
  • Which activities must be prioritised for the product development process to be successful (for instance, prioritising a discovery or validation activity that may change the overall shape of the product)?
  • Which essential dependencies must be built for more valuable stories to work?

5.      Release early and often

This may be an agile mantra, but it remains valid. It’s tempting to hold off putting your product into customers hands until it is “complete”. This is especially the case for established companies who worry about reputational risk.

Delaying until the product or service is largely “complete” misses the opportunity to learn how customers choose to use your product or service. They may pay no attention to that wonderful feature you slaved over and be thrilled by other functions. You may discover that the value you expected just isn’t there, and that you need to “pivot” to a different approach. Far better to do this early than wait until the entire budget is spent.

For organisations worried about reputational risk, limited pilots are a useful tool, whether with a subset of staff or a small group of customers. Early adopters may not fully represent your entire eventual market, but carefully chosen they can provide learning and become advocates to your broader market.

Learn More

We use a variety of tools and techniques to support Product Managers in their role, including discovery techniques and activities, dual-track agile (a team working on discovery and a team developing prioritised stories), and flexible scope contracts that focus on value delivery in a time frame rather than a fixed set of requirements.

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