Fail faster … if you can

Pundits tell us the pathway to innovation is to fail – or fail faster! underlining the reality successful innovation is born from many unsuccessful experiments. Which for a lean start-up spending lunch money on Facebook ads validating a solution-hypothesis isn’t too risky or painful if it flops.

But it’s a whole different galaxy when you’re the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) charged with meeting digital expectations of the 400’000 people/day who pass through Zurich’s Main Station (and moving 1.26 million daily passengers). How forgiving would a fraction of SBB’s customers be if their SBB Mobile app went weirdo after developers added a new feature?

Digital dilemma

Therein lies the digital dilemma for large scale Swiss enterprises like SBB. Take too long rolling out new digital services and Google or Apple steal away users’ loyalty by providing the high value services customers expect. Launch too quickly without thorough UX testing/feedback they risk building something nobody wants – or worse, damaging reputation when things go wrong. (e.g. reputation risk story, “60K Angry Customers”).

Acknowledging to abstain was the riskiest option of all, in April 2017, Andreas Meyer, SBB’s CEO, doubled down on “SBB AG 2020 Strategy” by placing the “Smart Station” challenge bet:

“participants of the Smart Station project bet that by April 2019, they will have established Zurich Main Station as the world’s most digital, personal traffic hub for customers, tenants, suppliers and other innovative partners.“

In my first report on Smart Station, “the Genie is Out of the Bottle,” I questioned if SBB (and bet collaborators) were sincere or just getting more mileage for marketing. Bruno Lochbrunner, Head of Conceptual Station Management, told me back then, “We are serious about this challenge … it is not just a saying, ‛Smart Station.’ In 2018 and 2019, we have to decide about speed.”

What’s at stake?

Last week I met with Philipp Leimgruber, Overall Project Manager Digitization Zurich HB, to learn if Bruno’s projections were bearing fruit or frustration. Philipp replaces Markus Streckeisen as its challenge bet Captain, evidence of the confidence SBB places in 41-year-old Leimgruber to deliver. A certified Scrum Master and Scrum Product Owner, Philipp earned his PhD in 2010 from University of Bern in Social Sciences. Except for 3 years in research and teaching at Uni Bern, Philipp has invested his entire career with SBB, mainly at the intersection of mobility and digital products.

How much does it matter to Philipp – or you and I, should Smart Station bet win or fall short? Given Swiss revere for national icons, SBB’s role in Switzerland’s national identity is no less significant than its army or fiat currency. With so much at stake and an April 2019 deadline, Philipp was unwavering about his job and their bet’s chances. He said, “there’s not much I don’t like about my work. It’s a lot of fun. But the goal is clear. We want to be the most personal and digitalized train station in the world!”

Wall of fame

Speed to market differentiates winners and losers in the race to innovate. Philipp reiterated the strategy behind partner-supplied innovations in early 2018, like robots Mario and Alfred or the Short Story Dispenser, was the need for speed. “We started our challenge with quick wins because we did not want to take a year doing ideation and project planning.”

However, a lot of innovation was going on out of the public eye. Recently, SBB posted a Wall of Fame, showcasing numerous innovations currently being tested. The headline touts: “Wall of Fame – your opinion matters,” and solicits users to rate these projects. Augmented Reality navigation apparently failed to garner enough likes and has already been pulled. But among the 13 others inviting reviews are Mobility E-Scooters, Foxtrail Zürich indoor scavenger hunt and SBB Sandbox. Vote your favourites!

Brain Hub

The SBB Sandbox best illustrates its broad-based approach for winning its bet by leveraging Zurich HB as a “Brain Hub.” Philipp confided, “We did an ideation phase last winter to look for projects that really help us become a destination in itself.”

His smile grew wider as he elaborated on the Sandbox. “We knew 100K people are coming in and out of the station every day. We realized, this (HB) is not only a mobility hub, it’s also a brain hub. So many brains walking in, walking out. So then came this idea, let’s use these brains!”

Philipp accedes, “many people are sceptical of digitization. So we asked ourselves, how can they (sceptics) get involved?” The idea, he explained, was to empower the legions of transient “brains” passing through HB to give feedback for our prototypes and get them involved. But he stressed, SBB Sandbox is not limited to internal projects. It’s an invitation for any Swiss enterprise to have free of charge, a week (16-21 October 2018) of HB floor space and direct access to 100’000 people/day to try out their digital products or prototypes.

One question

A company or entrepreneur who wishes to begin a business relationship with SBB ought to take advantage of Sandbox. Philipp more narrowly defined the criteria for partnerships, “Each (Sandbox) applicant has to come with a clear question. There’s no pitching – no promotion. It’s about testing digital prototypes. We will support them with user experience teams, but they have to come up with a good question.”

Perversely (to me), it feels friendlier to be a pedestrian guinea pig, voluntarily walking into a physical testing arena like Zurich HB, than a snippet of big data surreptitiously collected by my mobile device or an app. Consequently, at this early stage of challenge Season Two contest, I’m awarding SBB front-runner status.

Joel Blom

Author Joel Blom

Joel Blom joined digitalswitzerland in October 2017 as its newest storyteller. His mandate is to report the stories unfolding within and outside challenge round tables and their “crazy ideas.” As an independent Story Advisor, he consults enterprises large and small how to find, craft and tell purpose-driven stories that move people into action.

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