Understanding Ecosystems to create the right Value Propositions: Part 1 of  a Series on the Macro-Problems and Techniques of Platform Design

In this series of posts starting today we’ll progressively offer an updated, dashboard-like, view of the Platform Design Toolkit and explain all the modular techniques that make it the most versatile methodology to date to design, experiment and grow platform strategies. We’ll explain how it can be used by designers, entrepreneurs, and later highlight its connection with the 3EO Toolkit for organizational evolution and with other strategic design and validation techniques that we often use in combination.

Simone Cicero

Luca Ruggeri

December 02, 2022

Abstract

It’s been quite a year for Platform Design Toolkit and in general for methodological updates here at Boundaryless. In 2022 we indeed released:

In this series of posts starting today we’ll progressively offer an updated, dashboard-like, view of the Platform Design Toolkit and explain all the modular techniques that make it the most versatile methodology to date to design, experiment and grow platform strategies. We’ll explain how it can be used by designers, and entrepreneurs and also, later on, highlight its connection with the 3EO Toolkit for organizational evolution and with other strategic design and validation techniques that we often use in combination

Let’s start from the basics: what can you do with Boundaryless open-source methodologies? Our methods can help designers and entrepreneurs engage with at least five macro problems:

  • Understanding Ecosystems to create the right Value Propositions
  • Defining the Go-To-Market approach and achieving and measuring growth
  • Validating key assumptions along the way
  • Executing and evolving the organization

To support such work, we use different combinations of our canvases and heuristics: some of these canvases are more mature than others, and some are still “experimental” and will be released in the coming months as we did with others in the past. In many cases, we also experimented with other complementary techniques.

Note that we see these macro-problems as circularly related, and not necessarily to be seen as a step-gated process, we, therefore, assume that a team will have to come back and forth on these problems. We’re currently developing a new experience format called Platform Design Sprint that will be launched in 2023 that will help teams go through these phases on a continuous journey – subscribe here to be kept up to date as soon as the program launches.

Today’s post covers the challenges and techniques related to the first macro-problem, that of Understanding ecosystems and exploring opportunities. To receive timely updates related to the other four macro-problems please subscribe to our newsletter here.

Understanding Ecosystems to create the right Value Propositions (MP1)

Macro-Problem Description

This is the macro problem that most of the teams encounter as they come up with the idea to work in a specific market context: understanding the characteristics of the market they are targeting, mainly focusing on understanding how the ecosystem of entities interacts, is normally a first and crucial step to later see the opportunity to rethink processes, and experiences, in a new way, that can be mediated and empowered by a product/platform that can be built for the task.

What are the key questions you need to answer?

Typical questions one needs to ask in this phase are:

  • What are the macro-phases, the steps, and how are they connected?
  • Who are the actors that typically interact in producing and consuming value? Are these entities taking recurring or general “roles” in their interactions?
  • What are those entities trying to achieve and how?
  • What is each entity’s context: what problems do they feel? What capabilities do they have? What are they seeking?
  • Who are the key brokers, and mediators involved in facilitating (or gatekeeping) the interactions?
  • What are the key resources being used?
  • Does the existing value chain offer opportunities to be transformed, to improve how the ecosystem entities unleash their potential?
  • What value proposition should be built to transform the ecosystem at scale?

When you are supposed to work on this

These questions are normally asked at the very beginning of the design process as part of what we normally call “exploration for opportunities”. It’s clear that in a platform design practice that is “ecosystem driven” the starting point is the as-is way a specific ecosystem works, and the way the actors in it interact. Only when this is clear you can envision a new way to support alternative use cases that could be enabled by a new kind of product.

The way of working in this phase is fundamentally different from the methods that have widespread adoption in the innovation and startup world, which are mostly “solution-first, pain-opportunity”, starting from a single, isolated user problem.

Often, by the way, we talk to teams that deal with lagging product adoption: as we explained recently it’s often the case that they either:

  • have poor ecosystem understanding: an original sin related to an original lack of focus on understanding the ecosystem or not having validated the ecosystem-related assumptions;
  • have a wrong product model: their wrong starting assumptions on the value chain have depicted a weak platform strategy model, wrongly or poorly designed flywheels, targeting wrong use cases, or bad pricing;

Often, in our experiences, teams lack even a common taxonomy/ontology of the ecosystem they’re aiming at transforming because they didn’t bother to visualize it as a team, let alone a strong understanding of the value chain.

What techniques to use, and how can the tools help? 

Four key techniques can be used in this phase:

  • Scanning and Mapping the Ecosystem – through the use of The Arena Scan & Ecosystem Scan (TQ1.1)
  • Understanding the Ecosystem’s Entities context – by using The Ecosystem Canvas and Entity Portrait (TQ1.2)
  • Defining The Platform’s Value Proposition – with the help of the Wardley Map, and the Platform Strategy Model Canvas (TQ1.3)
  • Validating Early-Stage Assumptions with Ecosystem Discovery – by leveraging on the suggestions coming from the Lean Ecosystem Discovery Interview Cheatsheet, to be mixed with other validation techniques (TQ1.4)

Let’s see the details below of what canvases and other tools can help you achieve this.

Scanning and Mapping the Ecosystem: The Arena Scan & Ecosystem Scan (TQ1.1)

These two tools can be used to “scan” the ecosystem. Their name is a good hint that you use them to take a snapshot of the ecosystem more than projecting your ideas. They’re pretty intuitive to use: first, you can make a breakdown of the ecosystem in smaller pieces with the Arena Scan, and then you should dive deeper into sectioning the systemic “steps” that happen inside an arena and map across the three layers of the Ecosystem Scan: entities in the long tail (producers and consumers), brokers and mediators, and leveraged resources.

The Arena Scan and the Ecosystem Scan are part of the Opportunity Exploration Guide where you can find guidance on how to use them. Sometimes we also experimented with complementing the Scans with the application of the Jobs to be done theory mainly by also capturing the main “desired” of the entities mapped.

You can find practical snapshots on the use of the canvases here (note that at the time of publication the Arena Scan was still in draft)

Implications and dependencies

This technique can be used universally whenever you are confronted with the need to understand how a certain market is characterized and what are the key types of players involved in it. There’s no strict dependency on other techniques

Understand the Ecosystem’s Entities context: The Ecosystem Canvas and Entity Portrait (TQ1.2)

These two tools can be used to frame better the inter-relationships between entities and to dig deeper into their context. The Ecosystem Canvas was among the first tools to be released very early on (the first version was released in 2015!) and can also be used to make an impromptu mapping of entities even without having done the hard work of ecosystem scanning with the tools suggested above (indeed in the Platform Design Toolkit Strategy Guide offers guidance on how to do it). The Ecosystem Canvas can also be useful to first enumerate all the entities that appear to be playing a role in the ecosystem and then cluster them generalizing them into “roles” (for example, a physiotherapist and a nutritionist could be collapsed into a “medical professional” role) – doing so is a powerful way to start imagining more scalable interactions. This shift in mindset, from entities to roles, is foundational in our Platform Design practice. Designing for roles (focusing on how different types of entities may have common ways to exchange value and transact) makes your design future-proof and scalable. As other types of entities join – that you may have not considered in the initial design – they’ll find a specific role available, and the support services provided by the platform, with no need for further adjustments. 

The Entity Portrait, on the other hand, is an evolution and integration of many of the most known User Research tools: you can imagine it as a synthesis of an Empathy Map, a Value Proposition Canvas, and a Persona description. The Entity portrait is an extremely powerful tool because it pushes you to think in terms of niche relationships by questioning the so-called Access and Reach Gains. These are the gains that the entity you’re portraying is seeking in connecting with its niche counterparts (their “other half of the apple”). These gains are related to finding a solution in particular categories (for example my same geography, a particular product category, etc…). It’s essential to ask this question because is the main indicator that a platform strategy – often focused to unlock large markets through the connection of niches – can really be a competitive value proposition: in a few words if all your customers are ok with a “one size fits all” solution, you won’t have much success developing a marketplace (you may want to at least consider building a managed marketplace) and therefore seeking the different categories that might add value to the relationship is key. This work will also be key to start thinking about your “canonical unit” a concept we explained recently in this post and we will touch base again as we explain the go-to-market components. The Entity portrait is also key as it can be used as a yardstick for your value proposition: if you end up with a design process that produces a VP that clearly doesn’t “resonate” with what has emerged in the portrait, chances are that this won’t work as you will have hard times generating the typical attraction (that should be pulling, based on Network Effects) that powers platform strategies.

Implications and dependencies

This technique can be used universally whenever you are confronted with the need to characterize the customer segments you’re talking to and dive deep into their context. Running Scanning and Mapping the Ecosystem: The Arena Scan & Ecosystem Scan (TQ1.1) could be helpful though, to understand better what entities and roles to focus on, something that can also be done after the execution of the technique below Defining The Platform’s Value Proposition: the Wardley Map, and the Platform Strategy Model Canvas (TQ1.3) – see page 70 of the Platform Opportunity Exploration Guide.

The entity portrait is also extremely versatile and represents an evolution of existing User Research tools that have been optimized for the dynamics of network-based products, platforms, and marketplaces as it pushes you to think about two major elements that characterize these markets:

  • users may have relevant assets and capabilities to leverage
  • users may be looking for gains deriving by accessing specific categories

Furthermore, understanding how users are looking for faster, easier and more convenient ways to achieve their objective will provide clear indications for the design of onboarding processes and solve initial attraction challenges.

Defining The Platform’s Value Proposition: the Wardley Map, and the Platform Strategy Model Canvas (TQ1.3)

So far, we focused heavily on tools that can help you, in this phase, in capturing fragmented information about the ecosystem and structuring it: by far the most important task you’ve to deal with. Without understanding what your ecosystem is up to, there’s no way you can really build a strategy that works. After understanding the direction, it is time for you to synthesize your way to resonate with it.

The Wardley map – which by the way is a largely adopted tool, with its own dedicated conference – together with the set of Six Platform Plays (thoroughly explained in the Opportunity Exploration Guide) can be used for this. In a few words what we normally do is:

  • use the information in the Ecosystem Scans to fill up the Wardley Map of the as-is value chain
  • see how the Six Platform Plays “hint” you towards imagining ways to transform it into the to-be value chain
  • use a set of heuristics to understand how the analysis of the to-be-transformed Wardley map, suggests the development of a specific Platform Strategy

Here comes the Platform Strategy Model Canvas. We created this canvas as a consequence of fieldwork with customers when – often after an opportunity exploration phase culminating with the Wardley Map-based analysis – we had to crystallize synthetically what kind of value proposition could be built. The Platform Strategy Model Canvas helps you describe easily what your system of value propositions can be articulated in your strategy: it can be used to describe a current product or a product you aim to build. As we explained thoroughly in the presentation post (the canvas is not officially part of any guide yet) the PSM Model Canvas helps you clarify:

  • What does it make sense to bundle up on the product side?
  • What are the directions along which this product/service bundle can be extended by third parties integration?

The canvas is indeed based on the way we break down value proposition as a mix of Product bundles, Marketplaces, and Extension Platforms as we first introduced here.

It is obviously possible to use them together and this is often what we do: 

  • we use the Wardley Map and the Platform Play to make the analysis,
  • and then the PSM to consolidate and communicate with stakeholders

The PSM model canvas can sometimes be used to describe your value proposition without having done the heavy lifting of scanning and value chain analysis: your understanding of the ecosystem might be weaker, but if you have a strong product domain understanding, that could be enough for a design you want to test. In case you detect problems in the design process, you can always re-iterate and structure the formal analysis at any moment.

You can find detailed information on the use of the canvases here:

Implications and dependencies

This technique doesn’t have any dependency on other existing techniques despite building a Wardley Map without having completed the Ecosystem Scans may turn out to be less intuitive. The PSM model is also extremely versatile and can be used even alone, to abstract how the product one wants to build or is building can be described as a mix of the three value propositions that characterize platforms (product/service bundles, marketplaces, extension platforms). One could definitely jump directly into the PSM as its structure will drive the expression of a value proposition in such a way. Such VPs are extremely interesting to investors also because they present two major derivative value creations on top of a typical single product VPs (such as a SaaS).

Validating Early-Stage Assumptions with Ecosystem Discovery: The Lean Ecosystem Discovery Interview Cheatsheet and other validation techniques (TQ1.4)

It’s of essential importance to validate as soon as possible how your assumptions about the ecosystem and the value proposition you are building are in line with real ecosystem entities’ perceptions. It’s generally advisable to retain some domain expertise before you start to scan the ecosystem with Arena and Ecosystem scans and therefore a team is supposed to either have this domain knowledge readily available (in the room) or to go through extensive industry research before starting the scanning phase. In any case, it is advisable, as soon as a substantial hypothesis exists about the ecosystem to try to validate it in early-stage discovery.

According to customer development’s father Steve Blank, a team should develop a hypothesis not only on the product but also on channels to reach the customer, pricing, how demand can be created, the type of market, and the competition. Blank then advises testing such hypotheses via interviews and experiments giving precedence to testing hypotheses regarding the customer context and problem perception and then moving into the new solution as an alternative to the existing ways the customer is currently using to address the same problem.

As we work for ecosystems and generally multi-sided strategies the first problem we encounter is the need to test our VP hypotheses in several directions, at least for supply and demand. To help you do so a few years ago we developed a cheat sheet that can be used to get inspiration on what to try to validate.

In parallel to the application of a disciplined customer development approach (we suggest relying on original publications from Steve Blank to set up your work) the Lean Ecosystem Discovery Cheatsheet presents a breakdown of key points you want to validate (key aspects we want to discover) and a few insights on how to optimize the questions for the three macro-type of players you normally have in platform strategies: consumers, providers, and partners (professional providers, more frequent in Business to Business contexts). The key aspects that we want to discover on top of the classic ones (the ones described in the paragraph above) you want to focus your interviews on discovering if:

  • The entity is feeling the pressures you identified in the Entity Portrait
  • The entity is trying to achieve the goals you identified in the Entity Portrait
  • The entity expresses and leverages the assets and capabilities you identified in the Entity Portrait to respond to pressure and reach their goals
  • The entities are going through bad or fragmented user experiences: this is going to be extremely informative also from the perspective of validating the things you scanned through the ecosystem scans and evaluated in the Wardley map, focusing on the tooling they currently use (especially the producing side of the market) and thus give you strong hints on what should be packed into the product bundle
  • The entity is interested in more convenient experiences (easier, faster, cheaper) and, effectively most of all if:
  • They are looking to access niche solutions that resonate with the categories you identified in the entity portrait as described above in the section “Understand the Ecosystem’s Entities context” where we hinted at a “canonical unit”. The point here is trying to understand if the market is really a multi-sided market where producers and consumers are interacting and looking to find particularly customized or niche solutions.

We are currently working to extend our discovery and validation practice therefore you can expect more content to be released on this topic in the next weeks.

Implications and dependencies

Validation techniques are widely adopted across industries with the aim of reducing work that is not grounded in real customer needs. Approaching the validation with the support of the Lean Ecosystem Development Cheatsheet will be essentially important if you’re thinking about a multi-sided value proposition. It is suggested to compile:

  • the Ecosystem’s Entity Portrait: to feed the initial part of the script (on the customer)
  • the PSM model: to feed the second part of the script (the proposed solution)

 


 

Conclusions (for now) and expected next steps

In this first release of a series, we presented the list of 5 macro-problems that platform entrepreneurs have to approach when developing a platform strategy and bringing it to market. These macro-problems are:

  • Understanding Ecosystems to create the right Value Propositions
  • Defining the Platform Experience, and Flywheels for Defensibility
  • Defining the Go-To-Market approach and achieving and measuring growth
  • Validating key assumptions along the way
  • Executing and evolving the organization

For the first one Understanding ecosystems and exploring opportunities, we show in this post four key techniques that can be used. These techniques are scarcely dependent on each other and can be also used singularly while some interdependencies exist that facilitate adoption.

In the coming weeks, we will release four more posts, focused on the other 4-macro problems.

To stay tuned on:

  • the release of four further deep dives
  • updates on the new techniques we use and are releasing, especially regarding validation
  • the release of the Platform Project Work Board (a digital tool that will allow you to track your work project-wide)
  • and the opening of the inscriptions to the Platform Design Sprint, a new format where we will help you adopt these techniques to bring your own project forward

Subscribe to our newsletter here.

 

Simone Cicero

Luca Ruggeri

December 02, 2022

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