Making Meaningful Business Propositions

January 4, 2021

Starting a business, running a business, and sustaining a business’s success implies that we have considered how to make a meaningful business proposition. Making meaningful business propositions requires continual effort, perpetual learning, and continuous improvement to clarify intentional practices and the drivers that underpin why you do what you do. The practices that are necessary to achieve this do not come easily. In fact, they include a number of factors that could provide, but do not always promise the chance of success in business.

In this article, we’ll describe the five stages of making meaningful business propositions. We’ve learned—and continue to learn—them from over 20 years of running a consulting business that explores products and platforms and considers their implications for professional development.

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Competency Gaps

When we started our business more than 20 years ago, we were fortunate to have grounded our knowledge in a robust methodology that Dan had learned from his time working for a team within a corporation. Within that context, he was immersed in consulting on projects, facilitating internal workshops to champion methods, developing internal client relationships on projects, and attending external conferences.

This foundation was useful in helping us with the consulting and practitioner side of our professional development, but it did not provide the relevant practices to start a business or even consider the practices relevant to making a business proposition.

Understanding such competency gaps and learning how to fill them by pursuing a well-planned, well-articulated, and well-structured learning program is of paramount importance in maturing professionally and having a chance of success in business.

A New Business Proposition

When you start and run a business in a field with which you are familiar, that improves your chances of making the business successful. However, when you’re transitioning to a new business, it is unclear to you what challenges might emerge, for which you would effectively have to build a business proposition from the ground up. It’s like starting all over again.

Let’s consider the practices inherent in the five stages of making a meaningful, new business proposition that we have learned over the years.

1. To define a problem, observe the environment, market, and people in work cultures.

As a result of consulting with businesses and observing markets, domains, projects, team dynamics, and business cultures for over 20 years, we came to understand the environment in which we work. We took stock of that environment to get a sense of the behavioral dynamics, patterns, interactions, and relationships between people. This revealed some core problems on our project teams. It also helped us gain some clarity about the problems we wanted to focus on, study, and research more deeply, enabling us to define a problem space and prospective solutions. We were able to leverage our existing strengths in our consulting practice, but also to stretch, strengthen, and broaden our horizons for learning over time.

Defining the business problem, then converting our knowledge of the business context into research questions helped us to find people from whom we could learn. They helped us to refine our problem definition and consider ways to solve the problem. We were not really making any products or services at this point. We were gaining clarity on our meaningful intentions and motivations to sustain our interest in exploring the problem.

This stage of making a meaningful business proposition can feel uncertain and uncomfortable, but also exciting—if you bring an open mindset, maintain a positive attitude toward new possibilities, and challenge your own assumptions.

2. Create supportive learning and advisory practices, habits, and cultures.

As we explored the problem and possible solutions, we actively sought advice on subjects that may not have applied directly to our own domain. This implies that we actively moved from our comfort zone, while dipping in and out of our fear zone, in pursuit of our learning and growth zone. In traversing these zones as we explored making a new business proposition, we found that we needed help, support, and guidance from people who cared about us and our business success.

When creating supportive learning and advisory conditions, you should recognize the importance of diversity. Look for people with diverse backgrounds, geographies, cultures, domain knowledge, skills, expertise, specialties, and thinking—people who can focus a range of lenses on the problems and opportunities you’re exploring together. At this stage, this initial group of people might be early adopters of the solutions, products, or services you’re exploring. But remember, these might not necessarily be the people who’ll sustain you over your whole journey. That is perfectly fine.

3. Explore your data to define your audience and drive differentiation.

As we continued to explore and challenge the problem with people providing a range of perspectives—using the data that we had gathered from a supportive learning and advisory team—we supplemented this process by writing, presenting, and running workshops globally to unpack these questions with an audience.

This led to our being better able to clarify the problem and turn it into a problem statement: How could we make meaningful work? This question would soon become our mission and vision for building a business proposition and platform. It was also during this time that we consolidated our ideas into early drafts of a framework that would inform a book, a draft of some early versions of courseware, and create a supporting journal that later became critical across all the products and services we developed.

This stage also continued to reveal people and possible partners in various locales, who expressed interest in our mission. This is when we started to explore joint collaborations on events, considering the possibility of building local and global communities of practice to help sustain the proposition.

We also tested various price points and a business model and explored the proposition with our audience, learning what their needs and painpoints would be. The implications of differentiating the proposition started to appear, which was very useful in developing a real depth of practice. What would be necessary to support our ongoing product and service development, learning modules, and other pieces of the proposition to help us meet our strategic mission and vision?

4. Pick one starter product and write its core messages.

At school and university, we had spent a considerable amount of time writing and researching for our projects. But neither of us had ever really appreciated the value of writing as a form of communication or considered the important implications of being able to write clearly and concisely to making and positioning meaningful business propositions, projects, products, and services.

We recommend choosing a single product and writing about it. Focus on a product that embodies the core messages of your business proposition. Examples of this might include a pitch deck, a home page, or a workshop. In our case, the early products included articles on Web sites and the early iterations of our own Web site. Those evolved into mature products, including a book, journal, events, and courses.

Every time you take the opportunity to write, you also embrace the opportunity to revise and improve both your strategic and tactical direction and the meaningful positioning of your business proposition. This also a good stage at which to consider what partners would complement your advisors and mentors and who could introduce you to additional channels through which to present your ideas to prospective clients.

5. Find an early-adopter client who sees your value.

When your goal is making meaningful business propositions, it helps to have people who not only support you with their time and knowledge but also to find an early-adopter client, who sees the value of what you are making and is willing to commit to a budget that would pay for the product or service.

These early-adopter clients create a baseline of confidence and can result in your gaining knowledge and learnings that you can leverage for many years to come. They also let you test in real time what is successful and what you need to improve.

Your early-adopter clients can also provide insights into how to develop new channels and repeatable business through community building and foster interest in what you are making. Building these relationships also provides clarity on the positioning of your business proposition and how you should continue to iterate your offering.

Key Practices

In summary, please consider the following fives practices when making meaningful business propositions:

  1. Understand the problem you are trying to solve by doing research and collecting evidence to ensure that the problem is robust and interesting enough to explore over an extended period of time.
  2. Source talented people from diverse backgrounds who can challenge you and create learning opportunities, as you explore the directions your business could take. These people may well become a longer-term advisory team that could help guide your business over time.
  3. Consider how you plan to differentiate your business offering, as well as the key implications of your target audience’s needs. Answer the question about why customers would buy from you or partner with you.
  4. Write and continue to write. Test out your ideas early. Write to record your thinking as your ideas expand into products and services that support the making of a meaningful business proposition.
  5. Source early-adopter clients who willing to pay for your product or service and who could emerge as possible longer-term channel partners and supporters of what you do.

Practice Spotting for Healthy, Self-initiated, Leadership Cultures at Work

Focusing on a profession, specialty, or area of expertise—such as User Experience or the other disciplines or functions that make up product teams in 21st-century workplaces—offers great value, but does not necessarily provide the wider perspectives or cross-functional practices that are critical to making meaningful business propositions.

Through our research, we’ve identified the following five practices, which together with our ten habits create the foundation for meaningful work and result in our making meaningful business propositions. We need to support and deepen these practices—both as individuals and as teams:

  1. Enable active listening to build awareness.
  2. Spark curiosity to solve ambiguous problems.
  3. Foster quality relationships to enable contextual adaptability.
  4. Promote diversity to navigate complexity.
  5. Build your confidence to make meaningful decisions.

In 2021, together with UXmatters, we’ll be exploring and going more deeply into the relevant practices that are necessary to inform the making of meaningful business propositions. We’ll look at how to support and sustain the following practices, habits, and cultures:

  1. Aligning expectations to motivate people
  2. Optimizing relationships to confront difficulties
  3. Taking collective responsibility to think strategically
  4. Leveraging sensemaking to remove noise
  5. Reducing waste to prioritize and manage constraints
  6. Building diverse, multidisciplinary teams to solve problems
  7. Understanding needs to challenge assumptions
  8. Managing people, time, and budgets to remove painpoints
  9. Challenging assumptions to solve disputes
  10. Building supportive communities to create development opportunities

We thank UXmatters for continuing to be a superb partner and champion of making meaningful work. We also look forward to doing more practice spotting to reflect on the core practices that are necessary to shape healthy cultures at work and diving into each practice in a reflective, sustainable way over time.  

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

Co-founder and Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Josephine WongJo is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. She grew up in the multicultural city Hong Kong, with her Chinese-Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, Jo collaborates with global teams, conducting design research and usability testing. She is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems; and discovering how we can live healthier, happier lives without adversely impacting less fortunate people. She is a member of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) Hong Kong Chapter. Jo attended Melbourne University, completing a Bachelor of Social Science Information Management.  Read More

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