Disruption isn’t new. Remember Rowland Hill

In Victorian Britain the postal service was a myriad of complex local systems with inconsistent pricing that was open to flagrant abuses. Letters were paid for by the recipient which meant many simply refused the pay. There were stories of senders jotting down codes on the front of letters so that the recipient, could decipher and understand the message before refusing to pay.

In addition to recipient charges, pricing was dependent on multiple variables including the size, weight and distance or anything being posted. Over a period of 40 years the Post Office saw little increase in revenue or profit. Many believed that lowering prices would make the Post Office unable to cope with any spike in new demand.

By the mid 1820’s it was evident that change was needed. Entrepreneurs, business leaders and politicians began to call for change.

Rowland Hill to the rescue.

Hill was a social reformer and inventor who began to examine how the Post Office could be transformed. He published a pamphlet called ‘Post Office Reform — Importance & Practicability’. The pamphlet was first shared in secret with government officials before it was published and shared with influential businessmen. The recommendations, backed up with evidence caused a storm amongst those in favour and those against.

Hill recommended moving away from inconsistent pricing to a uniform charge, that instead of being influenced by distance was instead influenced by weight. Hill’s report also called for pre-payment meaning the recipient was now free to enjoy letters without having to pay a fee. The pamphlet also introduced the idea of adhesive postal stamps and envelopes sealed with glutinous wash. He even brought to life the idea of each home and business having its very own postal box to help improve delivery efficiency.

Over the coming years Lord Melbourne (Prime Minister) and others began to implement the changes. Soon came the birth of the famous Penny Black and the Two Penny Blue stamps. The transformation came at the same time as the rapid growth in railways. In 1839 76,000,000 paid for letters were delivered throughout the United Kingdom. By 1850 this had risen to 350,000,000.

The transformation had a significant economic impact with businesses able to communicate faster than ever before. Like the standardisation of time across the country earlier in the century the revolution at the Post Office made the UK a much smaller place.

So what can we learn from this hero?

  1. Open-source feedback. Hill shared his recommendations with members of the public gaining the backing of influential figures. He listen to their views, improved on his recommendations and killed-off opposition. He famously remarked that there were those against his proposals as they believed the Post Office would be unable to cope with too many letters. He commented that he’d never known a business with capital afraid of its business becoming too big.
  2. Researching existing best practices. Hill knew that many people sent letters outside the official Post Office. Many in cities like Birmingham used local newspaper delivery companies who charged a 1 penny fee. Hill researched methodically how they worked and included them in his recommendations.
  3. Turning things on their head. Hill proposed going from recipient payment to pre-payment. He recommended going from various postal charges to a uniform fee. He looked at the existing way of doing things and simply turned it on its head.
  4. Evidence, maths & modelling. Hill was diligent in modelling the impact of any proposed changes he was recommending. He knew the cost structure of the Post Office’s existing business model. He demonstrated the costs, savings and benefits of moving to any new model. By doing this it left his opponents unable to counter his arguments. He made data the key to adoption of his ideas.
  5. Seeing the emerging future. Hill could see the revolutionising effect railways were having on the UK. He used the emerging trends as a way of backing up his recommendations and showing that change was inevitable.

Many talk of disruption and change as a new thing. The Victorians were at the forefront of a changing world and can still teach us lessons today.

Here’s to you. Rowland Hill. A hero of change

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