Shorter, not longer, Accelerators: BT’s Hothouses

Shorter, not longer, Accelerators
How do you come up with an idea for a business that meets a big need, will be desired by customers and is readily fundable. BT’s Hothouses, quicker though more complex and involving, suggest a counter-cultural model: do it as one problem, not as a series of problems.

Next week: A major programme for new hi-flyers that includes an Accelerator – so why doesn’t UKTI do the same for the UK?

The problem: one of the dangers in the conceptualisation stage of a new business is that what meets a need may not be marketable; and what is marketable may not be fundable; and the process of meeting all three requirements may go backwards and forwards interminably.

BT recognised long ago that the danger of the waterfall approach exemplified in the three phases of the Accelerator (the project handed on down the line to its next stage – to the product managers or the marketers and thence to the accountants before eventually being signed off) is that unforeseen problems may arise late in the development process and can involve expensive iterations and missed opportunities. BT’s solution (‘tangible outcomes are essential’) was to bring together into the early stage of the process authoritative representatives of all the parties concerned.

BT’s solution – the Hothouse is perhaps better described as a small problem-solving conference (or even as a Hackathon) rather than a workshop. Between three and eight teams (each of 6-8 people – they can involve lots of people during the Hothouse itself, though less both before and after) compete for small but significant prizes in the presence of the problem owner, his boss (and often his boss) and other stakeholders.

Participants are chosen to fulfill a specific mix in a team and while fully briefed beforehand, they may or may not have had previous experience of Hothouses. Teams are composed through an electronic auction; the facilitator will regularly call very brief ‘stand-up’ meetings to ask about progress, obstacles, needs, and resources that might be made available; and the 3-day process is marked by presentations at the end of each day, and a carefully chosen panel of judges is on hand throughout the proceedings.

Each team’s space in the large communal break-out area has its plasma screen and white board; and Microsoft’s Sharepoint Online software is used for enabling each team to share material, with two other programs for sharing software in development.

Some 70 Hothouses a year are now run, each focused on a significant business problem or opportunity – identified by a Business Unit of BT, for which suites of rooms have been built in two locations. The ‘conference’ space is institutional and Spartan (no toys – what would their bosses think!); and the process is intensive and full of energy. There are no signs of any input – either of people or materials – from outside BT, (though that will apparently depend on the business problem, and customers will often form part of the process); and the technical members of the teams ensure that use is made of relevant existing BT platforms.

The main uses are currently for bringing new products and services to market, many of which are opportunities offered by new technology, where the objective is to overcome obstacles in the development process. Formalised methods more than experience or expertise in this type of activity distinguish BT’s Hothouses; and they are very process-driven.

The lesson: BT’s method suggests that a more comprehensive problem-solving approach might have a useful place in developing new businesses – intensive, shorter, but with more supporting resources.

See also: US non-profit ‘Village Capital’ has a different perspective on social enterprise: objectives first, resources next Oct 2013, http://wp.e/p3beJt-6K

John Whatmore
July 2015

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