Re-shaping support for SMEs

Aside

Making the most out of young businesses Lessons are arriving from all sides about early-stage businesses (Village Capital, Nesta, Scaleup Institute, Growth Builder, IDEO). What do they tell us? Shouldn’t Innovate UK be taking a bigger role in the support of innovation practice?

 Most striking is the extent to which Accelerators – a fast growing phenomenon – have become the province of corporates. They force new businesses to focus not just on good ideas but on important (commercial) issues; they know their own field – its problems and opportunities; they provide invaluable support; and they are willing and capable investors (Wayra Lab, Cisco, John Lewis, and many others.)

However, this does leave great swathes of the population and of the economy untouched by support for innovation eg the public sector, several industries, large parts of the country and the everyday lives of most people. The Nesta report identifies some; and Geoff Mulgan, its Chief Executive, has focused on others, not least in the public sector.

The main sources of funding for Accelerators are now Corporates, the Public sector and Philanthropics. Venture Capital is a source for only 8% of Accelerators (and 2% of Incubators). The Nesta Report reveals that in the UK both Incubators and Accelerators rely heavily on public funds – from a variety of sources (in many areas and sectors for a substantial proportion of funding and in some, completely.)

It is now well recognised that the greatest opportunity for the development of entrepreneurial eco-systems is in ‘sectors that have a deep and local focus’; and the Scaleup Institute is busily working with LEPs to help them to do so.

However, innovation strategy and practice are evolving; and there is still little experienced management of proactive support.

Recent research by IDEO revealed something surprising: neither a more traditional approach to product development – coming up with three good options, analyzing them, and choosing one to move forward with, nor the lean startup approach – taking a best guess, piloting it, and then pivoting based on what works – is the most effective way to launch a new product. Instead, when teams iterate on five or more different solutions, they are 50% more likely to launch a product successfully.

‘Entrepreneurial support organisations are critical infrastructure for cities, communities and for corporates; and they too need clearly articulated support’ says Village Capital, a major US philanthropic business. The most common form of support is mentoring, but the promotion and management of mentoring (and of support in general) is a role that is extremely rare, but much needed, and rarer in Incubators than in Accelerators. Moreover a different format of support programme is also emerging – in the form of regular monthly meetings – especially of hi-growth businesses – based round collaborative learning.

There is at present no body that adequately encompasses Incubators and Accelerators – to help steer policy, identify best practice, and foster training and development in innovationeering. Innovate UK should take urgent steps to create an appropriate KTN.

John Whatmore, May 2017

Advertisements

Raising the Mentoring Game

Aside

Raising the mentoring game

Stops and starts have marked the very slow progress of mentoring in the UK. As the ultimate beneficiaries of mentoring, funders of new businesses should be leading the way.

The big question is (and was) why hasn’t mentoring taken off in the UK. Its best known successes include Richard Branson (said to have four mentors). the Princes Trust, and in Accelerators. Two levers were touted at the recent Annual Conference of the Association of Business Mentors (‘ABM’), both winners of the ABM’s Award for Commitment to Mentoring, but both embryonic.

Two initiatives

National Mentors Day’s third incarnation, masterminded by the redoubtable Chelsey Baker, will take place in October 2017, as a seriously bigger, more widespread, much more inclusive and hopefully more impactful day. And Janette Pallas, now at the University of Warwick Science Park, received this year’s award for her pioneering work in creating ecosystems of support in incubators and their ilk – a way forward being strongly encouraged in two recent regional meetings by the Scaleup Institute.

Non-progress

It is now several years (2011 to be precise) since the government made a commitment to put 10,000 mentors in place; and mentoring was a key part of the government’s Growth Builder programme, started in   2012, but alas for some strange reason withdrawn in 2016. Mentoring is an integral element of recent scaleup programmes, such as the Judge Institute’s and the RBS/UCL programme, but the mentoring scene is necessarily local and its institutions fragmented.

                                                   Funders should take the lead

It would be good to see funders take the initiative (eg VCs and Angel Funds) and along with innovation centres and development programmes (where mentoring is usually mandated) work in partnership with sources of mentors like the ABM (eg running joint workshops). The likes of the ABM could encourage mentoring by appointing ambassadors, and running more awards schemes or prizes. What is needed is a campaign of the extent of the Public Understanding of Science.

John Whatmore, March 2017

 

Speed as the new essential

Aside

Speed as the new essential David Giraourd, former President of Google Enterprise Apps and CEO of startup Upstart argues that speed is the key competitive advantage of to-day [and not just in Accelerators].

His top points are:

* Think first of all about the importance and the timing of each decision.

* Next about the inputs and perspectives of your team that you need.

* Make sure that all plans come with assigned completion dates.

* Prioritise mission critical items.

* Make sure that people are not waiting for one another, and can work in parallel.

* Firm up on doubtful assumptions eg legal or regulatory.

* Confront uncertain lines of authority eg CEO vs Founders vs Managers.

 * Use your competition as your incentive.

* Help the members of your team to help you: what inspires them. And tell them why your objective is so vital.

 I’ve long believed that speed is the ultimate weapon in business. All else being equal, the fastest company in any market will win.

Speed is a defining characteristic — if not the defining characteristic — of the leader in virtually every industry you look at. In tech, speed is seen primarily as an asset in product development. Many people would agree that speed and agility are how you win when it comes to product.

What they fail to grasp is that speed matters to the rest of the business too — not just product. Google is fast. General Motors is slow. Startups are fast. Big companies are slow.

The building blocks of speed are in making decisions and executing on decisions. 

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week. The process of making and remaking decisions wastes an insane amount of time at companies. When a decision is made is much more important than what decision is made.

You should consistently begin every decision-making process by considering how much time and effort that decision is worth, who needs to have input, and when you’ll have an answer. Some decisions are more complicated or critical than others: more information might be essential; some decisions can’t be easily reversed or would be too damaging if you choose poorly. Most importantly, some decisions don’t need to be made immediately to maintain downstream velocity.

Eric Schmidt at Google knew he stalled a lot of things, but Eric made sure that decisions were made on a specific timeframe — a realistic one — but a firm one. The art of good decision making requires that you gather input and perspective from your team, and then push toward a final decision in a way that makes it clear that all voices were heard. You don’t want consensus to hold you hostage — but input from others will help you get to the right decision faster, and with buy-in from the team.

There’s an art to knowing when to end debate and make a decision. We intuitively want the team to come to the right decision on their own. But people are enormously relieved when they hear that you’re grabbing the baton and accepting responsibility for a decision.

Executing decisions A lot of people spend a whole lot of time refining their productivity systems and to-do lists. But within the context of a team and a business, executing a plan as quickly as possible is an entirely different concept.

Many plans and action items come out of meetings without being assigned due dates. Even when dates are assigned, they’re often based on half-baked intuition about how long the task should take. Completion dates and times follow a tribal notion of the sun setting and rising, and too often “tomorrow” is the default answer. For items on your critical path, it’s always useful to challenge the due date. All it takes is asking the simplest question: “Why can’t this be done sooner?”

Just as important as assigning a deadline, you need to tease out any dependencies around an action item. Mission critical items should be tackled head-on by your team in order to accelerate all downstream activities. Things that can wait till later need to wait.

A big part of this is making sure people aren’t waiting on one another to take next steps. The untrained mind has a weird way of defaulting to serial activities — i.e. I’ll do this after you do that after X, Y, Z happens. You want people working in parallel instead.

Projects can be so complicated that it can seem you have to go back over the thinking so much that everything else grinds to a halt too. For example, our business at Upstart has to comply with a lot of regulations. There’s not a lot we can do until we know we’ll have legal approval, so we used to spend a lot of time dancing around whether something was going to be legal or not. Then we thought, why don’t we just get a brain dump from our lawyers saying, “Do this, this and this and not this, and you’ll be fine.” Having that type of simple understanding of the problem drastically reduced the cognitive overhead of every decision we made.

If you can assess, pull out and stomp on the complicating pieces of the puzzle, everyone’s life gets easier. The one I see the most — and this includes at Google too — is that people hem and haw over what the founder or CEO will think every step of the way. Just get their input first. Don’t get your work reversed later on. What a founder might think is classic cognitive overhead.

Talking about your competition is a good way to add urgency. At Upstart, we constantly say that while we’re working hard on this one thing, our competitors are probably working just as hard on something we don’t even know about. So we have to be vigilant. A lot of people say you should ignore competition, but by acknowledging it, you’re incentivizing yourself to set the pace in your market.

When we were launching Google Apps, we were coming out against Microsoft Office, which had this dominant, monopolistic ownership of the business. We thought about what we could do differently and better, and the simplicity of our pricing was part of it — I think we decided that in a half hour. We just wanted to be able to tell people, “We may not be free, but we’ll be the simplest decision you ever made.”

Once you’ve made a decision, you’ll need to convince others that you’re right and get them to prioritize what you need from them over the other things on their plate. You need to understand this person, what their job is, how their success is measured, what they care about, what all of their other priorities are, etc. Then ask: “How can you help them get what they want while helping you get what you want?”

I’ve seen this done by appealing to people’s pride. Maybe you tell them that you used to work with a competitor who was quite speedy so that they have incentive to go even faster. I’ve also seen this done by appealing to human decency and being honest. You might say something like, “Hey we’re really betting heavily on this, and we really need you guys to deliver.”

Whichever route you choose, you want to back up your argument with logic. You should gently seek to understand what’s happening. I tend to ask a lot of questions like: “Can you help me understand why something would take so long? Is there any way we can help or make it go faster?”

To keep things moving along at Upstart, I ask a lot of hard questions very quickly, and most of them are time related. I know that we execute well and are generally working on the right things at the right time, but I will always challenge why something takes a certain amount of time. Are we working as smartly as we can?

Too many people believe that speed is the enemy of quality. To an extent they’re right — you can’t force innovation and sometimes genius needs time and freedom to bloom. But in my experience, that’s the rare case. There’s not always a stark tradeoff between something done fast and done well. Don’t let you or your organization use that as a false shield or excuse to lose momentum. The moment you do, you lose your competitive advantage.

 

Corporates struggling with innovation?

Aside

Are corporates struggling with their approaches to innovation? Working with startups is something that corporates are having to learn for themselves, but help is at hand.

Innovation is widely recognised as a top priority by corporate leaders, but delivering it is often delegated to individuals whose brief is unclear, who lack support (indeed often face opposition), whose colleagues have little understanding about their initiatives, and who often feel quite isolated.

A wider range of corporates has been showing interest in startups – in working with them as much as investing in them. Startupbootcamp, with its widespread experience of helping startups and scaleups in particular sectors (including Fintech in London) brought together corporate innovation leaders from several countries in a recent ‘Rainmaking Summit’. It provided them with a series of discussion panels and inventive exercises to help them to tackle typical pain points, like communication and support.

Sources of help and experience for corporates looking to work with startups seem to be scarce; and this conference indicated that there is a real opportunity for programmes like those of Startupbootcamp to help them to learn from each other’s experience.

John Whatmore, February, 2017

Five approaches in which identifying big issues is the carrot that leads the innovation process Focusing on major issues rather than relying on people with good ideas is likely to be a good source for the 6% of businesses with hi-growth potential (- and Unicorns) March 2016 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-dU)

 Reversing a topsy-turvy approach to a better world Focusing on major issues rather than relying on people with good ideas is likely to be a good source for the 6% of businesses with hi-growth potential (- and Unicorns) Oct 2015 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-bx)

Accelerators attacking bigger issues? If Accelerators can support hi-growth SMEs as well as startups, can they also be adapted to focus on tough problems and emerging opportunities in all sorts of fields? Oct 2014 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-9e)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Leadership of Creative Groups

Aside

The leadership of creative groups is more relevant than ever in to-day’s competitive global business world: innovation and disruption have given a new impetus to creativity; but the skills of leading creative groups have changed little.

The Leadership of Creative Groups has seemed increasingly vital as year by year the creative industries have burgeoned, product-oriented industries have become more creative and the service industries more important. The Dysons, the Nick Serotas, the Reid Hoffmans are the leaders of to-day: what makes them great leaders?

Creative people are often seen as difficult to manage – as experimental and intuitive, open to experience and extravert, but also sensitive and temperamental. Yet some people have a knack for getting the best out of them: they are more concerned with developing individuals and their talents, and creating or sustaining culture and climate than achieving particular objectives. ‘Creativity can be led, it can be channeled and fostered, but it resents being managed’ Martin Sorrell once opined.

Leading creative teams is different: it consists in taking the lead when you have the most appropriate contribution, (‘leadership hops from shoulder to shoulder’,) whether that contribution is technical, process, the making of contacts, the finding of resources, supporting someone else or whatever. It is authority and responsibility without domination or control.

Research (see footnote) has shown first and foremost that leaders of creative groups tend to be Visionaries, (or Ideas Generators or Ideas Prompters). Experts in their field, they see opportunities for doing things differently that others did not see, that are tough, will unlock other issues and have big pay-offs.

These leaders play a variety of roles: they are very often Team Builders and Coaches, and Entrepreneurs. In the big organisations which were the main participants in these studies, they were also Spokespersons and Shielders – as they often are to their shareholders in young businesses.

They are described as having empathy and understanding:

  • in selecting their team,
  • in using the constraints as the very challenges that would help members of the team in the development of their own talents,
  • in providing the freedoms they appreciate, and as an encouragement to experiment,
  • in using milestones and other opportunities for setting up tensions that might lead to creative breakthroughs,
  • in making themselves available as constant ‘supporters’, and
  • in ‘shielding’ them when necessary.

‘Warm and approachable, passionate and enthusiastic’, they are described as providers of all kinds of support, as very ‘process’ aware – as projects evolve and change, and as creaters of climate and culture.

These leaders tend to see everything as a learning opportunity – they have a ‘rage for learning’ – as a close parallel with creativity. They learn by doing and then reflecting on it (‘the way we learn cookery, burglary or sex’) – the very approach adopted by the latest growth programmes for SMEs, like the new Judge Institute programme and the UCL/RBS programme – which provide regular periodic meetups for CEOs for some 12 months at a time (See http://wp.me/p3beJt-hW.)

Is the time ripe for more programmes like the Clore Leadership programme in the arts, with its emphasis on experience?

John Whatmore, January 2017.

“Releasing Creativity: how leaders develop creative potential in their teams”, John Whatmore (www. Amazon.co.uk.) is based on a study for the then Department of Trade and Industry of 40 leaders of project groups – including in science, r&d, design, marketing and the arts. Out of it there emerged a self-assessment instrument (not unlike Belbin’s team roles test) designed to help leaders to identify their own typical leadership roles.

 

 

 

 

 

Big bets on big ideas

Aside

Big bets on big ideas – by philanthropists ‘Problem first, tool second’ is a maxim that is common among philanthropists, but far from common in the startup world.

We celebrate the fast growing entrepreneurial culture, but too many startups are ‘noddy projects’, built on exploiting little more than convenience or alacrity; often led by people with scant knowledge or experience of management or about the sector which they aim to enter and its customers.

Many fewer are the enterprises that start by identifying major needs or opportunities and building a business to fulfil them. Among these are the Young Foundation in the UK, which has long supported social enterprises, and Village Capital in New York, which has raised funds and then used them to bring experts to bear on major world problems.

But also there are individuals who have made millions and then sought to use their wealth to attack these problems, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Do their approaches tell us anything about how we could address bigger issues and address them better?

What is common to most of them is that they aim to use the high level of their own expertise with which they have achieved their own success, and do so in wider, more beneficial fields where the returns are not necessarily financial.

Soon after Dustin Moskovitz, a Facebook co-founder, and his wife began their philanthropy five years go, they partnered with a charity research organisation called Give Well, that identifies projects that ‘provide outsize human benefits for the dollars invested’, through which they gave substantial sums, inter alia to a programme for distributing mosquito nets to reduce malaria, and to a programme that gives cash directly to poor people in Kenya and Uganda. More recently they have chosen to fund projects that mitigate potential global catastrophes, like an epidemic of a deadly disease, biological warfare and the dangers posed by artificial intelligence.

‘Tech people tend to be more interested in early-stage startups’, said one expert, ‘they typically support disruptive new ideas, get more involved in their giving and show a willingness to move quickly to another approach when one fails.’

Zuckerberg and his wife (who is a doctor) chose to invest funds in efforts to build basic tools to help the whole scientific community to make breakthroughs in research. A substantial sum went to create a new research institute in San Francisco – the ‘Biohub’, whose first project was to map all the cells in the body and set up a rapid strike force to tackle outbreaks of infectious diseases like Ebola and Zika viruses.

And they aim to advocate for more private money for this purpose, and will ‘likely take ownership stakes in for-profit companies doing promising work.’ Their multipronged approach – gifts, VC investments in businesses with social missions, and policy advocacy is described as ‘giving them maximum flexibility’.

Pierre Omidyar , founder of the eBay online auction and retail site, was an early pioneer of this concept. His philanthropic organisation focused on efforts to bring financial services to underserved populations. It financed a non-profit that makes microloans in Africa, Asia and Haiti; and it has invested in a peer-to-peer lender and in a company that provides insurance to low-income people in emerging markets. He participates in an advocacy group that partners with governments and others to encourage the distribution of money digitally instead of through cash handouts. ‘We have a motto here: problem first, tool second’, said the managing partner of his Foundation – an approach ‘widely adopted by the region’s philanthropists’.

The Omidyar Foundation which focuses on early-stage projects, also takes board seats and provides networking opportunities and training to the organisations it finances. ‘Half of the organisations report that our non-monetary assistance is as valuable as our monetary assistance’, says the managing partner.

Measuring success ‘is a bit of a fool’s errand’, he has said; but proactive, they are. At all events, principles like that of focusing on underfunded yet highly effective charities seem to remain paramount. So far we have rarely seen comparable individuals or organisations in the for-profit field.

Source: New York Times, 8.11.2016

John Whatmore, January, 2017

Speeding up corporate innovation

Aside

Speeding up corporate innovation
A major corporate innovation consultancy bemoans the fact that corporates readily experiment with the latest innovation practices but without clear ideas on what they want to achieve; and offers a more disciplined approach.
Upcoming: How can we marshal entrepreneurial initiative to address bigger issues?

Why is it that so many executives still claim that results are not what they expect and after a few years of trying, shut down innovation initiatives?’ they ask. They see corporates asking what to do to innovate and more specifically how to do it before addressing one other critical question; innovation to achieve what? As a result, many companies end up executing the hottest and latest approach in innovation they have heard or read about.

Many big companies use a venture arm (such as Google Ventures, Unilever Ventures , Distill Ventures, Santander Innoventures and GlaxoSmithKline’s SR-One) to seek out startups in which they can invest (and to which they can contribute) to see whether they will generate the innovation they seek. But the corporate world is reportedly sitting on vast cash piles rather than make investments, so should innovation be treated (as this article suggests) with the same disciplines as the rest of the business?

To deal with their concern – that many corporates play at innovation, the approach being proposed aims to engage a group of senior executives and stakeholders and to help them to align their perspectives and ambitions for innovation, and understand choices and tradeoffs they need to make before starting an innovation initiative. They need to ask “What is our vision of success for innovation in our business?” and “What should our innovation capability look like?”

The approach they suggest first asks these executives to look outside of the company and define what significant changes they see occurring around them now and in the future, what they believe the implications of such changes are for the company; and then to prioritise those that they can and should address with innovation.

Next they need to explore the scope for innovation: what types of opportunities at what stages of development will the work address, and how broad should participation be?

The conversations should of course be about delivering results – what results should be expected, not just financial results but other dimensions such as geographic footprint, category leadership, new ways of customer engagement, and/or establishment of new economic models. And how are they to measure the business outcomes they seek – in terms of inputs (resource view), throughputs (productivity view) and outputs (results view) of the innovation system.

They need to be able to describe the future state of the organisation itself: what should the organisation look and feel like in real terms, to deliver the chosen innovation scope? And how will transitions from the current state to the future state be achieved and what are the gaps that must be closed to develop the cultural and organizational capacity to innovate.

Identifying barriers and enablers for innovation helps in understanding what to amplify, leverage or overcome. Often, the most critical barriers are not tangible processes or resource constraints, but embedded beliefs about how the business should operate. These beliefs in turn influence so much of how the organisation operates.

Finally, the aim is to build a day-by-day plan of the required activities including how progress will be monitored and managed. Equally important is that the senior people in the organization have participated in the dialogue, have a shared vision of success for the “why” of innovation, and are far less likely simply to invest in the latest innovation “flavor of the month.”

In a disruptive world, you might of course well want to play wild games, but disciplined thinking always has its place.

See: http://www.strategos.com

John Whatmore
January 2017