Getting instant help from fellow startups

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Getting instant help from fellow startups The School for Social Entrepreneurs recently brought together a couple of cohorts of startups, each for half-a-day, to reflect together on the health of their business and on its future – with the help of a simple ‘game’.

 

I have just come across an intriguing approach to opening up discussions about startups’ problems and opportunities – with a touch of magic that gets beyond defences and is revelatory.

The test version of this process looked like a board game, but it simply provided hooks that encouraged the leaders of these startups to elaborate and then discuss the current state of their startup, and their thoughts about its future needs – in a reflective and highly supportive atmosphere. It met with rave feed-back (1).

In turn each participant was first asked to consider the current state of their business. They were invited to place a number of white counters on which were inscribed different but very common aspects of businesses (such as ‘Objectives’, ‘Talent management’, ‘Team spirit’) onto a board in one of seven interlocking spaces (a Venn diagram – of Customers, Employees and Strategy), and then to attach words to their actions and talk briefly about their reasons for so doing.

Each cohort was of around half-a-dozen startups; and the others round the room, who were on the same journey but with both similar and different backgrounds and experience, were then asked to help elucidate those issues and their future plans.

Next, the first exercise was repeated but placing the counters so as to illustrate where they would like their business to be in the future, then explain their reasons and elicit comments from other members of the group, as before.

Then they were asked to place red or green counters on top of key white counters (the green to indicate existing strengths for achieving one’s goal; and red to highlight those problems or weaknesses that must be resolved to achieve that goal); and finally each person identified the actions they would take to deal with the key issue confronting them; and was encouraged to state when they would do so.

In this particular event, most of the white counters tended to be placed in the ‘Customers’ section of the board, and most of the discussion was about finding customers and about customer wants and needs, but different circumstances elicit very different variations to these discussions.

Touching a counter seems somehow to turn its story magically into subjective reality; and the whole process enabled participants to get valuable input from fellow travelers in quick time.

Many are the recent support programmes that have been based on peer-to-peer group meetings: RBS’s Growth Builder, the Judge Institute Scaleup programme, the US-originated Vistage programme, the Belgian Plato programme and the very concept of the Accelerator.

They herald a great opportunity for sessions like this in co-working spaces and incubators, where they can provide not only valuable help from fellow travelers, but also links that will encourage them to meet again and continue to exchange valuable experience.

*

(1) SSB the authors of this programme can be contacted through me. SSB would be interested to run a trial in an incubator – if you are interested please contact me at john.whatmore@btinternet.com

See also: Support programmes for young ventures in incubators New support programmes for scaleups are of a design that could easily be replicated in incubators and their ilk, and could help generate big steps in growth. Oct 2016 http://wp.me/p3beJts-gB

 John Whatmore, June 2017

Raising the Mentoring Game

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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

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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.

 

Speeding up corporate innovation

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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

UK science has too few ‘hustlers’

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Science has too few ‘hustlers’ Why do we have so few entrepreneurs to help bring the products of our scientific expertise into widespread use? Do places like Harwell and Daresbury do enough to identify and encourage hustlers like some of those about whom I have written (see blelow).        Next week: Synthetic Biology at Imperial helps to launch startup ‘LabGenius’.

 A promoter of collaborations to tackle serious issues Ian Downey at the European Space Agency (ESA) puts consortia together for innovative projects enabled by Satellite technology. To combat the recent sharp rise in Lyme’s Disease he had brought together researchers into malaria in Africa and in the UK, GPs and hospitals in Scotland, and pharmaceutical companies – in a project funded by the ESA at Harwell.

A lab head and product developer At MIT she encouraged her students to tackle issues that could have commercial appeal as much as scientific value, and helped them to realise their commercial capabilities as well as produce great science; and went on in the same style to found her own lab in the far east, whence came lots more startups. (Science 12 June 2015) http://wp.me/p3beJt-dw

 Rolling out innovations: the Space Catapult Subverting concerns that in the UK we fail to exploit our technical leads, the Space Catapult is charting new applications for satellites and facilitating path-finding initiatives in technology, markets and finance. June 2015 (http://wp.me/p3beJt-bb)

 Advancing the development of synthetic biology  SynbiCITE (http://wp.me/p3beJt-e8) is an ‘Innovation and Knowledge Centre’ several of which were established in the last few years to develop emerging technologies that have the potential to become major industries. Synthetic Biology – creating manufacturable agents by digitally engineering their biology – is in its very early stages: the Centre is still in the process of identifying commercialisable challenges (such as in chemicals, advanced materials, energy, health and environmental protection.) But even in these very early stages, it has already managed to spawn several startups, of which LabGenius is one – a business which is selling DNA to biotech and pharma for drug development (see next week.)

Steve Blank’s I-Corps Biotech Boot Camp Hallowed publication ‘Nature’ reported on a nine-week ‘Biotech Boot Camp’ in the US, funded by the National Institutes of Health, which aims to get entrepreneurial scientists to get out there and ask potential customers what they want. http://wp.me/p3beJt-av

John Whatmore, December 2016

 

Action Learning: I meet a programme leader

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Action Learning – I meet a programme leader

Regular group meetings feature in many recent development programmes for SMEs, so I asked an expert on Action Learning: what is it; what is its magic; how does it work; where does it take place; who manages it; and what are its credentials?

What is Action Learning?

It is an intimate process in which people who want to get things done come together to support and help each other:

  • to clarify individual’s goals;
  • to benefit from the ideas of others in determining how to tackle obstacles;
  • and commit each other to progress towards objectives.

It is for people who come together on their own authority, whose decisions have significant consequences, and who are committed to this kind of process.

(Prospective candidates need to understand what it will be like, to have met one another, and to commit to a number of days for its meetings.)

What is its essence?

It is a way of helping people who are inspired by working with others to resolve their problems, to make use of challenge and support in equal measure, and to do things differently. It aims to draw on the personal experience and insights of other people whose fields of interest/activity are similar but different, in order to help you in your way forward. (It is on a completely different plane to a board or committee meeting.)

“It empowers you to play at a higher level.”

What happens at meetings?

Getting in the right mood (‘How do you feel to-day?’ ‘What has happened in your world since we last met?’) is the launch point for the day; then everyone has a slice of time in which to air a big issue that is bugging them and elicit the thoughts and ideas about it from the others. (Members will have given thought in advance to how they want to use their slice of time, which will include talking about how things have gone since the previous meeting of the group.)

They share their current objectives – problems or opportunities – and invite help from the knowledge and experience of the others (‘ruthlessly, compassionate with one another’); and aim to clarify thoughts and to identify plans. (And at the end of the day, they reflect in the same frame of mind on the process.)

“Support from another planet!”

How does it work?

Groups meet regularly – every several weeks (people from different organisations commonly meet every four to six weeks) – often enough to maintain the unity and commitment of the group, but not so often as to interfere with people’s jobs. ‘It is like losing an arm if one person fails to turn up.’

Where do meetings take place?

They usually meet in a relaxing space, for a day at a time, and each time in a different location – often on the premises of different members of the group (or in locations that are of common interest to the members eg a research organisation or an innovative developer, with a tour during the day.)

How is the process managed?

Someone – sometimes a member of the group – handles the organisation, prepares and/or circulates material, arranges the day’s happenings, leads the process, and articulates the plans that members have concluded, as well as the group’s decisions.

What are its credentials?

Professor Reg Revans first formulated the process in the 1940s, drawing on his experience of scientific method, and put it to use in the Coal Board, where substantial increases on productivity were attributed to it; and it found applications later in the Health Service. It has only rarely featured in academic work on management.

Lately, Growth Builder programmes (like the Judge Institute programme and the UCL/RBS programme, and others) have made use of its techniques (which could also be beneficial in incubators) – especially in terms of drawing from other people’s experience, perhaps because collaboration is increasingly valued in a disruptive world.

John Whatmore, November, 2016

 

Innovation Managers visit Maker Lab

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US Innovation Managers visit a brand new Maker Lab

While Maker Labs are becoming more common in the UK, they have not attracted the same interest as this group of innovation managers showed.

The Maker Lab movement has attracted interest alongside the startup frenzy as enabling entrepreneurs to make a model or prototype very quickly – so as to be able to show it off, and to prove that it works.

The US Association of Managers of Innovation (AMI), a by-invitation network of innovation practitioners – started in 1981, brings together managers who often have to work with leaders of enduring businesses when the latters’ primary interest is in their established components. It meets twice yearly in different locations in the US – for members to wrestle with their issues and exchange experience, and to use the opportunity to visit or learn about some topical aspect of innovation. The UK seriously lacks organisations and collaborations of this kind.

At this Autumn’s meeting for example, a visit will build on the theme of the Maker Movement. “We will be joined in Ann Arbor by Will Brick, General Manager of TechShop Detroit and we will visit the TechShop on Thursday late afternoon.
TechShop is a community-based workshop and prototyping studio on a mission to democratize access to the tools of innovation. The facility is packed with cutting-edge tools, equipment, and computers loaded with design software featuring the Autodesk Design Suite. Most importantly, TechShop offers space to make, and the support and camaraderie of a community of makers.
TechShop Detroit is a unique collaboration with Ford Global Technologies and occupies 38,000 square feet adjacent to Ford’s Dearborn Product Development campus.  Ford employees enjoy access to TechShop as a reward for contributing to Ford’s Employee Patent Incentive Award program.  At TechShop, Ford employees invent alongside members of the local community. Everyone has one thing in common, they are working to bring their ideas to life! …We will tour the facility and will share the story of how this unique collaboration with Ford began and the success they’ve had since opening their doors in 2012. Read more about TechShop in Forbes.”

Facebook has apparently just spent a considerable sum to open a brand new hardware lab of state-of-the-art machinery – to provide engineers from a wide variety of the company’s teams with a place to come together to share expertise, and work quickly on projects; and to save the time that would otherwise be necessary if third parties did the prototyping and testing work. Though people think of the company as a software company, says the article in Fast Company, its long-range plans are very much tied to hardware.

Richard Feynman, scientist and author, once opined of the US National Institutes of Health that any scientist who wanted to achieve a Nobel Prize should get apprenticed to an existing Laureate; and the same probably applies in Cambridge’s MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology – home to a series of Nobel Prize Winners. If incubators and their ilk are likely to harbour some of the best prospects among young businesses, it is surprising that since the demise of UK Business Incubator, the incubator association, there is no similar set-up (like the US Association of Managers of Innovation) under which the leaders of innovation communities can meet to learn together.

John Whatmore, October 2016.