What makes for successful project group leaders?

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What makes for successful project group leaders People whose objective is to address tough problems start with different issues. Projects of this kind require different characteristics for successful leadership.

The Gates Foundation starts with health issues; the Scottish Government’s CivTech programme starts with public service issues; MIT’s REAP programme and Village Capital in New York start with local or regional economic issues. They then find leaders and build teams to tackle those issues – an approach which is the opposite of the entrepreneur movement – which simply encourages individuals to develop new products or services.

But one of their biggest problems in starting with issues is that of finding leaders to head up these issue-based programmes. Above all else, such people must be experienced experts in their field, but it is unlikely that they will have experience of running innovation-centred programmes.

Singularity University (www.su.org), founded in 2009 and based at the Nasa Research Park in California describes its aim as to leverage new technologies, and work together to start companies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. It is a community of entrepreneurs, corporations, development organizations, governments, investors, and academic institutions that runs an annual programme whose activities include custom educational experiences for leaders, conferences that inspire and prompt action, and innovative labs that incubate and accelerate corporate innovation and social impact projects.

If you are thrust into the leadership of a major innovation project, the approaches embodied in design company IDEO’s Design Thinking (www.interaction-design.org) may be relevant – based on these five skills:

  1. Observing:“Listen with your eyes” and discover what people really care about
  2. Stretch your thinking beyond assumptions and get to bolder ideas.
  3. Interviewing:Conduct interviews to get deeper, more honest responses.
  4. Immersive Empathy:Learn what it means to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”
  5. Sharing Insights:Craft compelling insights that will inspire innovation.

Steve Blanks’s I-Corps (Innovation Corps Are there any limits to the scope for Accelerators) runs a Boot Camp – a nine-week course designed to teach business skills to entrepreneurial scientists in technology-based startups – that has now been rolled out for biomedical firms as part of an experiment by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), and has recently been trialled by at least two organisations in the UK.

Its ruthless pitching tests have encouraged some of the participating organisations to change course; and others to search more assiduously for commercial applications of their science. “You can be a great researcher and you can think you have great ideas”, said one Congressman, “but until you’re forced to talk to a potential customer, you never really know.”

Research suggests that creative groups (addressing tough problems with big pay-offs) tend to be led by people who are visionaries – passionate and enthusiastic and sensitive to ‘process’, able to identify and bring together the necessary resources and the variety of talents, and then encouraging, orchestrating and supporting them, and protecting the group through its ups and downs. The research (Leaders of Creative Groups  also shows that they learn these skills primarily by experience – from one such project to another.

Scotland’s next generation of business leaders will benefit from entrepreneurial learning in a programme designed to develop future business leaders across all sectors – corporate, family businesses, the public sector and the third sector – delivered for the first time by Strathclyde Business School, led by Entrepreneurial Scotland in partnership with Babson College in Boston, USA – a world leader in entrepreneurial development (A heavy-weight investment in top entrepreneurial leaders.

The programme is for people who are at a turning point in their careers, aiming to become entrepreneurs: they may be starting a new business, entering an entrepreneurial business or joining a business that is looking to become more entrepreneurial.

It aims to instil entrepreneurial thinking and strategic leadership – by giving participants access to toolkits and techniques with an entrepreneurial perspective. The approach is described as facilitated learning: delivered by the business school faculty together with industry partners, with the help of mentors and advisers, and consisting also of networking and peer-to-peer learning.

Leaders of new ventures would surely find models like these useful, (as would policy makers) – whether they are designing their aeroplane on the way down from the cliff top, leading on a big problem that they have never before encountered in their life, or fostering innovation in the Hebrides or London.

John Whatmore, June 2018

 

 

 

 

 

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Few business nurseries focus on learning; but some do

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WORKING IN STARTUPS Founding a business attracts a lot of young people who have little or no business experience; but only a few business development programmes put much emphasis on learning – Village Capital, EntrepreneurFirst and the Clore Foundation among them.

 Becoming a company founder, some suggest, is to-day a more popular career than any other, but it is fraught with failure. Brent Hoberman has depicted it as like throwing yourself off a cliff and learning to build an aeroplane on the way down. While some succeed (YCombinator seems to attract heavy-weight innovators), many fail; (in the UK just under half new businesses apparently fail within three years), and many of those who start businesses simply become self-employed (or are out of work.) We desperately need to identify, select and train – for the various skills that are needed.

In 2016, Village Capital in New York launched a development programme for young people aimed at filling the gap between their education and the need for them to become employable in today’s venture-oriented world. It involved companies that would receive ‘training on business model development, customer hypothesis testing, financial modelling, partnership and customer development, and investor engagement. Entrepreneurs also have one-on-one time with mentors, industry experts, investors, top business leaders and potential customers’.

EntrepreneurFirst, an Accelerator for graduates to found new businesses, has become expert in putting people together who form effective teams, as has Village Capital in New York. EntrepreneurFirst achieves this by forcing its recruits to examine compatability in relation to purpose, in the very early stages of a startup.

The Clore Foundation, originally about leadership in the arts, runs a variety of leadership development programmes – for people in social enterprise. They are all part time; in groups; online as well as residential; a mixture of reflection – with coaching, and instruction; and all of them about working together to tackle their various current leadership challenges.

John Whatmore, June 2018

 

 

Building specific eco-systems

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Building specific eco-systems Introspection by Village Capital in New York yields insights into the roles and activities of entrepreneur support organisations

 Most entrepreneur support focuses either on the founder or on the investor. But it is important to identify the specific role in the middle of the “Pioneer Gap”: the ecosystem builder, says a report for the Kauffman Foundation by Village Capital in New York. The people who run accelerators, incubators, seed funds, and other entrepreneur support organisa­tions (ESOs) play a critical role in their communities’.

(Village Capital works by identifying real-world problems, and finding, training and investing in entrepreneurs, and building communities around them and their ventures – to improve opportunities for growth and success. Since 2009, when it opened its doors, it has supported over 500 ventures in 45 programmes.)

The report ‘s special contributions are around the qualities to select for and to work on in founders; and on enhancing mutual understandings between startups and funders. And Village Capital’s comments on their latest inclinations (at the end of this paper).

MIT is not alone is asserting that accelerators contribute to local development, stimulate economic growth by bringing jobs, financial opportunities and people to their area of operation.

One of the report’s findings is that programmes that are sector specific raise more funds, attract better entrepreneurs and are more likely to run, and to succeed. Significantly, they attract more targeted and more useful mentors and partners.

Few entrepreneur support organisations find that they can pay for this work in full, says the report, and need to find/use revenues from other sources, such as consultancy or other services, grants (from private or public organisations), or from other benefits that they provide (eg meeting local needs).

In designing their curriculum, ESOs should be clear about their objectives: to what extent are they about product validation, developing strategic partnerships, creating quality jobs, solving sectoral problems or making money as quickly as possible. They should use measurable targets.

In curriculum design and in selection, while most accelerators rely simply on advertising their programme to attract applicants, evidence strongly

suggests that quality is more important than quantity, that you should look to draw on sectors that your accelerator will hope to stimulate, and aim to find matches between entrepreneurial potential and business type (can Myers Briggs tests help, asks the report). ESOs should strive for transparency, collaboration and communication, and peer feedback.

Village Capital’s research examined eight common characteristics of founding team members:

  • Acumen – knowledge of business and market
  • Adjustment – emotional and psychological adjustment/self control
  • Ambition – need for achievement; drive to accomplish
  • Originator – individualistic; spontaneous decision-making style
  • People-focus – perceived level of concern for people
  • GRIT – confidence, resilience, perseverance
  • Persuasion – perceived ability to get things done through others
  • Team build – perceived ability to energise, motivate and inspire team members

And added three riders:

  • Spontaneity has a negative correlation with successful leadership
  • Self-awareness has a positive correlation
  • Female founders outperform their male counterparts.

The report stresses the importance of founder awareness in curriculum planning – in terms of

  • self-awareness
  • actionable feedback (including from peers)
  • realistic milestone planning.

Village Capital’s founding philosophy is about peer selection and ranking, in order to mitigate investor bias (and skewed power dynamics), to empower entrepreneurs, and to evaluate startups and startup leadership on their own merits (eg in terms of market potential, team strength, founder coachability, go-to-market strategy, traction and execution.).

VilCap has put a lot of work into building tools for the better assessment of teams and companies – especially in terms of venture investment readiness and awareness. This has included a definitional matrix – of stages of progress, designed to help entrepreneurs and investors use the same language, entrepreneurs to become more self-aware, and to enhance entrepreneur-investor conversations.

Village Capital’s model now emphasises

  • spending less time on the curriculum and more on teams working on their own;
  • emphasising networking and collaboration (eg in your sector);
  • startups should focus on developing com-munications, networking and organisational structures; and less on financial skills;
  • mentor quality and matching are the keys to success;
  • peer investment selection.

The VilCap Model is available as a toolkit – for those seeking to make use of Village Capital’s knowledge and experience.

See:

* VilCap.com – Reports. A year of Vilcap communities: how ecosystem builders can best help entrepreneurs succeed, 2016.

* And a previous blog of mine about Village Capital at https://wp.me/p3beJt-lN Oct 2017.

John Whatmore, March 2018

A purposed accelerator – in public services

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Making use of external expertise to deliver innovations in public services. Innovationeers in the public sector have not shared the same raw enthusiasm for startups and scaleups as the private sector: they have come much later to the game.

I wrote last about Village Capital in New York, whose modus operandi is upside down, in that it starts with the identification of major issues and only then builds teams and finds resources to tackle those issues. In the UK, CivTech’s young programme is now doing likewise.

CivTech’s mission is simple: it is to support innovation in the public sector by creating an environment in which issues can be identified and new products and services developed – thus contributing to more effective and efficient public services.

Its second programme, just launching, aims to offer opportunities for entrepreneurs to ‘solve a challenge, build a product, develop a relationship and build a business with public sector benefits’, by engaging with a major public sector organisation.

This year’s programme has identified nine challenges provided by their public sector sponsors, of which seven will be tackled by the seven teams that have been selected for the programme. These include:

  • how to create a better booking system for outpatient appointments
  • how better to understand citizen data
  • how to provide better [internet] access to public services.

Applicants could be existing companies with relevant material, graduates, a digital team or just someone with insight or a good idea.

 Three potential solutions to each sponsor’s challenge go through to a 3-week Exploration Stage – to develop their idea further, to engage with the CivTech team and the Challenge Sponsor, to participate in some workshops, and then to make a final pitch – for which each team receives £3,000.

The CivTech Accelerator that follows is three months long (for which teams are required to relocate to Edinburgh) – of innovation, experiment, development and production; with workshops, talks and mentors; of team and business building; of product building; of developing real and lasting relationships with public sector organisations – for which each team will receive £17,000 (CivTech takes no equity nor IP).

The CivTech team provides specific advice about its approach to service design, product development, government standards and system integration needs.

 Sponsors are expected to set aside £106k for each challenge, of which £27k goes to the solution provider (as above), and the remaining £81k is for ongoing development of the solution. The Challenge Sponsor receives an in-perpetuity royalty free licence to enable the successful participant to further develop and test their work with a view to its exploitation in the sponsor’s services.

The website inviting applications is couched in very full and clear, and charmingly optimistic terms, though the exploitability of the proposals is uncertain.

Of the nine teams that had participated in Round 1, two had worked with the NHS and were confident of new business; two had worked with Transport Scotland, one with sales already and both with more to follow; and two of the nine reported that they were still working on future business. New businesses, a new platform, a new product and a new client were among the mentions in their final reports.

The small team that has conceived and evolved this programme sits in the Digital Directorate of the Scottish Government, which has not only backed and endorsed the programme but has recently doubled the amount of money behind it. And this work has attracted widespread interest.

John Whatmore, November 2017

For more see https://civtech.atlassian.net

Re-shaping support for SMEs

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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

Big bets on big ideas

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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

Reversing a topsy-turvy approach to a better world?

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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)

 Next: the Business Growth Service’s coaches, mentors and advisers are having a real impact for SMEs; it must be exploited.

Following: Five Ace Mentors – you may need all of them

Most of the commercial supporters of hi-growth businesses depend on who turns up with a good idea – for which they search keenly; yet many of those ideas are often limited, ephemeral and even trivial, and many of their protoganists far from suited to the heavy sweat of growing a business. Few focus on issues of strategic, technical or sociological importance – like basic needs, lifestyles or communities.

Among those that have done so are:

Village Capital in New York – which seeks to identify large scale needs in any country throughout the world, and then to match them with experts and funds designed to find and implement solutions.

Syncona Partners, a subsidiary of the Wellcome Trust, which identifies potential solutions to major healthcare issues that are of technical or strategic importance and matches experts (or sets up the necessary management) and funds for delivering their benefits.

BioCity Nottingham which runs a programme whose starting point is identifying major issues of organisations in its area, and then finds experts who may be able to help solve those issues; and goes on to provide them with intensive support for the development of solutions.

The provision by Innovate UK’s for its grant winners of free access to The Business Growth Service is a welcome focus on technological opportunities that have been identified in competition, and thus a well-directed initiative for supporting young businesses that have the potential for high growth.

Innovate UK’s Business Growth Workshops bring these grant holders together and illustrate the analysis that the service’s Growth Development Managers put together, and which they use to offer a choice of three coaches, mentors or advisers to the business involved.

The success of this service must be exploited by making sure that it is adopted for example in clusters and in innovation centres everywhere.

John Whatmore

October 2015

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? (http://wp.me/p3beJt-9e)