Building your capacity and capability to deliver your own virtual learning incubators
Designing a virtual team
In our experience, the success of your innovation depends less on the original creativity or potential of your idea, but more on how you design a virtual execution team and a virtual advisory team.
Steven Blank (the father of lean startups) defines startup as a temporary organisation in search of a business model. With this mind, at such an early customer development and prototype stage, we think it's important if the team composition (particularly inside companies) should also be part-time and temporary. A virtual team if you will.
Of course this may slow down the execution, but that can be a good thing for a number of reasons:
- With limited time (as a designed constraint) it forces you to prioritise
- As soon as roles become permanent with respect to your innovation, your job depends on it so inevitably you become more solution-centered. This creates unneccessary pressure, you're more likely to choose one path too quickly to show results, you create less room for failure and learning, and become more internally focused rather than customer focused.
You will need a virtual execution-team, that is self-forming, which may comprise of:
- frontline staff, or those who are closest to the problem, driving bottom-up innovation
- product/service person, who can develop a prototype fast
- manager who will take ownership, if you decide to embed it/scale it into the business units. The business unit person needs to be part of the innovation from day one. 'Handing over innovations', is very high risk strategy.
- An expert in the process of lean innovation execution (see virtual co-founder below) who builds a way to get the best out of the team in a virtual environment.
We also recommend forming a virtual team of advisors:
Before asking who are they and what they can do for you:
1) You need to be clear on what value can you provide this virtual team. Is it (vested) equity stake, or payment for their time, or an opportunity for them to pursue a passion or interest.
2) How frequently should you meet them? In the early stages, I would argue once a week for 15 minutes (so you can only talk about one thing at a time) or once every two weeks for 30 minutes, all as one-to-ones, over video calls. Anything less than this, they're not really part of your team.
These are a few suggestions of the different types of relationships you may want to cultivate in your virtual team:
A virtual co-founder, co-creator or sherpa:
- Execute with you in some small effort ways (e.g. prototyes), not just there to advise you
- Has supported other similar stage startups, in the same industry, dealing with similar problems
- Helps you not only form hypotheses, but also design their execution
- Provides you personalised 'introductions' using their network or their network's network. These introductions need to help you advance (prove or dispprove) your specific hypotheses
- Highlights where you're on the path to failing, with brutal honesty
- Fiercly customer centric, and is not personall connected to your solution, helping you connect the dots between all your new learning
- A strong business understanding on how to create a sense of urgency
- Helps to address your blind spots (for example developing the product without training)
- Can hold you accountable (after you get investment, your internal or external investors will take over this accountability) to 'get shit done' by 'getting out of the building'.
- For internal startups, gives you permission to try and fail, and change.
Mentor: Another startup founder who is a few year's ahead or one or two lifestages ahead. For example, if you're a new co-founder, it's helpful to find another co-founder mentor who has just raised Seed or Series A round, so their advice is still raw, they understand the challenges you face, and crucially they still remember the practical things they did to overcome them. A mentor can help to:
- Remind you to continuously fall in love with the problem, not the solution
- Share their failures with you, more than your successes (for you can't replicate success per se, but you sure can avoid similar failures)
- Shares experience and wisdom, if you're moving too fast (skipping critical areas e.g. customer development) or too slow
- How you should focus on the 20% of activities that generate 80% of the value
Coach: who has experiencing managing and delivering change through people. Ultimately you're in the business of change with your new idea or solution. It's important to have someone who understands the psychology, the barriers to adoption, and managing relationships.
- How to best manage issues that come up with your co-founders, early stage employees, and other relationships.
- Rather than coaching you on your idea/product/service, they focus on your mindset.
- Improve performance by adjusting the incorrect behaviours, habits, to take on new responsibilities
- Hefty amount of honest feedback on your personal strengths and weaknesses
Sponsor (for internal startups): Sponsors are people in positions of power who work on your behalf to:
- clear obstacles
- assign higher-profile work to ease the move up the ranks,
- provide aircover and support in case of stumbles,
- find ways to tell a broader story in how your work connects with the company strategy
Customer: This could be you be your very first customer (or user) that is representative of many other customers for your idea/product/solution. This person can help you to understand:
- how decisions are made by your customers
- where budgets are coming from and how to tap into them
- when is the right time to be in front of potential customers/users
- which value you need to demonstrate to other customers
Pre-investor: Cultivate someone who has the budget and/or investment potential in your idea/solution/product. This person's advice is focused on:
- Share how your ideas can connect with other industries or use-cases
- Optimising and scaling a working business (broaden your perspectives and horizons)
- Push your thinking on the business-model
- Know people inside an industry that understand it and can help navigate it.
Finally, you will certainly get contradictory advice. As Vinod Khosla (Venture Captalist) said "knowing which advice to take (and leave) is one of the most important jobs as a founder". However by having a clear role, focus and reasons for having different advisors, it will ensure higher impact on you and your idea/startup/solution.