Building your capacity and capability to deliver your own virtual learning incubators
We're driven by own failures. Having delivered many conferences and workshops, we realised that these learning experiences are broken. Conferences are expensive, workshops and elearning courses don't lead to intended change because learning is separated from immediate application.
We've now supported over 50+ innovations, services and startups, through our virtual learning incubators. Each one, designed and executed by one person, and delivered as a virtual learning experience. We've ran through a number of different permutations, with groups as well as one-to-ones, with individual founders as well as teams, with a coach mindset and a co-founder mindset, with different types of projects ranging from innovation to hiring, customer development to sales development. Our learning in one sentence: it is possible to design a one-person-led, virtual learning incubator, supporting up to 16 teams at one time, and still have high impact.
Firstly, what is a 'virtual learning incubator'?
Virtual: It's done over video calls, so it can be scheduled into participants daily work, is low-cost, and can bring together colleagues dispersed geographically.
Learning: The focus is to accelerate the learning through speed of experimentation, evidence based decision-making, and failing-fast
Incubator: It's connected to a strategic initiative, integrated to on-the-job real life projects, and over a period of time, for example 8 weeks which is short enough to create urgency for action and long enough for you to show results.
When it's not relevant?
- When it's operational training e.g. training in new software or new process, or compliance
- When you have to train hundreds or thousands of employees
Secondly, are you the right 'one-person' to test a virtual learning incubator? First can you can give 2 days a weeks to this endeavour? Do you have both content and process expertise in the business problem the virtual incubator will focus on, have you been there and done it (to lend credibility), do you love executing over strategising, able to deal with the emotional highs and lows when dealing with failing ideas, able to operate with a co-founder mindset rather than a coach or mentor, and carry out about 8 hours of virtual video calls a day and enjoy it?
The following are some of the key steps for you to consider, each step deserving it's own detailed blog (in due course). For now, the summary steps, broken down into design, develop, deliver and deploy.
Step 1: Develop urgency through a one-page business-model-case. This one-page should include:
- Problem: What business-problem does it solve? Anchor your virtual incubator with an existing strategy initiative. This may be related to sales, innovation, digital transformation, hiring, or any other strategic interest or problem of a senior leader. It must be strategic in nature, for example we are looking to create a digital transformation of our products and services to help us grow our revenue by 30% next year. It should not be an operation focused, for example we have new Salesforce implementation, how can we train 1000+ employees to migrate and use the new system.
- other areas: metrics used to measure the outcomes of your effort, cost of running this test incubator, value proposition to the organisation. high-level design of your virtual incubator model, etc.
Step 2: Develop a virtual experience: To generate deep learning and real change, you need to combine knowledge, skills, mindsets, networks, and resources. For example:
- Knowledge: Build a curriculum which breaks up the 8 weeks into a series of 2 week sprints focusing on a different area, building up to the collective whole. This includes reading blogs, articles, watching of videos, quotes relevant to the business problem.
- Skills: Every week they have to 'get out of the building' to get things done and seek new insights, test their assumptions and hypotheses.
- Mindsets: This is hard and it takes time and habit of implenetation before mindsets shift.
- Networks: You need a way to tap into existing and new networks in the orgnisation. The goal here to introduce your teams to individuals that move their ideas forward, that challenge them, be a potential customer to them etc. These are not 'feel good' conversations and building a network for its own sake.
- Resources: a) You need to be able to provide tangible time and expertise to push their idea along, it's only then they see you as a co-founder (or co-creator) rather than a coach or mentor or advisor. Initially co.creator was designed as once a week opportunity. We realised that at the week gap was too long to develop habits, and do course-correction really fast. We then moved to twice a week schedule, and they literally only have a 2 working days before our next call. This created a sense of urgency that is critical to getting things done. b) Have consistent template and tools across all your teams. Each tool or template can't be longer than one-page. The incubator is an exercise in learning, not in documentation.
Step 3: Quantify your model of support: For example, with one of our innovation incubators, we say we contribute 16+ hours of one to ones, 20+ hours co-working so we are delivering and executing with them (not just advising them), 5+ introductions to our network that are focused on moving their hypotheses forward, 20+ hours of getting out of the building they have to do, 3 group (in their cohort) presentations virtually, and explore 2+ alternative ideas for every team. The goal of quantifying your support is because a) it's make it easier to sell to teams and get them to apply and b) eventually you want to be able to turn it into a model that is scalable and sustainable.
Step 4: Secure time from a virtual team. Even a one-person virtual learning incubator needs a virtual team. For example, related to your strategic initiative, try to get committment of around 200+ hours from different individuals (designers, developers, senior leaders, middle management, potential customers etc). Send calendar invites to them, so that time is blocked off and they are committed.
Step 5: Advertise your incubator, with a simple one-page application process. Be very clear on who is right for this learning incubator experience and who is not. What's in it for them as value, their commitment required, and how it's going to be a tough experience.
Get them to create a one-page model of their solution which serves as a good overview (without getting lost in the details), highlights their progess, what 'getting out the building' they've already lined up, whats their time committment which is signed off by any senior managers, what failure(s) they've already had, and what outcomes they are looking for in the 8 weeks of your virtual incubator,
Step 6: Select your participants.
For example, we have the following way to select the right candidates/teams.
-Spend 30 minutes interviewing each of the candidates/teams.
-Choose those that are failing (defined loosely as those not reaching their intended goals) and trying to change their ideas and solutions in some way (and can provide evidence of it)
-Select the projects that are similar in lifestage and characteristics. It's really hard for you to give advice to a huge range of projects who are at different levels.
- Create a profile of ideal teams/individuals. For example, the ones we support through our innovation incubators are typically a) failing 6-12 months b) have applied as a team of three with one person having the product experience, one person experienced with the problem and selling, and one senior backer who removes internal bottlenecks and advocates for them, c) have skipped effective customer development, d) are willing sell before developing their product further.
Step 7: Logistics and scheduling. Managing time-slots for so many different teams is not easy. We've found a simple way. On a first come first service basis, we open up your calendar for the teams to reserve their own slots. this way you save endless backwards and forwards of arranging times.
Step 8: Help them fall out of love with their solution, by giving them a safe space: This is hard, initially we tried to influence them by challenging them. It felt a little too confrontational trying to have every aspect of their original idea stabbed and picked on repeatedly. Now we've moved to a different approach. Now we say, OK you've got your idea, lets' keep developing that. Based on everything we've heard in the first 2 weeks, we propose an alternative solution that you should also be testing as you go along (sometimes we end up with 4 or 5 solutions depending on their individuals and teams). This gives them a safe space to try and experiment without feeling their idea has been knocked down, and make them defensive.
Step 9: Build trust: It usually at the end of the second week when trust starts being established, and this, more often than not, happens when you are able to execute some part with them and not just advise them.
Step 10: structure your virtual calls: They have to be video based, to overcome the barrier and distance of not being in the room. - use real time collaboration tools like google docs so changes are being made real-time. In fact I would argue it's even better than working in person, because you can collaborate, not just discuss.
Create an consistent agenda for each call. For example, ours is:
- Their life/your life outside of the startup (understand the constraints in which they are operating in)
- Progress on action items from last week's call (quick sanity check for you)
- They share their insights based on them getting out of their building (You get to connect the patterns, make new suggestions and hypotheses…)
- We re-work the one-page tools they are using e.g. customer script, value proposition, pretotype
- We update the innovation-canvas (or the one-page where you're bringing all the learning back together).
Step 11: Give tough love: There are always reasons (or excuses) why things that we've mutually agreed have not been done before our next call. When the action items are not done, we end the call, highlighting to them that if they have not got out of the building, they've failed that week. This sends a very clear signal that without new learning there is no real point to these calls.
Step 12: Show results publically in a Demo Day: All of the individuals/teams need to be given a platform to share their learning with senior leaders. With those that are killed off, let them share their logic and learning as to how th the decision was arrived, what value there is in killing off their projects/idea/solution e.g in terms of time and resources saved. Do not hide your 'failures'. For sucessful ideas design a next-step process for them to seek additional funding or resources.
Step 13: Update your business -case to get executive level buy-in to iterate and scale your work a) go full-time and support 16 teams every 2 months for example b) expand the concept of a virtual learning incubator for other strategic business problems