Starting an innovation project is exciting.
Finally… work that could have a real, tangible, positive impact not only for your company, but for your customers (and let’s be honest – for your career prospects) as well.
And then? It happens. Progress begins to slow down and you’re not sure why. Your landing page test failed. Sales won’t let you do discovery with current customers, and all your big ideas seem to be getting eaten alive by silos, policies, and systems built to support the successes of the past – not the future.
That’s why the Advanced Lean Startup workshop exists. Developed by Tristan Kromer (Kromatic) and hosted by Rob Aalders from Startup Spirit, it’s designed to show you how to effectively break through roadblocks and manage your project’s needs, goals and priorities in a large organisation.
We sat down with Rob to find out what obstacles innovators often face, how to know what you’re doing right (and wrong), and what innovation managers need to be doing in order to move their teams in the right direction; and, of course, how the workshop helps with all of it.
First things first – who is this workshop for? Who will get the most out of it?
The Advanced Lean Startup workshop is meant for those who have, at least, been through one cycle, one lean startup process or innovation process. This is because the workshop focuses on experience and the practice of innovation – not on theory, what comes from the books and talks and all that. We want people who have been in the trenches and have experienced the innovation process, and some of the organisational and process obstacles that come along with it.
We also have a learning platform with carefully curated content for people to access before they get to the workshop. It ensures they have a good basic knowledge when they enter the workshop – so we don’t end up discussing what a pivot is, for example. We skip all of that and go right into the real hard work.
When you’re doing a lean startup process, there are times where things aren’t going well, and you wonder: is the method not working, or am I doing it wrong, or is this just not going to work?
Often, these people have been questioning themselves about their speed: am I moving fast enough? How much time should this experiment take, and is the time it took for me right? Am I spending too much time on this, or not enough? They also question their experimentation and velocity: am I doing enough experiments? The outcome metric of the experiment itself… is it right?
But in this workshop, we begin with the questions themselves.
“Am I asking the right questions? Are we talking about the right assumptions? The assumptions that we have, are they prioritised in the right way? Are we focused on the right things?”
So your assumptions, and the experiments you run based on those assumptions, are a key starting point for team members as well as for innovation managers.
Some other things that are very important, and that people really love to talk about, is how to find the right tactics to work around obstacles in their organisation. When you’re running an innovation project you’re not in a cocoon; you’re part of the traditional corporate ecosystem, and you have to work with colleagues in other departments who are functioning more traditionally in their day-to-day. This can, and often does, result in conflicts and obstacles that can hamper your experimentation.
So finding tactics to work around these obstacles, or better yet solve them, is a large part of the Advanced Lean Startup workshop.
It can be hard to understand why, when an experiment was good in the sense that you did it correctly, it didn’t lead to a desired outcome. How do you know what went wrong?
It’s a tough question to answer and that’s one of the things we try to teach, because every experiment and every industry is, of course, different. That’s why people can bring their own project into the workshop, so that we can look and evaluate what they’ve put in there.
But there is a framework, or things that you could learn, that signal you that your experiment is wrong, or your validation is wrong, or your metrics are all wrong.
And of course some common issues come up, like validating your idea based on one, two, or three interviews, which is, in virtually all cases, very weird. I mean the only case where that might work is in a market that is very very small: let’s say we’re a nuclear plant builder and we need these specific nuclear machines. There’s only maybe two or three companies in the world building that, very few clients. For most markets there’s a whole bunch of clients, so validating based on a handful of interviews is not sufficient.
You’ve got the experiment itself, but you also have to consider the sequence of experiments and selecting the assumptions you are testing upfront. It’s a matter of prioritising correctly.
You need to know: what is the impact of this assumption on my business? How big is that impact? But you should also ask: how complex, or how complicated, is the experiment itself? How much time and resources do I need to run this experiment? Because you also want to keep things simple.
And then from there, and this is where the two-by-two framework comes in, you need to figure out what you’re testing. Are we focusing on the product? Are we testing the market? And then you must decide if you’re running a generative experiment, which gives you more qualitative data, or an evaluative experiment where you get more hard data. So you need to be very aware of what experiment fits into what box. This is all basic stuff that you can teach but,of course, practice is always different.
What about innovation managers? Are the obstacles they face different from, say, the obstacles their team faces? How would this workshop help them?
We tend to see innovation managers in two roles: the innovation manager, and the innovation lead coach.
The innovation lead coach often works very closely with teams, and they also use this workshop as a Train The Trainer. If you want to teach people lean startup it’s helpful if you have wider, deeper knowledge beyond just things you’re currently working and focusing on, and more advanced skills and knowledge in your pocket. It makes you a better trainer and you’ll be able to get your own people to a higher level. So innovation managers who want to train their teams, to make their innovators coaches within their organisations, use this workshop to train them and help grow the innovation crowd within their business.
The innovation manager is more concerned with the kinds of things I mentioned earlier: is our speed right? Are the experiments right? When you’re a manager, people come to you and ask: we’re running this experiment, is this is okay? Do you have any feedback? Can you help me out here? So for them, it’s beneficial to have not just some experience but also knowledge, frameworks, toolboxes to draw from so they’re capable of evaluating experiments as well. When you’re growing the number of experiments and growing the number of innovation initiatives, things get much more complicated. You need to find ways to measure and track the experiments that you are running, and to help teams evaluate if they’re doing it right, if they’re doing the right stuff. The frameworks, knowledge and experience Tristan brings to the workshop is very helpful here.
The first day and the morning of the second day of the workshop we really dig into the tools, methods, and tactics of running the innovation project itself. On the second day, in the afternoon, we discuss what Tristan calls ecosystem design: how to operate as an innovator in your organisation and how to overcome obstacles in that process. I see this as a key role for innovation managers, to remove organisational obstacles or find ways around them. The innovation manager should be able to find the right people and get the right decisions to help their teams work better and faster. In ecosystem design, we draw up a picture of the organisation and identify who the decision makers are in your organisations, and also the different types of decision makers you might need. We add to that some tactics, all based on wide experience, for overcoming obstacles in a positive way. Managers tend to find this very helpful.
So why go through a workshop like this, as opposed to reading a book or watching some talks and then just going for it?
That’s exactly what our participants have figured out; at some point, books and talks are not enough. What we see and hear back from a lot of people is that they realised there is so much more to learn. Everyone comes in open, with a lot of questions about stuff they’re doing – even people from organisations that we regard as leaders in innovation. Their innovators have brought issues to the team table and actually found out that, okay, everyone here thinks we’re doing Lean Startup, and some of us are, but there’s a whole bunch of us that are doing it wrong, or at least could be doing it much, much better than we are.
I often compare it to learning to play football. We can go out on the street. You can kick the ball and we can say: ok, you can kick the ball so you can play soccer. Technically, sure.
“But then why do people go to football training every week, or twice a week? Or to play professionally, even more than that? Because playing football is about much more than just knowing how to kick a ball.”
This is also true for innovation. You have to practice. You have to build your skills. You have to learn, always be learning. This is what happens in the advanced workshop. From the feedback, people say they’ve really learned a lot and that they can really improve the way they work in their teams, or train their teams way better. It really adds to what they’re already doing.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m very much in favour of learning on the job, of doing practical stuff and learning from it right there.
“But it’s also true that if you’re working in a corporate, you can get a bit of tunnel vision whether you want to or mean to or not.”
A workshop like this one opens your mind. You get to review and reflect on what you do. You see all the different types of tools, you’ve got the frameworks. You start working with things you’ve never worked with before, in ways you’ve never worked before. Gradually you become better and better at innovation.
I like to compare innovation sometimes with marketing. In the 70s it was totally new and people couldn’t explain exactly what it was. And today, it’s just a normal function in the organisation.
Could you imagine a company without a marketing department? And this is also where innovation is heading. And this, this learning, this practice, is part of the process.