Innovating Municipal Government Culture

D.R. Widder is the Vice President of Innovation and holds the Steve Blank Innovation Chair at Philadelphia University. He’s helping city government in Philadelphia become more innovative by applying Lean startup methods and Philadelphia University’s innovation curriculum. I asked him to share an update on his work on teaching lean techniques to local governments.

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This February Philadelphia University and the City of Philadelphia founded the Academy for Municipal Innovation (AMI). Our goal is to foster innovation principles and practice in local government by changing the way government employees think about innovation and act on their ideas. We just graduated the inaugural class.  Here’s the story of our journey.

Inaugural Class Academy of Innovation Management

The Academy for Municipal Innovation has come out of collaboration between Philadelphia University and the City of Philadelphia. Soon after I came to PhilaU as the chief innovation officer, I met Adel Ebeid, who was newly appointed as Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Philadelphia. We bonded over our similar challenges, as Adel was only the second chief innovation officer in city government and I was one of the first chief innovation officers in higher education.

Building a Government Innovation Curriculum
The Academy for Municipal Innovation curriculum is built on Philadelphia University’s distinctive approach to innovation education – it’s collaborative, multidisciplinary, and engaged in the real world. The curriculum draws from Philadelphia University’s design, engineering, and business disciplines, as all are needed to make innovation relevant in the government.

Philadelphia University Undergraduate Curriculum

Philadelphia University Undergraduate Curriculum

The program is built around five core innovation practices that we teach:

  1. Integrated Design Processes – The process of opportunity finding, innovation and problem solving
  2. Business and Operations Models – How to describe, design, challenge, and evaluate innovation
  3. Systems Thinking – Methods for gathering and mapping out all stakeholders and influences surrounding an issue and solution
  4. Research Methods – How to find actionable insights and ask the right questions.
  5. Innovation Leadership – How to develop innovative teams and culture.

We took this these core innovation practices in the form that has worked at the undergraduate level, and adapted the processes and content for the working professional in the government.

The Academy for Municipal Innovation (AMI) curriculum
We deliver the class to government employees in an Executive Ed format comprised of seven 4-hour sessions.

Each class is a mix of theory and practice. A key design principle is that each session includes at least one tool that participants can use the very next day at work, so they can make it real immediately. For example, simple brainstorming techniques like “Yes, And” and “Silent Brainstorming” were put to use the same week they learned them.

We select one common theme that runs through all the classes for continuity, and they build upon it as they go. The theme for the pilot class was “How can the city better communicate and advance innovative ideas”. We built on this theme teaching the students opportunity finding, concept development, stakeholder mapping, systems dynamics, research, and business models perspective, culminating with a capstone workshop where they bring it all together.

The strategy is to take participants from across the full range of city organization chart to seed the culture change. The pilot class (we call them the Pioneers) learned innovation principles and tools, and will bring them back to their groups and spread the word. For example, a subset of the class self organized around how to better service businesses starting and operating in the city. They used the capstone to pilot a process that they plan to take back to their organizations and implement at scale.

Scaling the Academy for Municipal Innovation
We see the Academy for Municipal Innovation scaling in three dimensions:

  1. Culture – graduates become change agents in their home groups, and change their group culture locally, amplifying the impact of each graduate
  2. Depth – The certificate program can be expanded into courses for credit, and ultimate a master’s degree in innovation in government.
  3. Reach – As we move out of pilot, we will offer this program to other city governments (and other levels of government). Success in Philadelphia will make us a flagship for innovation at the city level.

Academy for Innovation Management scaling strategy

Lessons Learned

  • The bar is low but the need, and receptiveness is high for government innovation. The students in the Pioneer class have actively challenged ideas and assumptions, and are already applying what they have learned in their work. Today.
  • Creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking skills transcend context, age, and pre-existing knowledge. These skills are teachable/learnable and no matter how good you are, you can get better.
  • Leadership buy-in to innovation is that much more critical to success in government contexts.
  • Government doesn’t get to ‘opt-in’ to problem solving or choose which problems it will tackle. The government innovates with the hand it is dealt to a greater extent than the private sector.
  • The scale of a city as a building block is compelling for change and social impact. It is less complicated and with less inertia than the state and federal level, making the prospect of change more manageable.
  • “Municipal Innovation” might be an oxymoron to the cynic, but cities have scope, and levers of influence, that industry does not. Changes in policy, regulations, civic engagement, unique partnerships, social programs, and different funding mechanisms are all tools available for the municipal innovator.
  • The ‘boot camp’ experience creates a new communication network. Our pioneer class formed strong bonds learning new things together, in a new and intense environment. In addition to traditional communication, the closely bonded students can reach across the silos directly to each other, built on the relationships formed in class.

Working with the City of Philadelphia on Academy for Municipal Innovation has left me exhilarated. The city leadership, and members of this pioneer class, are committed to real innovation in government. They are taking on systems highly resistant to change, with diverse stakeholders in intricate relationships, under public scrutiny and political complexities. The magnitude of the challenge and their commitment is inspiring.

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Corporate Acquisitions of Startups: Why Do They Fail?

For decades large companies have gone shopping in Silicon Valley for startups. Lately the pressure of continuous disruption has forced them to step up the pace.

More often than not the results of these acquisitions are disappointing.

What can companies learn from others’ failed efforts to integrate startups into large companies? The answer – there are two types of integration strategies, and they depend on where the startup is in its lifecycle.

The Innovation Portfolio
Most large companies manage three types of innovation: process innovation (making existing products incrementally better), continuous innovation (building on the strength of the company’s current business model but creating new elements) and disruptive innovation (creating products or services that did not exist before.)

Companies manage these three types of innovation with an innovation portfolio – they build innovation internally, they buy it or they partner with resources outside their company.

innovation portfolioFive Types of Innovation to Buy
If they decide to buy, large companies can:

  1. license/acquire intellectual property
  2. acquire startups for their teams (and discard the product)
  3. buy out another company’s product line for the product
  4. acquire a company for the product and its installed base of users
  5. buy out an entire company for its revenue and profits.

Silicon Valley – a Corporate Innovation Candy Store
Corporate business development and strategic partner executives are flocking to Silicon Valley to find these five types of innovation. In response, venture capital firms like Sequoia and Andreessen/Horowitz are hiring new partners just to work with their portfolio companies and match them to corporations. They are actively organizing annual and quarterly activities to bring the portfolio and Fortune 500 decision makers together–  in both large events and one-on-one visits. The goal is to get a corporate investment or an outright acquisition of the startup.

VCs like acquisitions as much as IPOs because the acquiring companies often can rationalize paying large multiples over the current valuation of the startup. For acquirers this math makes sense since they can factor in the potential impact the startup has when combined with their existing business. However, these nosebleed valuations make it even more important in getting the acquired company integrated correctly. The common mistake acquirers make is treating all acquisitions the same.

Is the Potential Acquisition Searching or Executing?
Not all new ventures are at the same stage of maturity. Remember, the definition of a startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. (A business model is all the parts of a strategy necessary to deliver a product to a customer and make money from it. These include the product itself, the customer, the distribution channel, revenue model, how to get, keep and grow customers, resources and activities needed to build the business and costs.)

Startups are those companies that are still in the process of searching for a business model. Ventures that are further along and now executing their business model are no longer startups, they are now early-stage companies. Large corporations come to the valley to looking to acquire both startups which are searching for a business model and early-stage companies which are executing.

Companies that acquire startups for their intellectual property, teams or product lines are acquiring startups that are still searching for a business model. If they acquire later stage companies who already have users/customers and/or a predictable revenue stream, they are acquiring companies which are executing.

What gets lost when a large company looks at the rationale for an acquisition (IP, team, product, users) is that startups are run by founders searching for a business model. The founding team is testing for the right combination of product, market, revenue, costs, etc. They do it with a continual customer discovery process, iterating, pivoting and building incremental MVP’s.

This phase of a new venture is chaotic and unpredictable with very few processes, procedures or formal hierarchy. At this stage the paramount goal of the startup management team is to find product/market fit and a business model that can scale before they run out of cash. This search phase is driven by the startup culture which encourages individual initiative and autonomy, and creates a shared esprit de corps that results in the passionate and relentless pursuit of opportunity. This is the antithesis of the process, procedures and rules that make up large companies.

In contrast, early stage companies that have found product/market fit are now in execution mode, scaling their organization and customer base. While they still may share the same passion as a startup, the goal is now scale. Since scale and execution require repeatable processes and procedures, these companies have begun to replace their chaotic early days with org charts, HR manuals, revenue plans, budgets, key performance indicators and other tools that allow measurement and control of a growing business. And as part of their transition to predictable processes, their founders may or may not still be at the helm. Often they have brought in an operating executive as the new CEO.

Predicting Success or Failure of an Acquisition
So what? Who cares whether a potential acquisition is searching or executing?

Ironically, the business development and strategic partner executives who find the startup and negotiate the deal are not the executives who manage the integration or the acquisition. Usually it’s up to the CTO or the operating executive who wanted the innovative technology (and at times with a formal HR integration process) to decide the fate of the startup inside the acquiring company.

It turns out the success of the acquisition depends on whether the acquiring company intends to keep the new venture as a standalone division or integrate and assimilate it into the corporation.

Actually there is a simple heuristic to guide this decision.

If the startup is being acquired for its intellectual property and/or team, the right strategy is to integrate and assimilate it quickly. The rest is just overhead surrounding what is the core value to the acquiring company.

However, if the startup is still in search mode, and you want the product line and users to grow at its current pace or faster, keep the startup as an independent division and appoint the existing CEO as the division head. Given startups in this stage are chaotic, and the speed of innovation depends on preserving a culture that is driven by autonomy and initiative, insulate the acquisition as much as possible from the corporate overhead. Unless you want to stop innovation in your new acquisition dead in its tracks, do not pile on the corporate KPI’s, processes and procedures. Provide the existing CEO with a politically savvy “corporate concierge” to access the acquiring company’s resources to further accelerate growth. (It helps if the acquirer has incentives for its existing employees that tie the new acquisition’s success to those that help them.) The key insight here is that for a startup still searching for a business model, corporate processes and policies will kill innovation and drive the employees responsible for innovation out of the acquired company before the startup’s optimal value can be realized.

If the acquisition is in execution mode, the right model is to integrate and assimilate it. Combine its emerging corporate KPI’s, process and procedures with those of the acquiring company. Unless it’s the rare founder who secretly loves processes and procedures, transition the existing CEO to a corporate innovation group or an exit.

Acquisiton strategy

Lessons Learned

  • Corporate acquirers need to know what they’re buying – is their acquisition searching or executing
  • If the startup is acquired for its IP, talent or revenue, it should be rapidly integrated into the acquirer
  • If the startup is acquired for its products and/or users, preserve its startup culture by keeping it an independent unit
    • Appoint a “corporate concierge” to access the acquiring company’s resources
    • Incentive programs need to tie together the new acquisition’s continued success and the rest of the company
  • Acquirers need a formal integration and on-boarding process


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New Lessons Learned from Berkeley & Stanford Lean LaunchPad Classes

Our Stanford and Berkeley Lean LaunchPad classes are over for this year, and as usual we learned as much from teaching the teams as the teams did from us.

Here are a few of the Lessons Learned from these two classes.

Have each team talk to 10 customers before the class starts
Each year we learn how to move more of the Lean LaunchPad class logistics outside our classroom so teams have more time for in-class learning.

A few years ago, we moved the formation of teams’ to before the class started and in doing so, saved a week of what normally be an in-class time activity. To make this happen, we hold three “information sessions” two weeks apart before the class starts. In these “info sessions” we describe the purpose of the class, and then let students mix, meet and form teams. During this pre-class time we share a Google doc where students who have ideas can find other team members, and students without an idea can find a team that matches their skills and interests. Application and admission to the class is by interview with a fully formed team.

Info session announcement

Info session announcement

The next thing we learned is to make applying to the class an integral part of the learning process. Teams apply by filling out both a business model canvas and a “competitive petal slide.” Having the teams do this accomplishes three things.  First it forces the students to read and understand “what’s a business model canvasbefore they even come to class.

Freewire application

Team Application: Business Model Canvas

Second, the competitive slide enforces a modicum of due diligence on the product and market. (We got tired of knowing more about each team’s market by doing a Google search as they presented. Now it’s their job.)

Farmsense competive slide

Team Application: Competitive “Petal” Slide

Finally, having teams spend time on the canvas and competition as part of the application process saves weeks of what would normally be an in-class activity (and as a bonus gives the team a heads-up about the difficulty of the class and shows whether they’re serious about the class or just shopping.)

This year we learned to raise the bar once again.  Could we get the teams to come into class having already talked to 10 customers? Instead of using the first class to have teams just present their business model canvas, this time the team’s first presentation would be about what they learned outside the building about their value proposition. (We pointed them to our tutorials on customer discovery and how to conduct customer interviews but didn’t expect them to be experts on week 1.)

SignUP week 1

1st week team title slide – 11 interviews before class started

We did an A/B test by requiring our teams in one school do this while not requiring it for the teams in the other school. The result?  Teams that had to talk to customers before the class hit the ground running. There was a substantive difference in team trajectory and velocity that continued throughout the quarter. The amount of learning between the two felt quite different. While there may have been other factors (team selection bias, team make up, etc.), we’ll now make this an integral part of all the classes.

Have each team put the number of Mentor interactions on their weekly title slide
The second innovation this year involved mentors. Each team is assigned a mentor as a coach. We’ve been trying to figure out how to make mentor engagements with their teams a regular rather an adhoc activity. While we have required the teams to add a summary of any mentor interaction to their LaunchPad Central narrative, we felt we didn’t have sufficient high-level visibility for these essential interactions.

GiveModo Class 8

But this year, a seemingly minor change to the teams’ weekly cover slide had an important impact. As teams present each week, their cover slides show the number of customers interviewed for that week (>10) along with the cumulative customers interviewed. This year we added one more metric for their cover slides– the number of mentor interactions for that week (>1) along with the cumulative number of mentor interactions.

This enhanced the visibility of the teams interaction (or lack of) with their mentors and allowed us to proactively intervene early if there wasn’t sufficient interaction.

Here are a few of the Final Presentations (see here for all of them)

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If you can’t see the presentation above, click here

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