Driving Corporate Innovation: Design Thinking vs. Customer Development

Startups are not smaller versions of large companies, but interestingly we see that companies are not larger versions of startups.

I’ve been spending some time with large companies that are interested in using Lean methods. One of the conundrums is why does innovation take so long to happen in corporations? Previously Hank Chesbrough and I have written about some of the strategic issues that impede innovation inside large corporations here and here.

Two methods, Design Thinking and Customer Development (the core of the Lean Startup) provide the tactical day-to-day process of how to turn ideas into products.

Design Thinking HBR page                                   Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything page

While they both emphasize getting out of the building and taking to customers, they’re not the same. Here’s why.

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Urgency Drives Innovation Speed
Startups operate quickly – at a speed driven by the urgency of a proverbial gun-to-their-head called “burn rate.” Any founding CEO can tell you three numbers they live and breathe by:

  • the amount of cash left in the bank
  • their burn rate (the amount of money they’re spending monthly minus any revenue coming in) and
  • the day they run out of money and have to shut the doors (or get a new round of funding.)

If you’re a founder, there’s a constant gnawing fear in the pit of your stomach that it will all end badly; running out of money, having to fire all your employees and failing publicly. (Whoever says, “Failure feels OK in startups has clearly never run a startup.)shutterstock_170739491

A startup CEO adroitly translates this urgency to their employees not with reminders of “we’ll all soon be out of jobs,” but with a bias to action – making measureable progress in getting minimum viable products in front of customers, beating competitors, getting users/customer quickly, and generating revenue. Startups build a culture of commitment and drive to make things happen.

In large companies, the employees are no less smart, but the organization is optimized to deliver repeatable products, revenue and profits. To support this, its corporate culture is dominated by process, procedures and incentives. In large companies, even the most innovative projects (whether it’s process innovation, continuous innovation or disruptive innovation) are not going to make or break the company – and employees know it. Canceling a project may frustrate the team members working on it but unlike in a startup, they still have their jobs, offices and houses and the company won’t close. Attempts to instill urgency via a gun-to-the-head philosophy are frowned on by Corporate HR. All of this adds up to a “complacency culture” rather than an “urgency culture.”

Customer Development versus Design Thinking
This real sense of urgency—and how it shapes employee attitudes and practices – is a big reason why innovation processes in startups are different from those in large companies. One of these processes is how startups versus companies learn from customers. It’s the difference between Customer Development versus Design Thinking.

Customer Development and Design Thinking share similar characteristics in exploring customer needs, but their origins, differences and speed in practice are very different.

I invented the Customer Development process trying to solve two startup problems. First, most Silicon Valley startups were (and primarily still are) technology-driven. They are founded and funded by visionaries who already have products (or product ideas based on technology innovation) and now need to find customers and markets. (Think of the early days of Intel, Apple, Cisco, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) Second, burn rate and dwindling cash meant startups had to find these customers and the attendant product/market fit rapidly – before they ran out of money. These two characteristics– a technology-driven product already in hand and a need for speed– drove the unique characteristics of Customer Development. These include:

  • Moving with speed, speed and did I say speed?
  • Starting with a series of core hypotheses – what the product is, what problem the product solves, and who will use/pay for it
  • Finding “product/market fit” where the first variable is the customer, not the product
  • Pursuing potential customers outside the building to test your hypotheses
  • Trading off certainty for speed and tempo using “Good enough decision making
  • Rapidly building minimum viable products for learning
  • Assuming your hypotheses will be wrong so be ready for rapid iterations and pivots

Design Thinking also focuses on understanding the needs of potential customers outside the building. But its motivations and tactics are different from those of Customer Development. Design Thinking doesn’t start with a founder’s vision and a product in-hand. Instead it starts with “needs finding” and attempts to reduce new product risk by accelerating learning through rapid prototyping. This cycle of Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation is a solutions-based approach to solving customer problems.

Design Thinking is perfectly suited to situations where the process isn’t engineering-driven; time and money are abundant and the cost (and time) of a failure of a major project launch can be substantial. This process makes sense in a large company when the bets on a new product require large investments in engineering, a new factory or spending 10s or 100s of millions on launching a new product line.

But therein lies the conundrum. Because of the size of the dollars at stake (and your career), lots of effort is spent to make sure your understanding of the customer and the product is right. At times large companies will drag out these design-thinking investigations (prototype after prototype) for years. Often there is no place where urgency gets built into the corporate process. (Just to be clear this isn’t a failure of the process. Urgency can be built in, it’s just that most of the time it’s not.)

Design thinking vs cust dev

Both Models Work for Large Companies
There is no right process for all types of corporate innovation. In a perfect world you wouldn’t need Customer Development. No corporate R&D would happen before you understood customer problems and needs. But until that day, the challenge for executives in charge of corporate innovation is to understand the distinction between the two approaches and decide which process best fits which situation. While both get product teams out of the building the differences are in speed, urgency and whether the process is driven by product vision or customer needs.

In one example, you might have a great technology innovation from corporate or division R&D in search of customers. In another, you might have a limited time to respond to rapidly shifting market or changing competitive environment. And in still another, understanding untapped customer needs can offer an opportunity for new innovation.

Often I hear spirited defenses for Customer Development versus Design Thinking or vice versa, and my reaction is to slowly back out of these faith-based conversations. For large companies, it isn’t about which process is right – the reality is that we probably haven’t invented the right process yet. It’s about whether your company is satisfied with the speed, quality and size of the innovations being produced. And whether you’re applying the right customer discovery process to the right situation. No one size fits all.

There’s ample evidence from the National Science Foundation that Customer Development is the right process for commercializing existing technology. There’s equally compelling evidence from IDEO the Stanford D-School and the Biodesign Innovation Process that Design Thinking works great in finding customer needs and building products to match them.

Lessons Learned

  • Customer Development and Design Thinking are both customer discovery processes
  • Customer Development starts with, “I have a technology/product, now who do I sell it to?”
  • Design Thinking starts with, “I need to understand customer needs and iterate prototypes until I find a technology and product that satisfies this need”
  • Customer Development is optimized for speed and “good enough” decision making with limited time and resources
  • Design Thinking is optimized for getting it right before we make big bets

Not All Startups Are the Same. 2 Minutes to Find Out Why

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Getting Lean in Education – By Getting Out of the Classroom

This week the National Science Foundation goes Lean on education by providing $1.2 million to educators who want to bring their classroom innovations to a wider audience.

shutterstock_157439453——–

The I-Corps program started when the U.S. National Science Foundation adopted my Lean LaunchPad class. Their goal was to train University scientists and researchers to use Lean Startup methods (business model design, customer development and agile engineering) to commercialize their science. Earlier this month the National Institutes of Health announced I-Corps @ NIH, to help scientists doing medical research take their innovations from the lab-bench to the bedside and accelerate translational medicine.

This week, the NSF is announcing the next step in the I-Corps program– I-Corps for Learning  (I-Corps L).  This version of I-Corps is for STEM educators – anyone  who teaches Science, Technology, Engineering and Math from kindergarten to graduate school, and wants to learn how to bring an innovative teaching strategy, technology, or set of curriculum materials to a wider audience. Following a successful pilot program, the NSF is backing the class with $1.2 million to fund the next 24 teams.

The Problem in the Classroom
A frustration common to both educators and policymakers is how difficult it has been to get new, innovative, education approaches into widespread use in classrooms where they can influence large numbers of students. While the federal government and corporations have dumped a ton of money into STEM education research, a disappointing few of these brave new ideas have made it into practice. These classroom innovations often remain effectively a secret – unknown to most STEM educators or the research community at large.

It turns out that on the whole educators are great innovators but have had a hard time translating their ideas into widespread adoption. What we had was a very slow classroom innovation diffusion rate.  Was there any was to speed this up?

A year ago Don Millard of the National Science Foundation (who in a previous life had been a STEM Educator) approached me with a hypothesis that possibly could solve this problem. Don observed that educators with innovative ideas who actively got out of their classrooms and tested their innovations with other educators/institutions/students had a much better adoption rate.

Up until now there was no formal way to replicate the skills of the educators who successfully evangelized their new concepts. Don’s insight was that the I-Corps model being rolled out for scientists might work equally well for educators/teachers. He pointed out that there was a close analogy between scientists trying to bring product discoveries to market and educators getting learning innovations into broad practice. Don thought that a formal Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps methodology might be exactly what educators needed to understand how their classroom innovations could be used, how to get other educators and institutions to adopt them, and how to articulate their value to potential investors .

Don then recruited Karl Smith from the University of Minnesota to pilot a class of 9 teams made up of STEM educators. Karl recruited a teaching team (Ann McKenna, Chris Swan, Russ Korte, Shawn Jordan, Micah Lande and Bob MacNeal) and Jerry Engel trained them. The team ran their first I-Corps for Learning class earlier this year.

Karl and his teaching team really nailed it. So much so that the NSF is now rolling out I-Corps for Learning on a larger scale.

I-Corps for Learning Details
NSF will provide up to $1.2 million to support 24 teams. The I-Corps L cohort teams will receive additional support — in the form of mentoring and funding — to accelerate innovation in learning that can be successfully scaled, in a sustainable manner.

To be eligible to pursue funding, applicants must have received a prior award from NSF (in a STEM education field relevant to the proposed innovation) that is currently active or that has been active within five years from the date of the proposal submission. Consideration will be given to projects that address K-12, undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral research, as well as learning in informal science education environments.

Each team will consist of:

  • The principal investigator (who received the prior award);
  • An entrepreneurial lead (who is committed to investigate the landscape surrounding the innovation); and
  • A mentor (who understands the evidence concerning promise, e.g., from an institutional education-focused center or commercial background that will help inform the efforts)

The outcomes of the pilot projects are expected to be threefold:

  • A clear go/no go decision concerning the viability and effectiveness of the learning-oriented resources/products, practices and services,
  • An implementation “product” and process for potential partners/adopters, and
  • A transition plan to move the effort forward and bring the innovation to scale

Proposals from potential I-Corps L teams will be accepted through September 30, 2014. Class starts January 2015.

Check out the I-Corps for Learning website here.

Lessons Learned

  • The diffusion of STEM classroom innovations is excruciatingly slow
  • The Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps model may accelerate that process
  • I-Corps for Learning is accepting applications

What Job Needs to be Done? 2 Minutes to Find Out Why

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The Path of Our Lives

Some men see things as they are and say, why;
I dream things that never were and say, why not
?”
Robert Kennedy/George Bernard Shaw

I got a call that reminded me that most people live their life as if it’s predestined – but some live theirs fighting to change it.

At 19 I joined the Air Force during the Vietnam War. Out of electronics school my first assignment was to a fighter base in Florida. My roommate, Glen, would become my best friend in Florida and Thailand as we were sent to different air bases in Southeast Asia.

An Enemy Attack May Make Your Stay Here Unpleasant

An Enemy Attack May Make Your Stay Here Unpleasant

On the surface, Glen and I couldn’t have been more different. He grew up in Nebraska, had a bucolic childhood that sounded like he was raised by parents from Leave it to Beaver. I didn’t, growing up in a New York City apartment that seemed more like an outpatient clinic. Yet somehow we connected on a level that only 19-year-olds can.  I introduced him to Richard Brautigan and together we puzzled through R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience. We explored the Everglades (and discovered first-hand that the then-new national park didn’t have any protective barriers on their new boardwalks into the swamps and that alligators sunning themselves on a boardwalk look exactly like stuffed ones – until you reach out to touch them.) In Thailand I even figured out how to sneak off base for a few days, cross Thailand via train, visit him in his airbase and convince everyone I had been assigned to do so (not that easy with a war on.) The chaos, the war, our age and our interests bonded us in a way that was deep and heartfelt.

steve in Thailand 2 ARL-46Yet when the Vietnam War wound down, we were both sent to bases in different parts of the U.S. And as these things happen, as we grew older, more people and places came between us, and we went on with our lives and lost touch.

Four Decades Later
Last week I got an email with a subject line that only someone who knew me in the Air Force could have sent. While that caught my attention, the brief note underneath stopped me in my tracks. It read, “You have crossed my thoughts through the years. The other night you appeared in my dreams. I actually remembered it in the morning and googled your name. By God, there you were. A bit overwhelming…”

You bet it was overwhelming, it’s been 40 years since I last heard from Glen.

On the phone together, I spent an hour with an ear-to-ear grin as both of us recounted, “when we were young, crazy and stupid” stories, stories I still won’t tell my children (which makes me grateful it was life before social media documented every youthful indiscretion.) Glen even reminded me of my nickname (which still makes me cringe.)  The feel of long forgotten camaraderie let me wallow in nostalgia for a while. But as Glen began to catch me up with the four decades of his life, it was clear that while we both had the same type of advanced electronics training, both had been on the same airbases, and essentially both had been given the same opportunities, our careers and lives had taken much different paths. As he talked, I puzzled over why our lives ended up so different. Listening to him, I realized I was hearing a word I would never use to describe my life. Glen used the word “predestined” multiple times to describe his choices in life. His job choices were “predestined,” where he lived was “predestined,” who he married and divorced had been “predestined.”  I realized that our world views and how we lived our lives differed on that one single word.

“Predestined.”

The path of our lives
While the call brought me back to when we were foolish and fearless, thinking about how Glen lived his life troubled me. It took me awhile to figure out why. I wasn’t bothered about anything that Glen did or didn’t accomplish. It was his life and he seemed happy with it. Hearing his voice brought back those days of enthusiasm, exploration, adventure and unlimited horizons. But listening to forty years of a life lived summed up as “preordained” felt like a sharp reminder of how most people live their lives.

Glen’s worldview wasn’t unique. Most people appear to live an unexamined life, cruising through the years without much reflection about what it means, and/or taking what life hands them and believing it’s all predestined.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to grips that the unexamined life is what works for most people. Most take what they learned in school, get a job, marry, buy a house, have a family, become a great parent, serve their god, community and country, hang with friends and live a good life. And for them that’s great.stages of awareness

Some do want more out of life, but blame their circumstances on others – their parents or government or spouse or lack of opportunities, but almost never on their own lack of initiative. Initiative means change and change is hard for most. (Clearly there are still pockets in the world where opportunities and choice are limited but they are shrinking daily.)

Perhaps the most painful to watch are those who wake up later in life thinking, “I could have or I should have.”

Pushing the Human Race Forward
Whether we have free will or whether our lives are predestined has been argued since humans first pondered their purpose in life. The truth is we won’t know until the second coming or the solution to the many-worlds theory.

But what we know with certainty is that there is a small set of humans who don’t act like their lives are predestined. For better or worse, regardless of circumstances, country or culture they struggle their entire lives wanting to change the outcome. And a small percentage of these translate the “wanting to change” into acting on it. This small group is dissatisfied with waiting for life to hand them their path. They act, they do, they move, they change things.

Those born into poverty actively strive to change their own lives and that of their children. Those who want to start a company or join one quit their job and do it, while others try to change their political system or fight for social or environmental justice.

And the irony is while the individual stories are inspiring they are trying to tell a much bigger story. These misfits, rebels and troublemakers have been popping up in stories for thousands of years. Every culture has myths about larger than life heroes who rose from nothing. This archetype is a recessive gene common to all cultures. They are the ones that make things happen, they’re the ones that push the human race forward.

This is what makes and drives entrepreneurs. Our heads are just wired differently.

You Are Master of Your Own Fate
The world is much different then when Glen and I were young and foolish. In the past, even if you did feel this spirit of adventure, you had no idea how and where to apply it. Barriers of race, gender or location threw up roadblocks that seemed insurmountable.

The world is much smaller now. The obstacles aren’t gone but are greatly diminished. Everyone within reach of a smartphone, tablet or computer knows more about entrepreneurship and opportunity and where to get it then all of Silicon Valley did 40 years ago. There’s no longer an excuse not to grab it with both hands.

As far as we know, this life isn’t practice for the next one. For entrepreneurs the key to living this one to the fullest is the understanding that you can choose – that you do have a choice to effect the journey and change the rules, that you can decide to give it your best shot to do something, something extraordinary.

If your passion is startups and innovation, and your community, region or country doesn’t have an entrepreneurial culture and community – help start one. If there’s no funding for startups in your community – get up and move to where it is. If you’re in a company frustrated with the lack of opportunity – change jobs.

You are master of your own fate. Act like it.

Lessons Learned           

  • The same destiny overtakes us all
  • It’s what you choose to do with your life in between that makes the difference

Validation: Be Sure Your Startup Vision Isn’t a Hallucination. 2 Minutes to See Why

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