Many of the groups within Aquila have really started to put more and more resources into new products or entering new markets. We refer to these efforts as Initiatives. We have learned from many mistakes over the years and know we will make many more. This is part of our business and we need to take these risks to serve our clients better. Here is a quick guide to the most obvious mistakes we have made.
1. Senior Management supports but does not run the effort
This one is hard to put into place. It is so much fun starting new products or diving into new markets. The grass seems so green and the potential so large – why wouldn’t Senior Management run the show right? It requires breaking the old habits and you need approvals to do that – you need focus and not be pulled back into other projects that are high priority for the moment. The reality is that someone needs to be objective and the people closest to the effort often are not. If those closest are the Senior individuals that would have to stop the initiative, they are very likely to ignore the signs that things are not a good fit and just keep spending in the wrong direction.
Also, there is no better teaching opportunity than an initiative. If you want someone to learn about your business and help guide future opportunities – this is a great assignment. Give it to the people who are the future of your organization and support their efforts.
2. Build a transparent decision framework
I like to use Stage-Gate – there are documents out there on its approach and you can customize it to your needs. Especially when turning the projects over the others, they need to know what they are running at and how to engage others in the resource planning and decision tree on whether an initiative is going in the right direction or not.
Full transparency is important. If an initiative moves to the next stage with additional resources – explain why. Just like if it does not pass the decision gate than you explain why. This will enable your organization to get better, improve on the data they shared to pass that decision gate a second time or potentially challenge and learn from some bad decisions.
If you have products that had prior success – use them as an example of what made it through and how they would have scored or produced the documentation.
3. Inject fun
Working on a theoretical future outcome can sometimes lack the adrenaline of a current client and a short-term go live date. Find ways to make it fun. One strategy is to ‘gamify’ the effort of moving through the process. If you can put two teams together at the same time have them have a friendly competition. While there are no immediate deadlines, you need to keep momentum on the project so that you can continue to see progress. This is a not a research project for your PhD – the objective is to produce a product that adds value to our clients soon – you need to keep getting closer to that or else you should pick another product with more potential.
Compliment the effort with events. Shows like SharkTank are fun to mimic and having events that force teams to prepare lots of material in a short period of time to show how much they can accomplish with other people who are having fun but trying to win. Different types of hackathons accomplish similar things and often produce a ‘honeymoon’ feeling among staff for several weeks afterwards. It breaks up the pattern of what can be established in an innovative project
4. Finally – Don’t quit
Recognize that it takes energy and it takes people continuing at it. Most days will feel like you are not making progress and you can definitely have some down days – especially after you freeze a project that no longer shows promise. Those are often deflating days for the team but rather than deciding to move back to current products, you should continue onto a new project and just apply what you have learned. It is an expensive training approach, but the team is always more qualified for the next project if they know another variable that can sink your initiative.
It is easy to fall into a reactive working relationship with your clients. When the relationship is very positive and open, you can work through almost anything. At the same time, we are here to produce new solutions for our clients – ones that they don’t always see as immediately necessary. Fixing the existing product is always more immediately impactful for them so rather than building something new, they often will ask just to add another report or make one process a little more flexible. While you always need to be improving your core products, you need to compliment it with new solutions that hopefully will bring more value to your clients.