Original post published at: http://cluster-performance.com/exploitation-launchpad-the-workshop by Gilbert Peffer
Last week I was in Espoo, Finland for a three-day meeting of the Learning Layers project. On Wednesday afternoon we ran a workshop called the Exploitation Launchpad, to move the project’s innovation agenda forward. ‘Exploitation’ is EU research project jargon and is basically about translating project results into actual practice, business or otherwise. On the day before the workshop, we organised a number of individual, self-paced activities to prepare for next day’s team exercises. We wanted participants to become acquainted with key ideas and concepts that we were going to use and also generate some material input for the joint activities.
Creating new business opportunities out of a research project as large as Learning Layers is not an easy task. The project has another 18 months to go, which gives us a bit of time to make this happen. However, there is a lot of preparation involved and we need to start thinking now about how to refocus people’s minds on creating sustainable impact from their hard work. That was our main goal when we came up with the idea for this three and a half hour workshop. Over the last year we did a number of similar but smaller exercises around exploitation using the business model canvas and the value proposition canvas, but we realised that we needed a more gradual approach to produce tangible results.
We were thrilled to have the workshop at the great facilities of the Design Factory at Aalto University and more than happy with the excellent support they gave us throughout the event. And the weather played nice too during that time! We managed to fit all thirty-five participants into a single space and organise them into six ‘innovation teams’. Each team was given a key development area of the Learning Layers project and asked to sketch the process of creating a successful spin-out product, service, or business. Here is a quick description of the six areas:
- Help Seeking, Living Document, Bits & Pieces – A set of tools for healthcare professionals that support effective, focused, efficient and traceable collaborative working and learning and that enable the development of new and improved work processes.
- Learning Toolbox – A fully customisable learning application for people involved in work related learning that facilitates, supports and enables mobile and context based learning.
- AchSo! – An application for video recording and annotation for educators, trainers, and learners that is fast, easy to use, and all on one device, allowing users to add rich information to videos.
- Layers Box – An integrated cloud infrastructure solution built on open source technology for small, medium, and networked enterprises and public sector organisations that is maintainable, scalable, and customisable, allowing organisations to run their own secure community information systems.
- Social Semantic Server – An open source social knowledge management platform for small, medium, and networked enterprises and public sector organisations that enables organisational sharing, collaboration, and learning.
- Layers Centre of Expertise – A transnational ‘testbed and launchpad’ service for vendors and users of learning technologies.
Before we could get started with our activities, we had to set up the six teams. This was not so straightforward since there are more people working in some of Learning Layers development areas than in others. Since our objective at this early stage was to raise awareness about the nature and process of exploitation rather than come up with fully-fledged product and service development pathways, we aimed for well-balanced teams in terms of roles, expertise, and interests.
We used an online Google Form based survey to ask participants a week before the workshop which team they would be most interested in joining and what roles – producer, marketer, strategist, and savant – they wanted to play during the workshop activities. This then helped us to configure the six teams, although we told participants that if they felt strongly about changing teams, they could do so at any time during the workshop.
On the day before the workshop, we asked each participant to come up with a concrete product or service idea, a first realistic customer, and the funding and support they would need to make it all happen. We also asked them about the extent they identified with the nine personality types of the perfect innovation team: visionary, generator, iterator, customer anthropologist, tech guru, producer, communicator, roadblock remover, and fundraiser 1). This would enable the team to determine its particular innovation profile, which we called ‘teamality’. We had prepared a set of cards to help them provide this information in a structured way so that it could be used as an input to the activities of the following day.
Final preparations on the day of the workshop
Our workshop was scheduled for the afternoon, so we had some time in the morning to prepare the intro presentation, print the cards for the team activities, and organise other missing bits and pieces. Printing the cards and stickers took a couple of hours though. The usual culprits – margins, bleed, and trim borders – had me rush back and forth between printer room and prep table, trying to make what’s on paper look like what’s on the screen. In the end it all worked out fine and it made me doubly grateful for the excellent printing support at the Design Factory.
Once all the material was printed and cut, we packaged it into our custom yellow-black striped envelopes, ready to for the afternoon’s action. My colleague Raymond Elferink and I also managed to assemble our still separate presentations just before lunch and put the final styling touches on it.
We started the workshop with a brief overview of our goals and of the four activities for the afternoon. After the presentation, we asked everybody to join their team table and take 15 minutes to fill out the cards from the previous day in case they needed more time. The four activities that followed were designed to make people focus on and reflect about concrete customers, the value of the product or service they want to offer, how stakeholders could be developed into customers and key partners, the makeup of the team that would have to put this into practice, and the funding required to move the whole process forward.
Activity 1 – Layers development areas and team roles
We asked each team to appoint a captain who would take the organisational lead on the table. Since not all participants were familiar with the development area they were assigned to, we asked the captains to summarise its main features and answer questions from the team members. We also asked people to pick one of the roles they signed up with on the previous day. The idea was that by taking on particular roles, participants could bring a broader range of perspectives to the table when exploring questions and issues during the team activities.
Activity 2 – What is your teamality?
Clearly, building an effective team is a central concern for any spinoff or startup venture, but in research projects such as ours it typically receives very little attention, if any. With this second activity, we wanted the teams to start thinking about the skills and expertise needed to implement their favorite product or service idea, either as a spinoff project or as a company. We gave the teams a card with radar charts to determine their current teamality profile and their target profile a year and a half from now. ‘Teamality’ is a kind of team personality based on the nine personality types I mentioned before. Teams would build their current teamality profile using the individual profile scores from the “My team member personality” card we gave participants on the previous day. They then compared their current team scores with their target scores and made an educated guess about where the biggest gaps lie and how they might want to fix them.
One interesting feature that characterised most teams was an apparent lack of fundraisers. Without securing additional funds, it becomes very hard of course to move tools and technologies beyond the prototyping stage. What is noteworthy though is that while many partners in the Layers project have ample experience with competitive research grants, they do not seem to count this as a fundraising skill. Alternatively, it might be a quirk of how we calculated the teamality scores. We need to dig into this a bit more once we have gone back to the data.
We realised during the workshop that the teamality approach had a number of shortcomings. This was the first time we ran this type of workshop, so we weren’t really surprised to find flaws here and there. We will try to fix them going forward. In the case of the teamality gaps, a good match between the current and target teamality scores should be taken with a pinch of salt since even if the team brings together all the necessary human resources, it doesn’t mean that people will just give up their day jobs and become entrepreneurs. It obviously depends very much on personal interests and availability if somebody becomes more heavily involved in exploitation. This is something we need to work on over the next months. Another problem that became apparent during this activity was the way the teamality scores were computed using averages. A more meaningful way to do this is to define a team profile in terms of role-based headcount and let team members chose between the available roles, and then compare both.
Activity 3 – Delight your first customer
Who is your customer and what is your product or service? This was the topic of the third activity where we wanted participants to come up with a concrete and realistic first customer they could market their product or service to in a not so distant future. We created two simple cards for this exercise that borrowed a few ideas from the business model canvas and from the Adobe Kickbox. The product statement from the Adobe Kickbox worked particularly well to focus people’s minds on the key aspects of an offering: the product or service description, the target customer, the key value, the primary benefits, and how all that differs from existing alternatives.
While we wanted teams to really focus on that first customer and see it as a key milestone in their product and business development, this turned out to be a major point of contention for some teams. There are development areas in Learning Layers that have already built a casi-client relationship with some of the project’s application partners and with external stakeholders. While some of them might become first paying customers, others will continue as valuable partners supporting the venture in different ways. We need to make some changes in that respect in future editions of the workshop and allow more explicitly for key stakeholders that are in a customer-like position but wouldn’t quite count as first paying customers. Actually, one of the teams got around this problem by creating a new category of proto-customers.
Activity 4 – Sketch your journey
In the fourth and last activity, we asked teams to create a timeline showing how they plan to get ready for their first customer. They first placed the customer on the timeline and then created up to three product (or service) releases for the features listed on the product card from the “Delight your customer” activity. Even though there was no hard commitment asked for at this point, taking decisions about when to put sufficiently stable product versions out into the wild generated a lot of fruitful discussions and created a better understanding by all team members of the current state of technology development.
Teams were also given four “Get out of the building” cards to help them think about meaningful ways of engaging with customers and key partners during product development. Getting out of the building is an expression that was originally coined by Steve Blank. It tells us that we should test the key hypotheses on which the success of our product and our business ideas depend in quick and plentiful iteration cycles with our customers. ‘Fail fast’ is the well known guiding principle here. In Learning Layers, we have the advantage of already doing much of the development in frequent co-design workshops with our end users. However, extending this agile approach to the exploitation (= business) side is a rather new idea even for us!
Another very important matter that I brought up in the post on the teamality activity is that of funding. We asked teams to propose up to four realistic funding opportunities to support the product and customer development plan. In some cases the proposals were quite concrete, but generally the outcome of this exercise was rather vague. That might be related to the low scores on the ‘Fundraiser’ scale for most teams.
Money is however not the only way that you can get your project off the ground. In-kind contributions by key partners is another mechanism to help you push your activities forward. This can be in the form of employees from partner organisation working with you on some part of your product or it can be material resources and infrastructure that you can use at a discount or even free of charge to get things done quicker and cheaper, or it can be in the form of access to client networks of the partner organisation. There are four “Key partner” cards that teams used for this purpose. Since we ran out of time, there were just very few key partner cards filled out. We need to revisit this in the follow-up activities over the next months.
Wrapping up and next steps
On the day after the workshop, each team had three minutes to present their innovation journey. While most participants found the workshop interesting and helpful, there was also constructive criticism about some of the activities that we will address in the follow-up work over the coming months. We now have three important medium term milestones that help us structure that work: the project meeting in Tallinn (Estonia) in three months time and the one in Toledo (Spain) in September. Our next step now is to gather some more feedback and to analyse the data from the workshop, and then build on those results to push forward the exploitation agenda and keep the project engaged with the process in a meaningful way.