Last week’s post was an effort to build a taxonomy of “corporate innovation.” Each of the buckets we’ve identified needs further explication, but in today’s post I’m going to get more tactical, and talk about the ways that early-stage ventures need to decide what future they are trying to create in order to define their strategy and roadmap.
Why do you need a Vision?
Any early stage venture -- whether standalone startup or inside a larger company -- is an attempt to create a specific future. One question that startup investors should ask themselves about any pitch is "Do I believe that this future is possible/likely?"
[I'm going to use "startup" in this post to describe any sufficiently new project, whether a standalone company, or an internal venture]
In the very earliest stages of any company/project, the startup needs to decide, strategically, what they should be building. This decision is often made on a time horizon of quarters-to-years, as that's how long funding typically lasts for any given milestone. This timeline is usually roughly the same for projects inside a big org or for a VC-backed company.
One way to think about startup strategy is to think about what futures you want to create. In order to predict the future, you have to know how the present will turn into the future. One thing a lot of futurists miss is that there has to be a clear roadmap to a future prediction! Progress tends to be path dependent.
Long-term thinking and strategy are both improved by thinking step-by-step about how you can get to that future state. Wardley Maps are one structured tool for planning toward a future state while considering changing market dynamics.
But the highest leverage thing you can do is to build a roadmap for your project that shows how you can achieve a 5-year vision.
First, you have to decide on a vision.
Finding the right vision
A lot of teams struggle to decide on a vision of how they will be a force for good in the world. If that's you, then Step 1 is to come up with a few competing visions.
If you have a mission, this should inform the vision, but not every company does have a mission to start. A mission is a loftier aspiration. Here's Google's: “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful”
The vision is a description of how you will accomplish that mission; or it describes the way that your product or service will create value at scale. Google's vision: “to provide access to the world’s information in one click.”
A mission can inspire and help point your company in the right direction, but a vision is a required component of strategy.
Multiple Visions, Multiple Paths
At a startup's earliest stages, you'll probably be able to generate a few competing visions that you might want to create. Each should be a vision that you could believe in -- it should be aligned to your values and your hypotheses about the future.
If your domain is, say, financial communication between brokers and clients, you might have one vision focused on AI-enabled improvements in customer relationships, and another focused on using a blockchain to increase transparency in some way.
For each of these, you'll need to define an "end state" for that vision. What would our Product *do* in 5 years' time, when we have achieved it?
Then, working backwards from each end state, you need to think deeply about what would need to be true to achieve that state.
For each vision, then, you should be building a roadmap, in 6-month or 1-year increments, for the required path of progress to achieve that end state.
The Logic of Selection
Once you know what is required, you can select between these visions based on their commercial logic.
To inform this choice, you should ask questions like:
What capabilities would we need to execute on this?
Could we achieve one end state faster than the others?
Is there higher upside for one path?
What is the likelihood of success for each?
How much value does each step of this roadmap create? Are we adding value at each step along the way, to increase our likelihood of success?
The roadmap you've created in a snapshot of your strategy. It is not a final answer, it's a point-in-time estimate of what you should be working on to progress your business.
To Recap — Defining a Vision & Creating a Strategy:
Step 1: Articulate a few competing visions of how you will make the world better. Start with your mission if you have one.
Step 2: For each vision, work backwards, defining what would need to be true to enable the next step.
Step 3: Examine these roadmaps. What's missing? How long will each step take? What are the uncertainties at each step?
Step 4: Choose a Vision, based on commercial logic.
Now that you have defined a vision, and a high-level roadmap, you need to build the machine that most effectively take you toward that 5-year vision.
A note to readers: I love solving puzzles like these, and I love working with adventurous teams creating ambitious futures. If you’d like to have a chat about how I can help you define your Vision, Strategy, and Roadmap, please do get in touch.
Each week, I'll include links to to articles, books, or podcasts related to corporate innovation, that can help you accelerate the knowledge and progress of your teams.
Progress, Postmodernism and the Tech Backlash, by Alex Danco. A really interesting post about the ways in which some criticism of the current tech industry is justified, and how much of it has to do with the shift from “Progress” to “Innovation” in the kinds of projects that dominate the current landscape. I’m going to zoom in on Invention vs Innovation, in part to respond to Alex’s piece, next week.
We Need To Take CO2 Out Of The Sky by Ryan Orbuch. A comprehensive overview of the different approaches to carbon sequestration, why we need to ramp up these efforts, and how we would start to assess the relative virtues of these different approaches. Carbon removal includes a series of technological challenges as well as a series of social and economic ones. I’ll likely touch on this as well in next week’s issue.