Can innovation be as simple as a checklist?

Martin Bell's Talk @ TEDxBrussels 2018

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Martin Bell delivered the following speech with the accompanying presentation slides at TEDxBrussels on March 5, 2018 at Bozar (the Center for Fine Arts Brussels).

[Update: The video was officially uploaded – feel free to watch the entire speech below! ]

The Speech

How many of you have some sort of a to-do list on your phone, in your planner, or in your calendar right now? Hands up please!

Definitely many of us!

Now, how many of you are using this to-do list to cope with the forces of digital disruption? Hands up please!

That’s what I expected. Just a few of us lucky ones. 🙂

I believe in such a checklist because we are now in an era of unprecedented change. No private and public sector entities are left untouched by digital disruption: be it corporations, governments, NGOs, or investors. And the pace of change will only continue to accelerate.

Organizations are investing massive resources into transformation efforts.

Yet the outcomes are littered with disjointed efforts and failures.

I’ve had a front-row seat to all of this, while we built the digital ecosystem from scratch. I studied innovation, entrepreneurship and technology in the U.S., and worked in Germany for the company that pioneered Berlin’s thriving startup ecosystem.

It has since been a time of many expensive so-called “learning experiences”! 🙂

Happily, digital is maturing:

  • A complex innovation ecosystem has developed.
  • All of its components are ready.
  • And we finally have the workforce, machines, and supplies we need.

Yet we’re still lost in a labyrinth of transformation.  

I believe that change is needed now.

To understand exactly what’s needed, I think we must

  • take a step back,
  • take a deep breath,
  • And take a look at the big picture.

Continuous reinvention is not entirely good. Imagine, for example, if you had to continuously reinvent … architecture. You can have all the best materials.

But without a blueprint, you get … THIS!

🙂 This is funny. Yet it also frustrates me. It frustrates me to see so many initiatives sit stalled along a boulevard of broken dreams.

Thus I started to ask myself if we could bring an engineering mindset to the complexity of digital ventures.

OK, so full disclosure: I’m German. And like any self-respecting German, I love precision and engineering. 🙂

Therefore I ask you: In relation to digital ventures, does having a methodology sound unrealistic? Or maybe uncreative?

Think of it this way: Isn’t an architect realistic and creative? Isn’t building skyscrapers realistic and creative?

Of course it is!!!

Yes, we need innovation and disruption. But an innovative, disruptively designed skyscraper that neglects to put in the plumbing system? That’s not so good.  Because you simply don’t build a skyscraper without an architectural plan.

In my previous company, I was chief architect not of buildings and bridges, but of processes and systems. I designed a system that allowed us to launch companies in 100 days max. In one year, we successfully led over 20 companies through this proven system, once in only 28 days.

Over the past years, I’ve consulted over 30 private and public sector entities.

Along this journey, I wanted to answer the question: What makes a digital company a success?

Specifically, I wanted to discern

  • which tasks are skipped by ventures that fail and
  • which tasks are essential to those that succeed.

Admittedly, I got a little obsessed and excited. Yet despite the complexity, I distilled the truly necessary steps into a comprehensive yet reasonably-sized playbook.

Those steps can be distributed into three stages:

  • Setup,
  • Launch,
  • Scale

Each of the 3 stages has 5 elements. They include, among others: 

  • Plan mission
  • Develop MVP, and
  • Optimize Functions.

Essentially, there are 100 tasks necessary to build a successful digital startup!

To give you an example, nowadays when a digital company launches, it can measure… well… everything. Digital data can and must be measured in minute and ongoing increments.

Collecting data like that wasn’t an option in the pre-digital business world. However, many current “digital” ventures are still stuck in that pre-digital world.

To illustrate: Take an innovation lab where I was called in as an advisor. They had launched several startups – which were iterating, pivoting, reiterating, repivoting, and going nowhere.

How were these startups measuring data? They were not using business-critical KPIs: key performance indicators. Instead they were using traditional quarterly presentations: sleek slides of generic market data.

In essence, they had created digital products, but left out the steps to decide

  • which data to measure and
  • how to measure it.

So they were driving in the dark with their headlights turned off.

It’s logical that you start collecting most of your data only after launch, which is only in the last stage. However, you must start implementing those KPI-related tasks in the first stage, in the Setup stage.

Those KPI tasks include

  • Determining your tool stack, or deciding on your tech platforms.
  • Defining your top 20 KPIs, or deciding what to measure.
  • Setting up your data warehouse, or building your data infrastructure.

Those decisions need to be made here.

Not there.

Of course, KPI-related tasks make up just a tiny fraction of the numerous interdependent tasks on this blueprint.

Interestingly, I’ve found that every startup skips different steps. If the founder is a techie …

… the sales and marketing tasks may be ignored.

If the founder is a visionary …

… the operations tasks may be ignored.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter why you leave out crucial steps or do them at the wrong time. Because if you have to do a post-mortem asking why – that means that your venture is, by definition, already dead!

I take a nerdy 🙂 kind of pleasure in knowing that many things in life can be solved using a good to-do list.

The 100 Tasks let you zoom out to see the big picture, then zoom in to solve each step. It lets you put one foot in front of the other, while not losing track of the big picture.

Our brave new world is one in which

  • innovation is an imperative rather than an option,
  • disruption is an opportunity rather than a threat, and
  • entrepreneurship is for all rather than for the few.

I want all organizations to be able to successfully build their best ideas.

We have reached a state in which creating digital venture-building systems can be learned.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time.

There is a blueprint and we can all be architects of our future.

If you’re interested in the framework Martin mentioned during his TEDx Talk, you now have the chance to get the full-size and high-quality version of it.

To receive your very own 100 Task Startup playbook, follow this link:

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