Business model innovation may look complicated. But one of our oldest technologies—agriculture—provides a surprisingly simple lens for navigating this innovation process.
Why you should care:
  • Innovation and collaboration must move through a lifecycle that includes idea, launch, scaling and completion—but most teams are not designed to be effective in all phases
  • Effective innovation requires attention to the 'biggest picture' of the environment around your business, the 'big picture' of your whole company's business model, and the 'little picture' of what each of your customers has to do their in their lives
  • Design of teams based on thinking styles supports creativity and resilience, and a process which includes all types of thinkers is more likely to succeed
  • Innovation can be accelerated by creating reciprocal links between members of various teams with responsibilities across the entire organization
  • Capacity can be increased by creating reciprocal links between members of various team who think in similar ways, resonating with one another

For eons, and across many cultures, humans have conceived of creating value in one very simple way: the four seasons of a year which correlate to planting seeds, helping them take root, harvesting crops, and plowing the ground to prepare for the next planting. Business could think of innovation in the same way. Whether it’s a new product or an expense management process, every idea goes through these four phases—or seasons—of innovation.

My colleague Miles Kierson often defines the phases of execution as formulation, manifestation, realization and culmination—four phases which correspond well to spring, summer, fall and winter. Each season has its own characteristics, its own feel, pace and tensions. Each season also requires different tools, skills and strategies, with key projects along the way.

In a small enterprise, all phases of a project or initiative may be executed by the same team. In larger organizations there may be handoffs from one team to another as one phase ends and another begins. A team that carries projects through the entire cycle will need to include people with diverse thinking styles and ways of working so that it can stay effective as the demands of the project shift from season to season. Teams that are handing off projects may be highly specialized, but chances are they will have at least occasional requests for support from other teams working on other parts of the lifecycle. In both of these scenarios, it’s useful to understand what kind of thinking you or your team are best suited to provide in relationship to what each season of innovation requires.

Before looking at the thinking styles and worktypes as they apply throughout the seasons, you may want to read the article What Kind of Thinker Are You? and our companion piece, Being a Thought Partner, and/or take this quiz on worktypes to find out how your way of thinking and working fits into this model.

This article also references business model innovation concepts, such as the Business Model Canvas [offsite link], created and popularized by the Strategyzer group. You can find books about the concept at www.causeit.org/bookshelf ; to get started quickly, watch this video on how the Business Model Canvas works: 

A 2 minute overview of the Business Model Canvas, a tool for visionaries, game changers, and challengers. This method from the bestselling management book Business Model Generation is applied in leading organizations and start-ups worldwide. 

Before anything can be planted, there has to be room to plant and an idea of what needs to be grown. In the winter, it is time to culminate the preceding cycle of growth and harvest, repair the fields and equipment, and prepare for the next cycle. This includes planning the next year’s crops and gathering seeds while we live off of the reserves from the fall harvest. Perhaps one of the hardest seasons, especially if not planned for well, the end season is also the stage to make room for new growth. In the business world, the culmination of projects means paying attention to lessons learned and ideas conceived of in the past year (the gathering of seeds) to integrate into the next year’s work.

Before a new project can begin, there must be space for it. If you think of the winter season, it’s a time for clearing fields, planning plots and gathering seeds while living off of the reserves of the preceding year.

During the winter, each kind of thinking has a role:

Winter Roles

Explorers consider issues like trends, available resources and long-term needs.

Planners set the process for the upcoming phases and make sure the prior year’s reserves are in order.

Energizers gather everyone and get them ready and excited.

Connectors talk to other teams and communities.

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Experts research and validate high-potential ideas and ensure the environment to support them is in place.

Optimizers work with planners and experts to seek maximum yield and productivity.

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Producers ensure all functional tasks from previous work (or innovation cycles) are complete, and set up an environment to work in.

Coaches train and orient everyone to what their upcoming tasks are or may be.

Spring is the time to surface ideas, plant as many new opportunities as possible, and make sure the right combination of water and care are there to help new things sprout and take root. During this time of year, we have lots of freedom to take risks—but it’s still very important to make good decisions about what to plant, as we won’t be able to see the results for a while. In the business environment, activities of this stage often include planning for product launches and seeking additional funding, holding kickoff meetings and orienting new team members. The spring ends when plants are beginning to take deeper root and appear from underground, and in the business context, this means that we move to the summer of innovation when ideas are beginning to take shape in material form—to manifest.

Spring Roles

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Explorers continue mapping big picture trends to ideas under consideration.

Planners help keep the process on track while progress may not be immediately apparent.

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Energizers keep focus and excitement while ideas germinate and begin to take root.

Connectors keep others in the organization aware of progress and match them to members of the team who might need input.

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Experts work closely on buildout of new ideas.

Optimizers work with the team to get as many ideas as possible validated and built, carefully measuring progress and tweaking process.

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Producers work to actually execute on the ideas of the whole team.

Coaches work with the team to help them hone their skills and navigate the ups and downs of new ideas taking shape, decision-making and other parts of the manifestation process.


Spring Projects

Formulation of key functions and validation of our understanding of your ‘customers’ (aka people served), value propositions and business models around them

Business Model Environment - CC Strategyzer AG

To begin, start mapping the business model environment:

  • Macroeconomic forces
  • Domain (‘industry’) forces
  • Societal and Technological trends
  • Market forces (supply/demand related to our our potential value propositions)

…and your existing business model canvas, including:

Business Model Canvas - CC Strategyzer AG

  •  Key Partners
  • Key Activities
  • Key Resources
  • Cost Structure
  • Value Propositions (more about this in Value Proposition Design)
  • Customer Relationships
  • Customer Channels
  • Customer Segments
  • Revenue Structure

 


Specific projects in this realm often include:

Mapping resources and key actors—the forces and trends in your business model environment which are influencing/affecting you

Persona modeling of individuals (who are grouped into customer segments) whom you could serve—identifying their worldview, networks and circumstances, and then surfacing key emotional, social and functional jobs you could help them with

Ideation of value propositions for your offerings—what value could be provided to your customers


Testing and learning from hypotheses about our customers and stakeholders validating that we have properly understand what differentiates one kind of stakeholder from another, what kinds of tangible, emotional and social jobs they have, how many of these kinds stakeholders exist by category, and what networks they exist within.

Tracking progress on your tests on a progress board or other tool, mapping hyoptheses to tests and tracking the backlog, build, measure and learn phases. One form of a test is finding a way to share our value propositions publicly (through landing pages or minimal viable products) to test if we have properly understood the key needs of our customers and partners. We can also launch pilots of revenue-earning products to tune our business/operational hypotheses

Validating a business model canvas, wherein there is sufficient confirmation of the ideas on the canvas to justify further investment of time, resources and reputation

The Strategyzer online toolkit/web app for Value Proposition Design and Business Model Generation can help organize work on this process even as a distributed team, and provides structure to stay focused on tangible opportunities. This would sit alongside simple project management systems like Asana, individual workplans or other tools already in use.

You move out of the Formulation/Spring stage when the first signs of our work begin to be visible to the people we intend to ultimately serve. This might take the form of published research, pilot projects and the like. We also know we have made progress towards the end of this stage when the learnings we are extracting from our tests validate our initial business models for impact and we no longer have to redesign our fundamental models in order to find a product-market fit.

Summer’s tasks center around manifestation, including making sure that you make critical choices about which plants to nurture and which to let go of as things start to grow and take up space and resources. The focus of your decisions shifts from what new ideas to introduce to which new sprouts should be cultivated and nurtured.

The summer ends when plants begin to be harvestable. In business, this means that we move to the fall when we begin to realize the benefit of our work in consistent, long-term revenue or other results.

Summer Roles

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Explorers begin to focus on the integration of new innovations into the whole of an organization and begin scouting for the next round of ideas for iterating or pivoting.

Planners coordinate the process of selecting which ideas move forward and which have to be let go, especially as it relates to managing funding and work effort.

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Energizers help the team stay focused on the end goal and support the team through the arc of difficult decisions and challenging integrations with the larger organization.

Connectors map current members of the team to the departments and partners needed to scale innovations up, and begin to seek new opportunities for team members who had been mostly focused on launch.

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Experts work with producers and others to solidify complex designs and systems.

Optimizers rapidly iterate on design to increase reliability and profitability.

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Producers churn out the work needed to scale innovations.

Coaches help new members of the team orient themselves and help existing members of the team adapt to the increasing complexity and decreasing freedom of the process, or help them move to new roles.


Spring Projects

Scaling of core functions, including research & development

When it is time to start externally-visible work—either direct offerings or publication of useful research around areas of interest to customers and partners—you will have entered the Manifestation/Summer stage. At this point, costs of providing service increase, but the total impact of the innovation process will not have reached economies of scale. It is important that this phase be properly planned and communicated about, because going the wrong direction in this phase is far more costly than in the Formulation/Spring stage.


Projects in this stage often include:

Continued evolution and validation of a map of the business model environment and customers related to the company, mentioned earlier

A beta round of offerings and partnerships based on the previous stage’s ideation process

This beta process is repeated until you have validated your business models in the market, at which point beta projects scale either into sustainable offerings or are spun off/handed off to others

You move out of the Manifestation/Summer stage when the work you do for the people you ultimately serve is becoming efficient and is approaching full scale—when it is becoming ‘business as usual.’ You will know that you are leaving this stage when the learnings you have from beta projects validate models of a scaled-up version of the projects and are consistently producing direct results in the world.

In the fall, the task at hand is to quickly and thoroughly harvest all the available product of the planting season. We must have expertise and attention to detail to know just when and how to pick fruit, store it, distribute it, and save its seeds. In the business world, much attention is paid to getting every last piece of fruit—as evidenced in our focus on efficiency and optimization. But just as the skills to gather every piece of fruit have little to do with those needed to know which trees to plant, optimization and process change must be considered of as part of a much larger cycle that spans the entire year.

Fall Roles

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Explorers step back to replenish their own energy and deepen their strategy around what will be needed next year

Planners coordinate the regular, sustained fulfillment of the innovation process so it can become “business-as-usual”

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Energizers motivate everyone to stay on track in the ongoing process of sustained production, and make sure there is a clear connection between everyday work and big-picture vision and values

Connectors make sure teams (both their own and those from related departments or partners) have what they need and know how to find information and support throughout the organization

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Experts help keep the design of products and services at a high level of quality, iterating over time

Optimizers work with experts, planners and coaches to ensure the most value is reaped from everyone’s effort, with the least amount of friction possible

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Producers fulfill on promises of products and services and serve as the front line of the organization’s innovation system, gathering input from their own experiences and customer feedback

Coaches teach producers and others how to do their job well and support people through stressful moments as demand and time constraints increase pressure

In order to collaborate effectively, it’s important to assess individual thinking styles on your own team.

  1. Make sure your team is clear about its scope. Is it formulating new initiatives? Manifesting them? Realizing (maintaining) them? Or shutting them down to create room for new things? Make sure your team is designed with those seasons in mind.

  2. Determine each team member’s thinking styles. Most people have 2-3 areas they are strong in (think ‘genius zone’ and several others they are alright at—and maybe a few they need support in). Gather this information in a spreadsheet or other notes listing ‘genius,’ ‘competent’ or ‘needs support.’ There’s nothing wrong with needing support at an individual level—part of how to build an effective culture of collaboration is accomplished by building potential thought partnerships within the team between different kinds of thinkers (for diversity of thought) and between similar thinkers (for capacity and stability).

  3. Identify thinking styles which are weak or missing from the team. Ideally, a team which is responsible for a full cycle of innovation, from conceiving ideas launch, scaling and completion, will have a balance of people so that each thinking style is represented. If that’s not the case, they will have to work with other teams to round out their thinking styles in order to complete that cycle.

  4. Build thought partnerships between members of your team and other teams. Round out and synchronize the plans and mindsets between teams by identifying pairings of thinkers who complement or resonate with each other. Read more about thought partnerships at www.causeit.org/being-a-thought-partner  

  5. Where possible, build reciprocal links between teams. Reciprocal links occur when some members each of team belong equally to both teams, such that a larger purpose exists for those members who touch multiple elements of business strategy. (This concept is also used in some collective/networked leadership models like Holocracy and Sociocracy, but has a more specific meaning there).

  6. Consider rescoping your teams to create overlap. While it might seem counterintuitive, organizations like Google use overlapping responsibilities as an approach to encourage diversity of thought. Teams with overlapping responsibilities and scope, but different combinations of thinking styles, can boost the overall excellence of thought and execution in an organization.

Further reading: