As product (or service) ideas move beyond initial concept, tinkerability becomes a requirement of prototyping in startup incubation. Team members and business partners, sometimes even early users, are invited to bring their own ideas and creativity to bear on the prototype. As it enters this phase, a new venture should develop an incubation platform, comprising simple but specialized tools and techniques supporting exploration and problem-solving.
Repeated, defined steps, such as weekly or monthly “sprints” to handcraft and test prototypes, will progressively improve the “ambidexterity” of the venturers’ innovation—meaning an ability to balance exploration and exploitation, ultimately leading to mastery. Richard Sennett, Professor of Humanities at NYU and of Sociology at the London School of Economics, calls this “the virtue of repeated practice.” Multiple revisions of a product or service implemented without a repeatable technique and familiar tools fail to provide this benefit.
An incubation platform mitigates risk by favoring learning. It allows the founding team to spin the startup’s learning loop, delivering intelligence about the offering and market. And it facilitates co-creation with customers and partners, helping to converge their shared understanding of the venture’s mission.
When spinning the Learning Loop, three deliverables capture learnings:
• The Learning Agenda, drafted at the outset of the startup’s journey and shared with stakeholders, describes key assumptions related to each dimension of its evolving trajectory: Product, Viability, and Resources (see Incubation Vectors article for details ). It also describes experiments, hacks, conversations, and exploratory field trips designed to help validate or refine each assumption. As a blueprint for adaptive planning, the learning agenda can serve organizations of any size. The Learning Lab of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) completed a survey in 2017 detailing use of Learning Agendas by seventeen federal agencies.2
• Intelligence gathered from each interaction that is critical to a startup’s Learning Agenda — about customers, competitors, and technologies, for example — is recorded in the Learning Log and shared with other team members. Facts replace assumptions. Deviations from expectations are noted. Analysis is kept to a minimum and always accompanied by action-oriented implications for each venture incubation vector. Any potentially game-changing element of the business model — from solution architecture, product features, packaging, and user experience to pricing, customer acquisition tactics, and talent recruitment are fair game.
• The Venture Roadmap translates learnings logged into checkpoints and metrics on the path to building a sustainably competitive and profitable venture.
1 A term coined by Prof. Amar Bhidé of the Fletcher School of Business at Tufts University. See 1 Bhidé, A (March-April 1994), “How Entrepreneurs Craft Strategies That Work”, Harvard Business Review, Cambridge (MA)