I once guest judged an Entrepreneurship capstone course at a major university, a multidisciplinary effort between business, engineering, and design schools. The intent of the course was for these teams to work together to create an innovative product release from start to finish, including financials, marketing sizing, working prototypes using 3D printing, etc. It was an impressive program with impressive students.
While they spent the day trotting out their presentations like proud parents, I began to see a microcosm of an issue I have seen for years, over and over again, in both the private and public sector. Simply put, in the scope of innovation, new product development, or campaign development, research is seen as somewhere between a speedbump and a roadblock.
The teams that day were no different in composition than many you might see on a lean innovation team: a couple of marketers/researchers, a finance guy, engineers, and designers. Because the teams were "on the clock," there was usually a brainstorming session to develop an idea, followed by the marketing people doing some superficial research while the designers and engineers started on "the real work." In any organization, this is played out in similar ways: budgets and time are constrained, so there is a push to get to the prototype as quickly as possible. Getting to Beta quickly will be a significant goal, but this speed should by no means be because initial research was under resourced or ignored.
So, what is the pattern? That the first step the teams took were to revert to something a member was passionate about, then back filling the research to confirm the chosen direction. This is no different than a creative director executing concepts and animatics based on "gut" or any team looking to use the research to "confirm" instead of "explore." I can absolutely tell you that this syndrome is in no way limited to college students. It is everywhere.
I can also tell you that when research is an afterthought used to confirm pre-Beta offerings, it typically ends up in one of three ways:
- It confirms a decent, but sub-optimal product. This may seem acceptable until considering that the product tested at Beta and the next iteration may be drastically different.
- The results are ambiguous, and the team elects to ignore warning signs and emphasize the positive. The offering fails at Beta.
- The results are so negative they can not be denied. The effort grinds to a halt, and may have to restart from scratch. The team may be disbanded.
Why do I share this story?
1) Critical analysis may define the space and the potential opportunities, but WGB space illuminates viability, and how your organization may best apply its leverage in the space. The opportunities identified in critical analysis are raw and open... and therefore can be magnets for mindless passion and a rush to begin building the offering. This is exactly what we want to avoid.
2) The goal of White, Gray, and Black spaces should not be to evaluate or "rank" potential opportunities, but as a tool to understand context, scope, and how the organization can engage in the space. At face value, all three spaces are equally valuable.
Examples of Tactics to Analyze WGB Spaces
In our studies thus far, we have worked from the coarse analysis of examining areas of opportunity and merged into increasingly fine-grained analysis. We have also worked on understanding the foundations of sustainability, to the strategies and tactics organizations use in sustainability, to the critical analysis of public filings, to understanding the overall opportunities in those filings and the competitive context of those opportunities. We are now analyzing the early phases of how organizations may be able to leverage those opportunities.
Let's follow this flow for the earlier example of the opportunity Tesla's growth presents in regard to training and licensing technicians on all-electric drivetrains. At this point, we have roughly scoped the opportunity and it is of interest to us. Now, we want to understand the context within the opportunity exists, specifically how it is a White, Gray, or Black space, and how the organization may be equipped (or not) to move the idea to the next step.
While tactics to understand WGB spaces can be wildly different–from ethnography to forensic accounting–here are the types of questions that would further narrow the scope to understand the space. Let's imagine we are an independent automotive training institute curious about the opportunity of training techs to service Teslas.
What organizations currently operate in this space? We may be surrounded by other highly-competent automotive training institutes, as well as the potential that others have entered the electric technician training space from other vectors. Perhaps Tesla itself is training all technicians, or another training institute has a well-rounded offering of courses on servicing all-electric drivetrains. We would want to explore all other organizations in the space, regardless of if we would consider them a competitor or not.
How dedicated are these organizations to the space? Are they investing, divesting? In understanding the other organizations functioning in the electric technician training space, we would want to gain some initial understanding of their commitment to the initiative. Do they have 85 courses dedicated to conventional drivetrains and only one for electric drivetrains... or did they just complete the construction of a new hybrid and electric training building on their campus? Many initiatives are taken on and abandoned, or proven not viable for another organization... we would want to understand those organizations and what those trajectories may have looked like.
What organizations would we expect to operate in this space? While not as widely embraced by the market, Nissan has the all-electric Leaf... how were those technicians trained? By Nissan? By a contractor in the US or abroad? Did a training institute create a course specifically for the Leaf? Furthermore, if we were to imagine those organizations that might be interested in this opportunity, who would we expect to see?
Are there any indications of other organizations seeking to enter the space? Part of the answer to this question might be revealed in critical analysis, but are there signs that any organizations–large or small–are interested in the space? Are any organizations having success in related spaces (i.e., training technicians on hybrid drivetrains) that could set the framework for an entry?
Patent and trademark search. Are there any recent patents, trademarks, or other intellectual property filings showing that an organization might be interested in the space? If a trademark search showed "The electric drivetrain experts" as being filed by another training institute three months ago, that would be something to follow up on and understand at greater depth.
Are there any indications of resource movement into the space? An interesting one here can be looking into any changes in title or any postings to LinkedIn, for example. While official organizational communication channels may be tight-lipped, someone may decide to give an interview that perhaps they shouldn't have or post something to their profile page that can signal organizational moves behind a new offering. In this case, if the Director of Training Curriculum posted that his current work includes exploring electric drivetrain technology, we would want to know that.
Are there any failed past initiatives in the space? Much can be learned from false starts and failures. Experts in a given field (covered by a non-disclosure agreement, of course) who have been around and connected in all the right places could probably advise as to some of the challenges and failed initiatives of the past.
Known pitfalls or limits to technology that have hindered other efforts in the space? Perhaps organizations have attempted to train technicians on electric drivetrain systems, but were unable to secure drivetrains to allow students to work hands on. Perhaps the electric drivetrains present potentially lethal voltage that could kill an untrained technician, therefore making the training of these technicians a liability minefield. Again, consulting with subject matter experts can help to understand the overall story quickly.
Any other general knowledge on the space? Are there similar models for technician training that just don't apply in this case? Perhaps, to avoid investing in training on short-lived technologies, a rule of thumb is that training institutes require 3 million units of a technology to be on the road before considering adding a course. At this point, we are trying to quickly and effectively reduce the number of assumptions we hold about the space and the opportunity, and speaking with subject matter experts can be an excellent way to do this.
Initial Mapping of Organizational Strengths Onto the Space
How do the organization's strengths and relationships map onto this space? Consider this a 'back of the napkin' analysis, but think about the leverage your organization can bring into the space. Perhaps your training institute is well-positioned to add electric drivetrain courses, but is lacking any relationships or expertise in the electric drivetrain space. Perhaps your training institute is slow to respond but has the scale and connections to enter the space quickly and significantly.
How quickly can the organization add needed competencies, and at what cost? In looking at this initial map of strengths, we would seek to consider if the needed competencies could be gained with a consultant or subcontractor, for example. Marketing and reaching potential customers in new spaces may not be a strength, but is a competency that can be easily added, while finding the full-time trainers who know the intricacies of all-electric drivetrains may be a far greater challenge requiring full-time employees.