The secrets of an eight week intrapreneur sprint
The transition from startup entrepreneur to corporate intrapreneur was one of the toughest changes of my life. After my startup, Innovest, was acquired I felt like I had landed on an alien planet called Corporate America. Everything was slow, cautious, hierarchical and fraught with politics. Gone was the speed and solidarity that I mistakenly thought was a universal norm.
As an intrapreneur I eventually (painfully) learned that impactful innovation is just as possible in a huge corporation if you embrace one cardinal rule: never pitch an idea — always present an outcome.
Speed is an intrapreneur’s key competitive advantage. In a large corporation, if you can’t launch a product in eight weeks, you never will.
An eight week timeline for a new product is athletic, but it’s within reach. Here’s how I do it.
The Five Stages of an Eight-Week Intrapreneur Sprint
In a new product sprint, user validation is the engine that drives organisational change. Once you solve an unsolved market problem you have new power to change your company. Skeptics become zealous converts. Silent supporters become empowered proponents. But that change must be an explicit, strategic goal. It never happens simply because a product is good and change seems like an obvious, good idea. The intrapreneur sprint is different from an entrepreneur sprint because it recognises that stakeholder and user validation are deeply intertwined and must be accelerated in tandem.
There are five stages to an intrapreneur sprint:
- Personas: See the world from the perspective of your customer. What’s the core problem that they need to solve but can’t solve with existing tools? Too often, companies launch products based on what they want to build rather than what people need. The scope becomes too big, and it’s hard to set achievable, actionable goals. The first stage of any new product is to focus on the person who needs you. What are their pain points, aspirations and key demographic details. What is the problem that they need to solve but can’t solve with existing solutions? When I work with clients we give these personas a name. To this day Enrique, Jen, Todd, and Jennifer feel like people who lived with me for a while – even though they were personas that we invented.
- User Journey: How can this customer discover your product, use it to solve a problem, and leave as a loyal evangelist? In the user journey, we will take our persona through the three stages of a new product: entice, engage, and evangelise. The goal of the entice stage is for the customer to find the product and say, “Where have you been all my life?” In the engage stage, the customer should say, “Wow! You can actually solve my problem.” And in the evangelise stage, they should say, “I’m coming back with all my friends.” It is critical to keep this user journey tight. I usually encourage the team to create a six cell comic strip that describes the entice, engage, evangelise cycle. And I set a time limit of ten minutes to design this comic strip.
- Fearless Inventory: The fearless inventory is what distinguishes a corporate intrapreneur sprint from a startup entrepreneur sprint. What assets does your company already have to amplify this product? What deficits prevent your company from doing it? How can you enlist the amplifiers and neutralise the deficits? The fearless inventory focuses on people. Who can deliver key assets, and who needs to be converted from skeptic to supporter (or be kept out of the way)? The purpose of the fearless inventory is to assess what your company can and cannot do to solve your user’s core problem. Any intrapreneur who skips this step will be thwarted or co-opted.
- Strategic Differentiation: How can you differentiate your business model, your product, or your marketing strategy to create an unfair competitive advantage? Great products focus on building a pronounced competitive advantage. They don’t just solve a customer’s problem they do it in a way that makes life difficult for existing competitors or future new entrants.
- Release Planning: What can you do to build and test this experience in the first two weeks? How can it be made better in the next two weeks? And made stable in the third and fourth two-week sprints? Here, we determine what should be the priority in the first two-week sprint, the second, and the third. The final sprint is always reserved for presenting your product internally.
The Eight-Week Launch at PwC
In 2015, PwC approached me to create cash flow management app for small businesses. For 2 years they had struggled to build this product and hired us to give it one last push. We had eight weeks and if we failed they would cut their losses and shut down the project.
The project was PwC’s response to an alarming statistic: 70% of the small businesses that declare bankruptcy in the US each year are profitable when they fail.
But cash-flow management is a vast and boring subject. In order to make it real we invented a persona called Jen. Jen was the human face of this statistic. She was an independent oil and gas consultant in Texas, whose bank account was dwindling even as her sales boomed, because her clients started paying her late as oil prices declined.
By the end of week one we had created the six most important screens of the app where Jen could log in, see which invoices were due, and get advice on how to approach key clients who were late on their payments. On the eighth day we tested our prototype with ten consultants who matched her profile. Four of them were able to navigate through the app with no coaching. (And six got stuck. Warning: This ALWAYS happens. No app is user-friendly on its first release. But by launching early you learn quickly how to make it intuitive.)
One of the early pieces of customer feedback we heard in that first week was that people wanted talking points on what to say to their clients who were late on payments. So in week two we worked with some of PwC’s cash-flow experts to craft the right language. We also connected the app to Yelp so that users could make lunch reservations with their most important clients.
Simultaneously we ran ads in social media to recruit our first batch of users. By week five we had fifty early adopters. (One of whom was actually named Jen). Sixty-three percent of these first users saw their bank balances come back to life. They were able to restructure their debts and payment terms. They gave us leverage with senior leadership. By week 6 we had tangible results to present to some of the skeptics within PwC. We weren’t asking them to support an idea – we were inviting them to participate in the growth of a new product. PwC’s executives started to change their mind once they saw the impact that our product had. Our once-timid executive supporters became more vocal. If they said no now, they’d be letting Jen fail. In eight weeks an initiative which started with a made-up consultant called Jen, which was slated to be defunded, was granted an additional $2 million.
Ready to Sprint?
When a team of intrapreneurs launches a product in eight weeks, they force a choice between stagnation and acceleration. If you make it easy enough and lay the groundwork for them, the only question left for your company to answer is where to aim the rocket and how to add fuel. Obstacles that previously seemed entrenched and insurmountable now seem bite-size.
An eight-week sprint is one of the most important tools in the intrapreneur’s toolkit. By balancing stakeholder and user validation and moving quickly, this process will allow you to free yourself up to be innovative within the confines of a large company.
Greg Larkin is the author of This Might Get Me Fired: A Manual for Thriving in the Corporate Entrepreneurial Underground. Greg has built more than thirty digital products within corporate environments, generating millions in revenue for companies like Google, PWC, Nestle, and Bloomberg. In 2015, Greg launched his own consultancy, Bowery315, as part of his mission to help more good products enter the world.
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