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Chapter 2 | Business Model Innovation Guidebook

Business Model Innovation Season by Season

To create new value, look to nature for inspiration.

Business model innovation may look complicated. But one of our oldest technologies—agriculture—provides a surprisingly simple lens for navigating this innovation process.

Throughout human history, different cultures have thought about creating value in the same, straightforward way: the year’s four seasons. These correlate to planting seeds, helping them take root, harvesting crops, and plowing the ground to prepare for the next cycle.

Businesses could think of innovation in the same way. Whether it’s an altogether new line of business or an improvement to an expense management process, every idea goes through these four phases, or seasons, of innovation.

Strategist Miles Kierson often defines execution phases as formulation, manifestation, realization, and culmination: four phases that 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 group. A team that carries projects through the entire cycle will need to include people with diverse thinking styles and ways of working to stay effective as the demands of the project shift from season to season. Other teams may attend to only one phase—handing off projects which may be highly specialized. In larger organizations, there almost certainly will be handoffs from one team to another as one ‘season’ ends and another begins. It’s helpful to understand what kind of thinking styles you or your team are best suited to provide in relation to what each season of innovation requires.

Before looking at thinking styles as they apply throughout the seasons, you may want to read Introduction to Thinking Styles and Thought Partnership and/or take a quick self-assessment of your thinking styles. It may also be helpful to read our guides on business models and value models.

Winter: Culmination

Plowing and Planning

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 the preceding year's reserves. Perhaps one of the most challenging seasons, especially if not adequately prepared for. This year-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 (the gathering of seeds) to integrate into the work of the next cycle.

Winter Roles

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Explorer thinking considers issues like trends, available resources, and long-term needs.
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Planner thinking is applied to set the process for the upcoming phases and ensure the prior year’s reserves are in order.
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Energizer thinking is helpful to everyone and gets them ready and excited.
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Connector thinking helps communicate with other teams and communities.
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Expert thinking is valuable for researching and validating high-potential ideas and ensuring the environment to support them is in place.
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Optimizer thinking is applied when designing for future productivity and yield.
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Producer thinking is helpful to ensure functional tasks from previous work (or innovation cycles) are complete and to set up an environment for work.
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Coach thinking is applied to train and orient everyone to their upcoming tasks.

Winter Projects

Contemplate the business models you want to transform and the environments around them

During the 'winter' phase, the focus is on creation of an idea (either partial, like a new value proposition, or a way to transform the entire operations of a business), and then expanding one or more of these ideas into a complete draft of a business model (and model of the business model environment).

Start by building awareness: map what is already known. It may be helpful to begin with the business model environment:

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

Map a complete business model, even if it is not yet tested. The intention is to reflect comprehensive thinking, not an exhaustive model. Make sure to include:

It may be helpful to engage in persona modeling of individuals that could be served; grouped into customer segments. This involves identifying their worldview, networks, and circumstances and then surfacing key emotional, social, and functional jobs you could help them with.  

Spring: Formulation

Planting Seeds

Spring is the time to consider new ideas, plant as many new opportunities as possible, and make sure the right combination of water and care is there to help new things sprout and take root. We have lots of freedom to take risks during this time of year, but it’s still crucial to make good decisions about what to plant, as we won’t 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 take root more deeply and emerge above ground. 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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Explorer thinking continues mapping big picture trends to ideas under consideration.
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Planner thinking can help keep work on track while progress may not be immediately apparent.
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Energizer thinking is useful for keeping focus and excitement while ideas germinate and begin to take root.
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Connector thinking ensures others in the organization are aware of progress and matches them to members of the team who might need input.
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Expert thinking is useful for working closely on the buildout of new ideas.
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Optimizer thinking can drive the team to get as many ideas as possible validated and built, carefully measuring and tweaking processes.
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Producer thinking works to execute the ideas of the whole team.
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Coach thinking empowers the team to hone their skills and navigate the ups and downs of new ideas taking shape, along with other parts of the manifestation process.

Spring Projects

Testing of hypotheses and validation of the business model(s) and environment around them

In the Spring stage, the learning cycle begins if it has not already. The learning cycle covers six key stages of making informed decisions about the business model and its various components:

  1. Define the opportunities or problems with the business model and practice computational thinking to define the scope of the decisions to be made or improved.
  2. Discover what existing resources and research could be used to accelerate your efforts, including finding others who have tried to solve the same problem before (inside or outside the team).
  3. Hypothesize which factors might lead to a positive outcome and reduce them into the smallest number of variables possible.
  4. Test hypotheses by designing and running experiments.
  5. Learn from experiments and use them to update the model (abstraction) of the problem and related systems.
  6. Act on the results, starting first by sharing results with others in the team and organization.

During the spring, there are a couple of specific goals focused on confirmation of the business model:

  • Understanding: testing ideas about potential customer needs and key market forces to see if they are true
  • Desirability: confirming that specific value propositions are of interest to those customers and that they are willing to pay for that offering

It may be helpful to track tests on a progress board or other tool, mapping hypotheses to tests, then prioritizing a backlog of tests across Build, Test, and Learn phases.

One form of a test is finding a way to share value propositions publicly (through landing pages or minimal viable products) to test if there is an adequate understanding of the key needs of customers and partners. We can also launch pilots of revenue-earning products to tune our business or operational hypotheses.

Summer: Manifestion

Taking Root

Summer’s tasks center around manifestation. The focus of decisions in this phase shifts from what new ideas to introduce to which 'sprouted' ideas should be cultivated and nurtured as many grow—taking up space and resources.

The summer ends when plants become 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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Explorer thinking begins to focus on integrating innovations into the whole of an organization and begins scouting for the next round of ideas for iterating or pivoting.
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Planner thinking helps coordinate selecting which ideas move forward and which have to be let go, especially in relation to managing funding and work effort.
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Energizer thinking keeps the team focused on the end goal and supports the team through difficult decisions and challenging integrations with the larger organization.
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Connector thinking is crucial to map current members of the team to the departments and partners needed to scale innovations up and redeploy those who were mostly focused on launch.
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Expert thinking enables producers and others to solidify complex designs and systems.
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Optimizer thinking can rapidly iterate on designs to increase reliability and profitability.
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Producer thinking is essential in churning out the work needed to scale innovations.
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Coach thinking is instrumental in helping new members of the team orient themselves. It helps existing team members adapt to the increasing complexity and decreasing freedom of the process or allows them to move to new roles.

Summer 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, 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. This phase must be appropriately planned and communicated because going in the wrong direction is far more costly than in the Formulation/Spring stage.

Goals during this phase include:

  • Feasibility: confirming that customers are willing to pay for an offering
  • Viability: confirming the economics of exchange between customers and the organization make sense (in other words, technically possible, scalable, cost-effective, and profitable)
  • User base: securing user sign-ups to new services or other free elements of offerings
  • Customer creation: commitment of users to purchase or engage

Projects in this stage often include:

  • Continued evolution and validation of a map of the business model environment and customers related to the company.
  • A beta round of offerings and partnerships based on the previous stage’s ideation process.
  • This beta process is repeated until validation of business models in the market, at which point beta projects scale either into sustainable offerings or are handed off to others.

A business model or team moves out of the Manifestation/Summer stage when the work being performed for users and customers is becoming efficient and is approaching full scale—in other words, when it is becoming ‘business as usual.’

Fall: Realization


In the fall, the task at hand is to quickly and thoroughly harvest all the available produce of the planting season. People 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' or return on investment—as evidenced by focus on efficiency and optimization. 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 lends itself to particular kinds of teams.

Fall Roles

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Explorer thinking is applied to track the environment around the business and to look ahead to the next big cycle of innovation.
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Planner thinking coordinates regular, sustained fulfillment of the innovation process so it can become “business-as-usual.”
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Energizer thinking motivates everyone to stay on track in the ongoing work of sustained production and makes sure there is a clear connection between everyday work and big-picture vision and values.
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Connector thinking ensures teams have what they need and are supported throughout the organization and that end users, service, and support teams have lines of communication to engineers and product managers.
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Expert thinking is applied to keep the design of products and services at a high level of quality.
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Optimizer thinking is used for identifying iterative improvements to products and processes, ensuring the most value is reaped from everyone’s effort with the least amount of friction possible.
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Producer thinking is focused on the fulfillment of value propositions to customers and internal key activities.
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Coach thinking helps teach others how to do their job well and supports people through stressful moments as demand and time constraints increase pressure.

Next Steps:

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 the seasons of innovation in mind.
  2. Determine each team member’s strongest 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 note-taking space 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 innovation and 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).
  • 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 to 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. Individuals can take a quick Thinking Styles assessment to help people find their genius zones.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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:


  • 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 a business; the 'big picture' of a whole company's business model; and the 'little picture' of what customers or users have to do in their lives.
  • Design of teams based on thinking styles supports creativity and resilience, and a process that includes all types of thinking 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 the various teams who think in similar ways, resonating with one another.