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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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:
During the spring, there are a couple of specific goals focused on confirmation of the business model:
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’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.
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:
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.’
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.
In order to collaborate effectively, it’s important to assess individual thinking styles on your own team.