By: Arent van ‘t Spijker
The Six Week Innovation Challenge is becoming the method of choice in corporates. And it’s not only innovators who love the sprint – leaders embrace it just as much.
In the wake of successful methods for innovation, such as the hackathon, Kickbox-programs and the Google Sprint, a new modus operandi is quickly gaining traction in corporate innovation: The Six Week Innovation Challenge, or the SWICH. It is a simple yet effective blend of an Agile sprint, Lean Startup and Value Proposition Design, and it solves one of the most persistent problems in corporate innovation: a lack of dedicated resources for a continued period of time. This, however, is not the only driver for the SWICH’s success.
The concept of the SWICH is simple: a team of 5—7 enthusiasts with an innovative idea takes one full day per week, for six weeks, to prove the value of an idea. After six weeks, if the team has proven that realizing the idea is both realistic and desirable, the team continues work for another six weeks. If not, the idea is abandoned, and the team returns full-time to their regular tasks.
At the start of each SWICH, the team formulates a hypothesis about the biggest hurdle towards the realization of their dream. For instance, that they can create a technically working version, or that users are willing to pay for the product. The team then builds a testable version for this hypothesis, tests it in the real world and analyzes the results to prove or disprove the hypothesis. Finally, the team presents the results to senior management. If management is not convinced that the idea holds (potential) value, the team is stopped right then and there. But if they are convinced, the team gets another six weeks to overcome its next biggest hurdle to world domination.
The results, in practice, are impressive. The time to market for innovation decreases significantly and waste of resources on bad ideas is almost eliminated.
Best of all, management engagement in innovation becomes tangible and decisive and, in most cases, contagious.
Origins of the SWICH
The SWICH first evolved in 2017, when the management team of Gasunie, an oil & gas company in The Netherlands, assigned 5 people from different work backgrounds – such as administration, strategy and IT – to pursue an innovative idea for a mobile app at the request of a senior government official. It wasn’t so much of a request, but rather a ‘read between the lines’ challenge to a state-owned fossil fuel company:
“Wouldn’t it be great if we had an app that could show how much renewable energy was being generated by windmills, solar panels and biogas installations in real time.”
The company’s strategy department rose to the challenge. The team was assembled, and each member spent one day per week for six weeks with the objective of showing a working app after six weeks. On the first morning, not even the team believed they could meet this goal. Yet, at the end of the day, the front-end and architecture of the app had been designed on paper and the first version of the database had actually been created. One week later, after the second day, a rudimentary front-end had been created, together with the basic algorithm. After three weeks the first working version was completed. Then, in good startup fashion, the app was immediately handed to selected organizations and politicians for review. Valuable feedback started pouring in. A standout response from companies was that if the app could predict the production of renewable energy two weeks in advance, they would be able to plan their energy consumption to coincide with the actual generation of green power nearby. This would solve the problem of storage of renewable energy in expensive (and not so green) batteries.
At the end of the six weeks, the team presented their results to management in a 15-minute timeslot in the Quarterly Management Review meeting. In the first ten minutes, the team presented:
- proof that the app could be built and,
- evidence that the app would be more valuable if the current algorithms were combined with weather forecasts.
In the remaining five minutes, the team requested another six weeks (30 man-days) to build the two-week prediction into their algorithms. In addition, they would prove that third parties would actually be willing to pay for that prediction. In the final minute of the timeslot, management agreed.
Six weeks later, the team demonstrated the two-week prediction and presented a letter of intent from a prospective buyer. The team requested another six weeks of time and management agreed, deciding that from that moment on, all innovative ideas should follow the six-week cadence. Hence, the SWICH was born.
Since then, dozens of organizations have adopted the SWICH as an effective method for developing innovative products, services and processes. Literally hundreds of SWICHes have been completed in commercial organizations and non-profit institutions. In 2019, the SWICH method was published as the central part, the ‘engine’, of the open source Continuous Innovation Framework (COIN)*.
The Success of the SWICH
The success of the SWICH can be attributed to three key ingredients.
- The SWICH brings relentless focus on proving the potential value of an idea through real market feedback.
- The SWICH secures explainable, sustained capacity for development, both in human time and out-of-pocket costs.
- The SWICH creates true management commitment for innovations, even when that comes at the expense of the running business.
Relentless Focus on Real Market Feedback
The SWICH leverages the element of extreme focus from Jake Knapp’s (Google) Design Sprint, in which a dedicated team completes an innovation challenge in just one week.
More importantly, the SWICH leans heavily on proven methods of obtaining fast market feedback, most notably Eric Ries’ Lean Startup and Alexander Osterwalder’s Value Proposition Design. This was the inspiration for the 6-week cadence of the SWICH, which in the COIN Framework extends from the experimentation phase into the scale-up phase. The latter provided the build – measure – learn sequence inside each SWICH.
Best practices teach us that in innovation, assumptions can only be validated through real market feedback, meaning observations and responses from actual use of the innovative product or service by real clients in a live market environment. This is exactly what the SWICH aims for: to test hypotheses in real market conditions.
Each SWICH formulates the most impactful assumptions in the development of the innovation. These assumptions are turned into either a ‘feasibility hypothesis’ (we can get it to work) or a ‘value hypothesis’ (clients will like it/pay for it). By ranking all hypotheses on their impact to success, the innovation team will discover which is the biggest fail factor for the innovation. That hypothesis should be the first to be validated through real market feedback, using the build-measure-learn sequence. Such a hypothesis will read something like this real-life example:
- “We believe that customers will understand how to activate and register our GPS Pet-Tracker using our app…
- To test that, we will distribute 1,000 free trackers at the National Pet Fair and compare the number of downloads of our app with the number of activations…
- Our hypothesis is validated when no less than 60% of all downloaded apps will have at least one correctly registered tag within 2 days from the download.”
The concept of hypothesis validation alone is not enough to make a SWICH successful. The SWICH uses real market feedback as the stage-gate for continuation. Each SWICH ends with a pitch to senior management. If the hypothesis is validated by real users or clients, then work on the innovation may continue in the next SWICH. If not, further development is stopped right then and there. In some cases a SWICH can lead to new discoveries or insights that call for reassessment of the feasibility or potential value of the innovation. Both for management and the innovation team, the SWICH is the embodiment of go/no-go decision making, not because of default KPIs or ad-hoc decision making, but because the market proved that the innovation, in its own context, is either feasible or has value. SWICH by SWICH, that value becomes more tangible.
Explainable, Sustained Capacity for Development
As mentioned before, the SWICH incorporates many existing innovation best practices, such as those developed by Ries, Osterwalder and Knapp. What the SWICH adds to this mix is the built-in sustainability of the process. Innovations are neither built in a week, nor completed after a single build-measure-learn cycle. They take dedication and time to develop, and that is exactly what most organizations do not have in abundance: dedicated people with enough time to spend on the idea. Innovation is in direct competition for resources (people and money) with existing business priorities. Taking people off their regular jobs to innovate is expensive and risky, and advocates may have a hard time defending the allocation of corporate funds towards innovation over solving more pressing problems.
The SWICH solves this by creating a stable process of allocation of (part-time) resources for a period of six weeks. The process also has a consistent stage-gate for evaluation of results and the decision to allocate more resources to the next SWICH. In this way, consecutive SWICHes form a six-week cadence that is interrupted only when the results are deemed insufficient to justify more capacity from the organization.
SWICH team members allocate just one day per week in order to manage innovation ‘within’ their regular work schedule. At the same time, the SWICH allows for enough time to actually build and test a sizeable ‘next step’ of the innovation. It allows for partners or suppliers to deliver their bit and it allows enough time for tests to run. And then, after six weeks, during the Pitch, it allows management to evaluate the value spent against the likelihood of success. Not based on assumptions or promises. Not based on a slick sales pitch, but on real market feedback. Based on such facts, management can decide to spend an exact known amount of time (and sometimes cash) on proving a well-defined next step in development. The SWICH presents a clear investment with an overseeable risk against a minor disruption of the current operation, as well as a decision that can be transparently explained to product owners, project managers and line managers.
True Management Commitment
Most innovations that failed didn’t fail because they could not be developed, but because they were never adopted and embedded properly by the organizations that made them. The SWICH purposefully addresses this problem by regularly focusing management attention not on the biggest successes, but on the biggest fail factors of each innovation. Every six weeks, during the Pitch, the innovation team asks senior management to approve the next six weeks of development. When doing so the team does not emphasize the next interesting feature it will create, but rather the biggest hurdle they will overcome to make the innovation a business success. The reasoning is simple: if you do not address the biggest hurdle the first, all other costs of development will have been in vain and preventable, when it turns out later that that hurdle cannot be overcome. Hence, the focus of each next SWICH is not on creating the innovative product or service, but on proving that there is nothing stopping the team from getting the business mechanism to work.
By frequently focusing management attention not on their biggest fail factors, management is required to pay attention to the potential outcomes. Ordering the development of a next new feature or more advanced process automation is a relatively easy and uncommitted decision that weighs the risk of losing a limited budget against a hypothetical potential upside. If that value fails to materialize, it is easy to ‘hide’ behind the uncertainties of innovation. When hurdles are addressed, management jointly needs to elaborate on the priority of the different hurdles and then weighs the potential value of the innovation against the cost of implementation and change (rather than against the cost of development). This way management does not commit to the development of a technology, a product or a service; rather it commits to the implementation of a business mechanism. Each Pitch that demonstrates a successful step in the development of a new business mechanism broadens the support and commitment in multiple business disciplines. It is this commitment that also allows management to transparently allocate resources (time and money) to an innovative idea, even when those resources are competed for by projects from the running operation. The SWICH offers a simple but effective recurring ritual that enables management to transparently commit to innovative ideas based on knowledge and understanding of the costs, the potential value and the potential risks, rather than on assumptions and hope.
Execute Well, Safeguard Capacity and Dream Big
The SWICH is no silver bullet. It requires careful execution and most of all thorough validation of ideas before the first SWICH starts. If the idea is not defined correctly in the Lean Canvas or if hypotheses are not carefully extracted and prioritized according to the ‘biggest fail factors’, the team will end up testing the wrong thing and drawing the wrong conclusions. It is pivotal that assumptions are challenged by peers and management during the Pitch.
Equally important is the team’s availability of one day per week. This capacity must be safeguarded by all possible means. It is very easy for teams to get distracted by the going concern, and when the SWICH-time is taken too lightly disturbances will wreak havoc on the deliverables. One very common mistake is to allocate not a single day, but eight hours throughout the week, split across multiple days. This approach distorts focus and prevents the team from being able to deliver even the slightest result.
The third pitfall is to take on too small a task for the six-week timeframe: SWICHes should be ambitious and ‘pack a punch’. Most teams tend to formulate a modest goal, pitching what they believe to be a ‘sure thing’. But the SWICH is a Challenge; and as such the aim should be high. This ambition will motivate the team to build something with visible impact and reach beyond the obvious work methods. When deciding to invest another six weeks in a project, management tends to look at both the results and the drive of the team. In both cases bigger is better.
The Positive Energy of Innovation
The SWICH provides many benefits to the process of innovation. It structures the application of best practices in short-cycled, iterative development (Lean Startup and Value Proposition Design) with predictable cadence and simple, effective rituals. It ensures focus on real market feedback and creates transparency in the measurement of success and in the allocation of resources for development. Yet one of the most striking benefits that the SWICH brings is the positive energy that comes with innovation.
Over the last few years I have been involved in dozens of SWICHes and it has been remarkable to witness the excitement in teams, regardless of the size and nature of the business. The six-week cadence and the level of involvement that it brings generates a very powerful, positive energy. In no other setting than Pitch Week, when all teams pitch their ideas to management in a single three-hour meeting, have I seen innovators and managers leave the room or conference call with such big smiles on their faces. Smiles of shared anticipation, confirmation, success and inspiration.
I have heard innovators, coaches and managers promote the SWICH as something very valuable in many ways, but one that has stuck in my mind is a remark from one of the most stoic of all the CIOs I have ever met. When leaving the room after the second Pitch Week in his company, he took a long, disconcerning look at the lead Innovation Coach and then said: “This wasn’t half bad. I don’t ever want to go back to the old way…”.
About the Author
Arent van ‘t Spijker (1970) is author of the book Continuous Innovation and founder of the Continuous Innovation Framework, the first ISO-56000 compliant, open source framework for corporate innovation that is freely available at http://www.continuousinnovation.net
Featured image via Unsplash.