An interview with Tendayi Viki by Kornelia Trzęsowska

Do you agree with Steve Jobs that it’s more fun to be a pirate than to join a navy? You refer to his words in the title of your newest book.

I don’t think it’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy. Pirates are often in danger of dying. Steve Jobs was talking about how startups are faster than already set up companies – they move quicker than any large company. But what we’re learning these days is that large companies often become innovative, maybe surprisingly. The cool thing about large companies is that they have something that startups don’t have – they already have a brand, access to markets, customers, vast resources and other assets. Sometimes startups are really small and they need to find all these things by themselves. As long as large companies create the right environment for innovation, I really believe that it’s better to be a pirate in the navy than to be a pirate outside the navy, because you have a greater chance of success.

How to boost our creativity to bring the right innovation?

The best way to have good ideas is to have loads of them. The best way to prompt creativity is by creating environments where people can ideate and explore things. They can try things and can experiment with them. That’s really important. What matters is if people are doing that, companies need a structure for detecting the things that are likely to work by setting the right criteria, the right metrics. Without teams experimenting, they wouldn’t find something customers like and will pay for. 

What would be your one advice to deliver a successful innovation and not to get lost in the sea full of ideas?

I had twenty ideas before I spoke to you today. Innovative companies don’t have idea problems, they have problems of going from idea to business. The thing you want to do, when you’re an innovator, is to identify the moment to stop ideating and start testing – where you can take your ideas into a ‘visible’ environment. It’s crucial to identify if customers want them after checking which ones are most likely to succeed. As you discover the two that are most likely to succeed, focus on those two, let them compete against each other. Then, if one starts to become the most successful, drop the other one and focus on that one. The goal of innovation is not to have ideas. The goal of innovation is to have ideas that end up in customers’ hands and to create a value for customers. That’s the one piece of advice I would give everyone. We don’t have an idea problem; we have a business model discovery problem.

Tendayi Viki, associate partner at Strategyzer.
Source: Tendayi Viki archives

How to prepare efficient experiments? Why should companies allow this process?

The reason we want companies to experiment is because we want to reduce the risk of failure. We want to limit the blast radius of our startups. We want to make sure that the teams that are working on innovation don’t take the company down with them. The way we do that is giving them a small bit of resources. Then we ask them to prove to us if their idea has ‘legs’. We’re going to give them the resources, the time and the support. All they have to do is to go and prove to us if the idea had ‘legs’. That’s a sufficient proof for us. After we get it, we ask them to bring back the evidence and we’ll decide whether we want to give the team more resources. Companies should allow people to experiment, because they don’t want to just pick a random idea. They want to pick ideas that are likely to become successful and they need evidence to be able to actually do that. Experimentation creates better decision-making process. The best way to do an experiment is to first focus on what you’re trying to test. What is the hypothesis – the assumption. If you make that explicit, then you can have a conversation about the best way to get evidence that this hypothesis is correct. If you start with a test like most people do, you choose a focus group. Onto the focus group, let’s decide what questions we’re going to ask. You’re doing it backwards, because you might choose to ask questions that are not important for the success of your business. But if you focus on only those things that are likely to cause your business to fail, and focus on those hypotheses and test those, then that’s the best way to make sure that your experiments are producing information. The point is not to run experiments. The job is finding information to make decisions. So, use hypotheses, then get information, then use that information to examine your hypotheses, and either change your idea or keep going if the evidence is there.

Could you tell our readers a bit about the concept of Business Model Canvas?

It is a tool we use to help companies and teams visualize their business ideas. It usually has three core elements. It focuses on how do you create value. And then after you’ve created value, it helps to specify how you deliver that value to customers. Then comes the final piece underneath, how you get value back from customers in terms of revenue. That’s really the goal. I strongly recommend using it. Just pick it up, put it on a wall, and start putting stickies in it. You won’t be super fast in the beginning, but that’s the best way to start. And then over time you can simplify it and master it as you can learn to read more from it. The tools are designed to be really easy at the entry level, so the barrier to entry is low. There’s a couple of tips you can find online, like one idea per sticky note. Don’t put too many sticky notes on it, don’t write on the canvas, but those are just tips. Even the tool is free – it’s an open source, so you can easily Google it.

Do you think Agile approach is a perfect match for innovation?

Agile is fantastic. It is a wonderful set of ‘tools’ – rituals like the sprint, the daily stand-ups etc. They don’t exist on their own, they exist for a reason. When you’re dealing with uncertainty, you need to have this iterative process of constantly checking in to see if you’re heading in the right direction. You’re constantly checking in with each other in your team. Teams are also involving customers in the conversation, so that when they are doing a demo, they are getting experimental data that allows them to iterate on their idea. These tools allow a project manager to stay on track towards finding something that works. The Agile toolbox is really important for innovation teams. In fact, I would even go as far as the Agile toolbox is the only right toolbox.

What would you advise to a project manager responsible to lead an innovation? What good practices do you recommend?

Agile is fantastic. It is You can find project management approach even within innovation field – that’s important to recognize and make sure people understand that. The question is, what type of project management do you need? If you’re working on something that’s already known, you can use the kind of project management focused on execution with an execution roadmap as Gantt chart. When you’re doing innovation, you’re doing the kind of project management focused on searching and finding what you want to do. The ultimate goal of this project management is that you’re measuring teams by how close they are to finding an idea or a business model that works. What you can do as a project manager is set milestones, ask teams to what extent is this discovered thing something that customers value, and follow it up with the project sponsor. You can have agreements within your organization about how to measure that a team has found the customer. That’s a milestone. You’re tracking the experiments a team is doing and seeing the data they’re producing. Then you can help make decisions about whether they found something that customers value. The next milestone can be to figure out if a team has created a solution that works for customers. The next milestone can be determining if they found that customers are willing to pay for that innovation. If your manager gave a challenge to create a solution, you can make all these sorts of innovation milestones and pump a whole bunch of teams in there. Some teams will be on an early stage, some will be on a middle stage and some teams will be on a later stage, so we do need active portfolio managers with effective project management skills, tracking all of that, because we need to start to professionalize the innovation.


How can we contribute in creating trends?

I think we don’t want to contribute to trends. They are just what they are. They happen in the environment and then you decide how you want to respond to them, but the goal should never be to contribute more present feeling, to feel more human – simply more connected to each others. We have a need to be more personal. To give some senses into virtual reality and to feel almost like during real face-to-face meetings.

What management trends do you predict for the future?

When we were doing traditional MBAs 20-30 years ago, we were telling our leaders that good strategy, finding your competitive advantage, and then building a moat around it was their goal. Now over time with books from Rita McGrath and The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, we’re slowly starting to tell management that your leadership role is to help your company move from advantage to advantage. That’s the evolution in management. That’s the trend we want. Now we need ambidextrous leaders who can both manage the core and explore the future. This way you’re getting all these names from Agile leadership, entrepreneurial leadership, ambidextrous leadership – all this is speaking for psychological safety. The management trends that are coming out into the world are necessary tools for leaders to be able to manage their current teams and this will explore in the future for sure, because if you don’t have those tools, you can’t really survive in this unstable world. Things are changing so quickly and that’s a capability to adjust to it. The conditions are demanding, people are looking for more than they did before.

The newest book by Tendayi Viki Pirates in the Navy: How Innovators Lead Transformation, Unbound, 2020.