So you want to set up an online incubation program and you have very little time left until the launch?
Then, we’ve got some tips for you.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit all of us in 2020, we built a series of open innovation initiatives (“Versus Virus”) to develop and launch solutions against the effects of the crisis - tackling anything from physical and mental health, to economic distress due to lockdowns, to family and homeschooling approaches. Versus Virus consisted of two hackathons followed by an online incubation program with around 50 teams entering the process. With a total of over 5’000 participants, Versus Virus was most likely the largest online collaboration effort in the history of Switzerland. Here are the 10 most important learnings that we, a group of diverse and committed individuals and organizations, would like to share with anyone interested in building an online open innovation program with very little preparation time - and of course working 100% remotely. (Pro tip: The Versus Virus website hosts much content, like Lunch & Learn Sessions, overview of teams, etc.)
1. Define your purpose, ambition and values; and keep reminding yourselves in the team
When there’s little time until you launch a program, chances are that you are tempted to skip the basics - most importantly to clarify the “why”: Why are we building this program? What’s our purpose? What does success look like for us during and after the program? Which values (of working together) are non-negotiable for us? As in any venture, the answers to these questions form the foundation for the team, participants and partners, as well as for the decisions, large and small, you’ll be making along the way. Do not neglect to define and communicate - through co-creation- the answers to these questions just because there seems to be too little time.
Once you have your purpose, goals and values stated somewhere on a website or presentation, keep reminding yourself repeatedly. When there is a discussion in the team or when you pitch the program to anyone, refer to them. The more frequently you align with them, the faster and easier it will be to solve the challenges ahead together with your colleagues.
2. Apply agile and lean project management
Open innovation programs tend to be uncertain not only in outcomes but also in processes - especially when building new programs under (time and/or resource) pressure with a diverse team working remotely. Under these circumstances, we applied agile and lean project management methodologies. In particular, three elements were important to us: First, we built and ran the online program iteratively. When we launched, we focused on the selection and onboarding of teams, while not spending time on how graduation might look like or which program elements are needed once all teams are onboarded. We just didn’t have the time to do all the planning ahead, nor did we know which kind of support the diverse participant teams would benefit from. We tested, failed, learned, improved constantly (see also next learning below). Second, we not only pushed teams for user testing, but focused on user centricity ourselves. We ran multiple mini-survey, spoke to teams, listened to what they would need and which well-intended program ideas were in fact a waste of (their and our) time. Third, we organized us through weekly check-ins throughout the incubation period: Every Monday, 30 minutes (though we usually extended it to 45 minutes or an hour), and every Thursday, a quick 15 minutes check-in to see if all is set for the following Versus Virus Vriday (our main program day).
3. Try out different program elements and adapt over time (but not too much)
Open innovation programs that run over several weeks (instead of just a one weekend hackathon) can be changed based on teams demands, available resources or a changing environment. In our case, we wanted to support as many teams as possible, since no one seemed to know what exactly is needed when during the pandemic. We supported as many diverse teams as possible, from mask disinfection to virtual event distribution for cultural organizations. However, we didn’t have the resources to engage with up to 50 teams every Friday for over 6 months, (we still had our “normal” jobs to do), we set peer-to-peer progress and support sessions in which groups would share their progress. These sessions were initially moderated by us but later changed to self-moderation to make it more scalable. Such program design changes took place several times throughout the process, and even though they were not always appreciated by all teams (see learning #10), we considered them necessary in times of high uncertainty and a fast changing environment.
4. Focus on high engagement and high potential teams
Focus your support on those teams that a) are highly committed to leverage your program in order to advance their project, and b) have a high potential for success (whatever you may have defined as your intended success of the program; see learning #1). The strongest support usually comes from individual interactions (e.g., by giving feedback, connecting to key contacts or brainstorming solutions to a challenge). With limited time and resources, you may not be able to provide an equal amount of individual support to all teams. We screened all teams for potential of developing a viable and scalable solution to problems stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic (i.e., one of our goals for the Versus Virus Incubator) and focused our individual efforts on those teams that asked for support proactively, joined feedback sessions, or showed higher engagement in other areas. Teams that scored high on both dimensions received more attention from us.
5. Structure, structure, structure
Innovation is messy; open innovation even more so. Open online innovation with newly found teams during an unprecedented crisis is basically the equivalent of sailing west from Palos de la Frontera hoping to get to India. Everything seems uncertain. Therefore, structure is key. The participating teams need structure to organize their weekly team work. The incubator team needs structure to collaborate remotely across the country. The whole incubation program needs structure to provide orientation to all stakeholders. While there will be trade-offs to the demands to adapt program elements (see learning #2 and #3), you need to give some kind of framework to the teams. In our case, we had several building blocks that helped to structure the program: Versus Virus Incubator required the teams to show up every Friday at 11am for a one hour progress and peer to peer support session. We built most other program elements, such as the Lunch & Learn, around this session, so that Friday became our main incubator day: the Versus Virus Vriday. We also set a clear template for weekly progress tracking which was only changed slightly over the course of the program, while keeping the general structure intact (“What are our goals for next week?”, “What did we achieve last week, compared to our goals from last week?”, “What did we learn?”, “Where do we need help?”).
6. Use common tech tools
Online collaboration requires technology. However, not all participating teams are equally tech savvy, mastering Jitsi, Miro, Airtable, Slack, the G-Suite, and others. We strongly recommend keeping required tech tools simple, using common ones and being open for some compromises in your tech requirements in order to make it easy for participants. We have to admit that we probably were too adventurous in changing from most common tech tools (- everyone knows Zoom -) to more special ones (- but Veertly is on the rise -) expecting a slightly better fit to our program design which might have occasionally confused tech savvy teams, and frustrated non-tech savvy ones. Disclaimer: The incubator started just about six months after the Covid-19 outbreak and lasted for about six months. Now, one year later, many people have learned significantly to use more diverse tech tools (not the least through projects like Versus Virus).
7. Diversity of team members is an advantage
While it might be tempting to gather people like yourself when building an organizing team - after all, you need to have a common language and understanding very fast - we benefited massively from the diversity of our organizing team.
Diverse individuals bring diverse experiences and networks into the project. In the Versus Virus Incubator, we supported very diverse teams, so mirroring this diversity in the organizing team made sense as well. We required a vast array of skills: mastering tech tools, conflict resolution, moderation, analytics, networking, inspiring people, fundraising, interviewing... you name it. And our geographic scope - though running a purely online program - spun around the entire country (plus internationally), with at least four different language areas involved. This allowed our incubatees to benefit from a variety of local networks across many sectors, from non-profit to for-profit, from private to public, from grassroots to institutional leaders.
A note of caution: With higher diversity comes a stronger need for alignment through internal communication around the “building blocks” of your program (see learning #1), especially if you have never worked together before.
8. Build a small, committed team of purpose-driven people (who share the risk of failure)
We all know it from entrepreneurship: The team is everything! And what holds true for startups, is the same for any collaborative project under high resource constraints (...which could actually count for the definition of a startup). However, in contrast to founding a company, we approached team building fully open and inclusive. Everyone who wanted to join our team of organizers was welcomed to join. This naturally attracts many people, some fitting, some less so, to the challenge ahead. Thus, the core team became clearer week after week as we demanded high quality, execution-oriented work, a no b******t attitude and maximum reliability. In such inclusive, collaborative endeavours you need to be able to count on someone’s word to deliver a task or a whole work package. Non-delivery might happen once, but must not be tolerated further.
What might help to attract the right group of entrepreneurial people is to share the risk. In our case, we did not guarantee compensation for the hundreds of hours our team members put into the project. If we were successful in fundraising, we would compensate with a (small) hourly rate, if not, we’d all have done it pro bono.
9. An incubator is not a personal consultancy. Teams are responsible for their own progress and success.
Once you launch a program supporting startups or projects on their journey, some of your participants may take your “support offer” too far, expecting you to accomplish what’s actually their ambition. Clarifying that an incubator for innovative projects is not a personal consultancy and we cannot and must not hold hands of the participating teams seemed quite important. Some teams were struggling to move ahead with their venture and they occasionally would look at us, the organizing team, for help (which was ok) or for solving their problems on their behalf (which was not ok). Remember: If you are open for anyone to join your program, you will have to deal with anyone as they are and accept that you cannot accommodate all needs.
10. Create only one communication channel and source of information.
Most importantly, you need to master communication with program participants (spoiler alert: we did not!). In times of crisis, when you have to adapt frequently and fast to changing circumstances, you need to be double- or triple-check that participants understand the current situation: What is asked of the teams? Which opportunities have emerged since last week? Which tech platform do you use for the next pitch training? The list goes on. We recommend creating one communication channel and one communication channel only that serves between your organizing team and the participant teams. Then, the #1 requirement for joining the program is to sign up for this communication channel (e.g., bring them all on one slack channel, communicate only in one whatsapp group, or request one email address per team, you name it). The Versus Virus Incubator was generally quite a success. However, participant communication was a weakness that created several headaches and unnecessary confusion along the way. We hope the teams, mentors, partners and other stakeholders will forgive us on this one and look back with some sense of satisfaction of what was collectively accomplished in Versus Virus.
Thank you all for your outstanding engagement to fight back against the hardships this pandemic has brought to so many. You all rock!!