Let’s be honest: Innovation is rare within large organizations. Their work processes have proven themselves, so any disruption to them, or the thinking behind them, is met with considerable internal resistance. This is why many large organizations acquire the innovation they need by buying startups and quickly scaling their technologies.
An alternative to acquiring innovation through M&As — which have frequently proven to be difficult to squeeze value from if the two cultures don’t align — is to build disruption from the inside. To be successful at this takes dedicated resources, discipline, commitment, and a culture that is meritocratic, fearless, and driven.
However, it is definitely worth the effort because to stop innovating is quite dangerous; just look at a long list of early category innovators that lost their luster, IP leads, brand loyalty, and preference along the way, such as Blockbuster Video, Kodak, Netscape, MySpace, and Yahoo.
There are many leadership methodologies to help reinvigorate small startups that have shown a lot of success. However, when companies become more mature and bulkier — expanding to many more employees, divisions, investors, and varying opinions — it becomes far more difficult to innovate at scale. This is one of the big downsides of becoming less nimble and scrappy.
One of the most effective disruption methodologies for organizations to consider is something my team has dubbed “Jet Skis.” It has proven to be a highly successful way of creating the kind of fast innovation we had in our early days. The Jet Skis approach allows us to disrupt ourselves. When companies grow fast, they become large ships — and large vessels like an oil tanker or a transatlantic cruise ship are hard to maneuver.
Jet Ski teams are nimble and unafraid to fail
Jet Skis are small, dedicated teams built to test ideas and scale them if they work well. This disruption methodology is designed to engage everyone in the importance of new innovations across a company. They are structured to help “visionary companies stimulate evolutionary progress by encouraging experimentation,” as James Collins wrote in his business management book Built to Last. Yet, engaging a big company’s staff to innovate is difficult.
Jet Skis are born as multidisciplinary teams. They typically consist of four to six full-time staff members from different backgrounds, including business-unit leads, product managers, and a dedicated team of software engineers. Every 15 days, the Jet Ski teams discuss results and progress with senior executives to gather feedback and ideas.
These nimble teams can pivot fast to make adjustments in order to achieve better results. If, after a relatively short time, there is still “no land in sight” (in other words, there is not significant business promise, or the initial hypotheses do not stand up to real-world trials), Jet Skis are shut down. In cases where a Jet Ski team finds solid ground and the cost, in terms of time and resources, is reasonable, Jet Skis can be scaled up fast in order to move the project into a live-trial phase so customers can try the new offerings and give feedback.
Not everyone is cut out for this type of work
Most people like the certainty of knowing what they should be doing at work and what to expect. Others really love to “invent their days” as they move along. They don’t mind if things are in constant flux and they find themselves in uncharted waters. It takes a special personality who likes this type of unpredictable work and accepts the risk that the management team may quickly sink a Jet Ski that’s going nowhere.
Without failing fast, there’s little innovation
If you want to build a company culture that’s innovative and not afraid of pursuing new ideas, then there’s no stigma in failing fast. We aren’t learning if we aren’t failing occasionally. In fact, we learn a lot from failing because it avoids spending too much time on the wrong stuff. The great thing is, unlike in a failing startup, people do not lose their jobs if a Jet Ski fails.
It’s important to evaluate Jet Ski projects rapidly, every two weeks, and decide whether to kill them, change course, or add more resources as they scale up into “Speed Boats.”
If you look at some of the world’s top innovation centers such as Silicon Valley, they succeed overall despite massive numbers of broken startups. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are not stigmatized by failure and they find it easier to raise funding for their next venture because investors value their experience.
In today’s complex business environment, where things are constantly changing, the speed of adjustment and execution is a lot more important than perfect execution. In order to build a great company culture, failure should not be viewed as a barrier to success. Instead, it’s how an organization learns and becomes remarkable.
My team has developed a set of Jet Ski principles that we continually refine and expanded as we gain more lessons from this process. Here are cornerstones of the methodology so far:
1. Strategic business alignment that maps to long-term organizational goals. Everyone seems to have ideas on improving the business, but not all of these ideas are aligned with the company’s overall strategic mission. Many businesses get distracted and waste resources while pursuing goals that have little to do with the strategic work that needs to be done first. It is the work of executive teams to evaluate and then focus on the ideas that are likely to accelerate the mother ship and enable it to move faster.
This is the first guiding principle of our Jet Skis’ methodology: Jet Ski missions have to be aligned with strategic business goals.
2. Jet Skiers must love and embrace risk and uncertainty. It is very important to choose the members of Jet Ski teams wisely. The team members you choose must be flexible and comfortable taking risks. Such qualities are not easily taught or found, especially in a society like Brazil (where our company operates), where people have been brought up to avoid risk and stick with old, tried-and-true methods and practices. To help our Jet Ski teams break out of that mold, we have them focus fully on their projects. They leave their everyday work duties behind them for the duration of the mission. The choice of team leader is also hugely important.
Jet Ski team candidates are filtered based on psychological testing across the workforce. People who score high on what’s called the “N” scale using the Myers Briggs MBTI Test, tend to like and thrive on uncertainty — which gives them a firm foundation to become innovative pioneers and leaders who are capable of inspiring others.
3. Keep Jet Ski teams small with full autonomy so they can move quickly. In order for Jet Ski teams to be most effective and gain traction quickly, it’s important to give them full autonomy and authority to take risks and learn from them. This operating principle is based on a concept called “breaking the walls” — wherein the Jet Ski teams are allowed to apply maximum pressure to “a plumbing system inside the walls.” To continue the analogy, it’s okay for them to burst the pipes, or to break things.
It’s important to limit the impact of breaking the walls, though, so we keep their work within a controlled environment; for instance, rolling out a new offering in one small city first.
Whatever they learn from their mission is knowledge they’re expected to bring back to the bigger team onboard the transatlantic cruise ship.
Typically, we assign four to six people to Jet Skis, and we’ve found this size team makes for the most effective working group.
4. Keep it simple at first and focus on fast cycles. Don’t expect Jet Skis to deliver the perfect solution right away. In fact, it is perfectly okay to not know if the new approach will even work. However, we’ve found it is best to develop the simplest solutions possible, test them, get the insights, and move on quickly.
Jet Ski teams are inherently speedy and should be encouraged to move in very fast 15-day cycles. After each cycle, senior executives should regroup with them to discuss their discoveries, key learnings, and the mission’s next steps.
5. Create multidisciplinary teams with full support from engineers and product leads. Jet Skis are composed of fully dedicated people with diverse backgrounds and functions, who are not involved in any other daily activities for as long as they participate. Typically, a team is formed by people who specialize in business, product, engineering, data, and AI. They work together for three to six months in order to figure out if their mission is feasible and will help deliver value for the organization’s long-term vision and strategy.
At iFood, we typically deploy up to six Jet Ski teams at once every six months. Some will emerge as strong contenders and turn into Speed Boats, and others may sink after crashing into an iceberg. Or we may simply learn that the mission concept we aligned on is not a fit for the transatlantic ship after all.
However, to be successful and have the opportunity to grow into Speed Boats, Jet Skis need technology support. It’s essential to provide IT resources across the Jet Skis during each “innovation season” so the IT staff can make adjustments, run data analysis, or provide agile software development or in-depth AI expertise.
The bottom line
If you’re seeking to drive a culture of innovation at your company, consider launching some of your own Jet Skis that are free to maneuver quickly, try out new approaches, fail fast, recalibrate, and eventually contribute major breakthroughs that can drive growth.
By tapping into a Jet Ski approach to innovation based on this methodology, you’ll likely see some of your best ideas and new customer offerings roll out very soon.