Survival Instincts Are Fatal to Innovation Success: Here’s Why

Trying to maintain the status quo in a digital landscape will likely kill you, and why Business Design is an essential discipline.

Michael Roland was previously Digital Project Manager and Director of Operations & Business Development at Apptitude, a design-based agency helping startups launch digital projects at EPFL Innovation Park in Lausanne, Switzerland. Currently a Senior Project Manager and a Global Account Manager at MING Labs Berlin, he will be an important contributor to building the Business Design discipline with the team.

With a keen sense for business viability and effective innovation process management, Michael is a firm believer in the future of Business Design for digital transformation, and that survival is the last thing business leaders should have on their mind as they fight for relevance and market share in an increasingly digital landscape. We spoke with him to learn more.

Q: Servicing startups in an innovation park while co-venturing with your clients sounds like an interesting business model. How was Apptitude different from your other work experiences, and what lessons did you learn?

We tried our hand at being a design agency that was also an accelerator, and co-ventured in a couple of projects. I learnt several important things from investing billable time and resources from Apptitude:

  1. You must perform your due diligence like a venture capitalist.
  2. The capital you are investing in startups are the profits of your agency.

The advantages many agency owners perceive when pursuing this Agency/Accelerator model are the following:

  1. They get handed opportunities in their early stages before anyone knows about them.
  2. They have control over the quality of the product or service that gets developed for the business.

And as a result, I would suggest being conscious of these things when evaluating what you perceive to be advantages:

  1. There are many would-be entrepreneurs that will talk you into investing your time and your team’s time into their idea. You must become good at picking the right ones.
  2. You still need to pay salaries and possibly forego paying jobs to do this work.

The success of a company isn’t only based on the strength of the product or service that it offers. There are many other elements to consider, such as: Who makes up the team? What is the business model, who is the competition? Is there a viable marketing strategy? Where will the money come from to bring this to market correctly?

Apptitude’s home: EPFL Innovation Park in Lausanne (Credits: Apptitude Sàrl)

Q: You helped many of your clients with business models. Why was that important, and did you think Business Design would become a discipline at the time?

Business Design became a necessity when working with startups. People would come to us with an idea, and most of these were not business ideas but ideas for a product or a service. They usually needed help designing their minimum viable product (MVP) so they could then bring this to investors for funding. If the purpose is to convince VCs that your business will be profitable, the mechanism by which the product or service generates income must be designed into the MVP. Without a clear business model, it makes the job of designing a product from scratch very difficult, so when it wasn’t there, we helped them with that.

It’s essential to put a lot of importance on Business Design. Talk directly to your target audience, iterate. Question whether or not that business makes sense. We had to do that: A lot of the startups went to develop their app and failed immediately. For Apptitude, long-term success made long-term clients.

An app Michael and his Apptitude team built for the UNIL sports team at EPFL (Credits: Apptitude Sàrl)

Q: Based on your work now, have you found that Business Design for tech startups is applicable to corporate innovation? What do you think are the biggest challenges for corporates in digital transformation?

I think it is a challenge. Mainly because corporates generally think in terms of their constraints. For me, this is an engineer’s mindset: Decide your goal up-front, look at the constraints in reaching this goal, and engineer something that allows you to meet your goals while respecting your constraints. You hope whatever you come up with pleases your customers in the end. It’s a very top-down approach.

Design Thinking is bottom-up instead. Before you discuss what your goal is, you speak to the customer, gather insights, ideate in small doses, and test. And above all, designers do not think about constraints. We come from a world of possibilities.

Corporates are too concerned with their own survival. They want to be like startups because startups design cool things, and use methodologies and processes that allow them to innovate faster. But what really good startups do is make old businesses obsolete. They transform industries forever. And they are able to do that because they do not function in a world of constraints. Corporates should be less focused on surviving and more focused on being the ones that disrupt themselves. Only then may they be able to keep a piece of their pie.

Michael with his team at Apptitude doing a standup (Credits: Apptitude Sàrl)

Q: Let’s zone in on the idea of throwing away survival as a goal for traditional companies. That must be a big paradigm shift to make. How should corporations be approaching their transformation instead of merely seeking survival?

The main barriers are: They want to keep everything intact. They want to have control over brand image or the relationship with the customers and all of the heavy bureaucracy that really gets in the way. You’re just trying to keep the status quo. Trying to avoid change. It might mean starting a company with a new focus. Changing everything.

Q: What do you see as the future of Business Design? How should teams be built out to include and nurture this emerging discipline?

Build a team with a diverse set of designers who took a conscious step into the discipline. I might also try to add in some researchers to watch the market, with a keen eye on business model innovation so they can bring these ideas to the team.

Attract talent. The fun part is working on ideas and mixing in diversity of ideas.

Target industries that you can see are in need of some real innovation. Find interesting projects that your team can sink their teeth into.

Have a clear mission. The whole company should be clear on what it is we are doing out there in the market.

To put Business Design in digital transformation into words: We help corporates think like startups.

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MING Labs is a leading digital business builder located in Berlin, Munich, New York City, Shanghai and Singapore. We guide clients in designing their businesses for the future, ensuring they are leaders in the field of innovation.