Feb 22, 2021
In this episode, my guest Alex Osterwalder shares 3 common traits you'd expect to find in an invincible company, the back story of how his book Business Model Generation came about from his PhD thesis, how he stays grounded as a leader and much more.
You'll need a pen and notepad ready for taking some notes!
Dr. Alexander (Alex) Osterwalder is one of the world’s most influential innovation experts, a leading author, entrepreneur and in-demand speaker whose work has changed the way established companies do business and how new ventures get started.
Ranked No. 4 of the top 50 management thinkers worldwide, Osterwalder is known for simplifying the strategy development process and turning complex concepts into digestible visual models. He invented the Business Model Canvas, Value Proposition Canvas, and Business Portfolio Map – practical tools that are trusted by millions of business practitioners from leading global companies.
Strategyzer, Osterwalder’s company, provides online courses, applications, and technology-enabled services to help organizations effectively and systematically manage strategy, growth and transformation.
His books include the international bestseller Business Model Generation, Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want, Testing Business Ideas, The Invincible Company, and the recently-published High-Impact Tools for Teams.
Alex’s website & social media profiles:
Ula Ojiaku: [00:28]
In this episode we have Dr. Alex Osterwalder. To many, he needs no introduction. He is known for his phenomenal work on developing the Business Model Canvas. He has authored or co-authored a growing library of books including Business Model Generation; Value Proposition Design - How to Create Products and Services Customers Want; Testing Business Ideas, and one of the topics we focused on was his book that was released back in 2020, The Invincible Company. Since then, he has released a new book that's titled, Tools for Teams.
I must mention though, that some of the references to concepts like travelling around the world may not be relevant in this current COVID-19 pandemic situation. However, the key principles of entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, innovation, leadership (mentioned in this conversation with Alex), I believe these are still timeless and valid. Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, with no further ado, my conversation with Alex Osterwalder.
Ula Ojiaku: [01:49]
Thank you, Alex, for joining us. It's an honour to have you on the show.
Alex Osterwalder: [01:53]
My pleasure. Great be here.
Ula Ojiaku: [01:55]
Great. So, what would you say is your typical day, typical day in the life of Alex? How does it start?
Alex Osterwalder: [02:04]
It depends. So, you know, there's two typical days, one typical day is when I travel, and one typical day is when I don't travel, so they're very different - if you want. I probably spend about 50% of my time traveling all across the world talking about innovation, growth and transformation strategies. And then, you know, my day is I wake up, and it's “Oh, what country am I in now?”... And just trying to get the best out of the day and talk to people about growth and transformation. When I don't travel, my typical day is mixed between helping grow and manage, Strategyzer, the company I founded, but also spending a lot of time thinking about how, can we really help business leaders, business doers do a better job, right?
So, I spend a lot of time thinking, sketching out things, I wouldn't say writing because when my co-authors and I create some content, it's usually more drawing first and writing after. But I'd say a lot of time, spent on pretty fundamental questions. And the rest of that when we're not thinking that we're doing or sharing. So that's the kind of mix - not very concrete maybe. But you know, it's so diverse, it really depends a little bit on the type of day, where I am, what the project is. So - very, very diverse days, I'd say.
Ula Ojiaku: [03:22]
What do you prefer - traveling or not traveling?
Alex Osterwalder: [03:26]
I enjoy both, right. So, what's important is after intense days of travel, you know, I just this week, I was in Paris with the CEOs of one of the largest companies in France. I like coming back to Switzerland and going on a hike in the mountains, while thinking about certain topics and digesting some of the things that I've seen. What I really enjoy is being in the field with doers and leaders seeing what they struggle with.
But then being able to take the time to digest that and turn that into practical tools and processes that help them do a better job, right. So that mix is what I enjoy. The diversity is exactly what I enjoy.
Ula Ojiaku: [04:07]
That's great. You mentioned you like hiking, am I right in understanding that when you're not running workshops, or helping doers and businesses would hiking be one of your hobbies?
Alex Osterwalder: [04:21]
So, I can give you a concrete example, this week, I was traveling at the beginning of the week, and for two days, I had back to back calls for 12 hours with either leaders with my own team. So, tomorrow morning, I'm going to drive to the mountains - from my office, it’s about an hour away. During the drive, I take calls so I work on the drive, because I can schedule that in advance. And then I pack out my skis and I put what we call skins on the skis and I walk up the mountain for maybe 90 minutes, take the skins off and ski down for 10 minutes. That's it, right.
So, during that kind of hike, it's just kind of airing out the brain. But, you know, I wouldn't say that's just leisure time that's actually thinking and digesting. So, I would think about either the topics of the week when I was in the field with real clients and business people struggling with growth and transformation issues, or thinking of my own team in my own leadership challenges.
So, it's work but it's in a different context. Then, what's going to happen tomorrow is I’m gonna jump in the car again and drive back to the office in the afternoon - I work out of my office. So that's how a typical kind of day looks like when I have some time to get out of the building. I do go for a ski tour. But it isn't really disconnecting. It's just thinking in a different environment, and then come back to the office, and maybe sketch something out on the wall or on the whiteboard.
Ula Ojiaku: [05:46]
It also sounds like you’re kind of a visual person. So, you do lots of graphics, I mean, your books, The Business Model Generation, Value Proposition Design, and Testing Business Ideas - they are very visual and easy to read. Are you a very visual and artistic person?
Alex Osterwalder: [06:06]
Artistic, I'd not say because my visuals are pretty ugly, but visual 100%. So, I believe if you can't sketch it out, if you can't draw a problem, you probably didn't understand it well enough. Even complex challenges can be simplified down, not to mask the complexity, but actually just to get a handle of it and to think about the most essential things.
So, the reason we use visuals in our books is actually less to just make them look pretty. It's because I do believe visuals are a language, a shared language. There are some things you can't describe easily with words. Like how am I going to describe with words my business model portfolio like that makes no sense, or even describing the business model with words doesn't really make sense. Sketching it out very quickly, and then having a paragraph that accompanies that sketch, that works right or even better, when I do presentations, I would build up the visual piece by piece while telling the story.
So, I get bored when people say storytelling, and then it's a lot of blah, blah, blah. I like the storytelling with the visual message. And it's like a good voice over, you know, in a movie, that will go hand in hand. So, I think we don't use visual tools enough in our business practices. In certain circles, it's a tradition. If we take more of the IT field, you don't map out a server infrastructure without using visual tools. But in strategy and transformation, people talk too much, and they draw too little. Visual tools are unbeatable, they're unbeatable. They won't get you to do things completely differently. But they will get you to do things much faster, much clearer, because you have a shared language.
So, when you have a shared language to map it out, to capture it, to create a visual artifact, you have better conversations about strategy, about business models, about culture. And that is incredibly important when we talk about these fuzzy topics, right? Or change management, like what the heck does that mean? But when you start visualizing this, we're moving from this state to that state. These are the obstacles; this is how we're going to overcome it. And you make all of that visual and tangible, not too much visuals, because then it's complicated, just the right amount. That is, you know, the magic of visual communication, where you still use words, you still can tell stories, but you just use the right communication tool at the right time.
Ula Ojiaku: [08:37]
You're saying, ‘…not too much visual, not too many words, just the right amount…’ How do you strike the balance?
Alex Osterwalder: [08:46]
You don't. So, the way you figure out if you're on track or not, is by testing it right? So, let's say I share a slide deck, I can see in people's faces, are they getting it? Are they not getting it? I can listen to their questions. When the questions are really about good details where you can see they understood the essence and now they're going a step further, they got it – right? When people are confused and they ask very fundamental questions of what I just explained. Well, guess what, then the problem is with me, not with them. I made a mistake in the way I told the story. So, I never blame the audience, I always look for the mistake within and say, ‘okay, what should I have done differently?’
So, the way you figure out if you struck the right balance, is by continuously testing. And then obviously, over time, if you take visual language, we've gotten pretty good at creating visual books; we know what works, we know what doesn't. The challenge then is when you get good at it, is to not get arrogant. So, you always need to remember, well, you know, maybe the world changed. So, what worked yesterday doesn't work today.
So, you go fast, because you know, but you always need to remain humble, because maybe you know something that was right yesterday, not today, you got to be careful. So you go fast, because you know, but you still listen enough to question yourself enough that you figure out, when do you need to change, because a lot of people get famous, and then they believe what they say, believe their own BS, they forget to stay grounded because the world changes, and you need to go with the change. So that's another balance - once you figured it out, you need to make sure time doesn't move faster than you otherwise you become the dinosaur in the room.
Ula Ojiaku: [10:26]
So how do you keep yourself grounded?
Alex Osterwalder: [10:30]
Yeah, so it's not always easy, right? So, if I just take our company, it's constantly trying to create a culture where people can speak up. Constantly trying to create a culture where people don't fear critique - design critique. That's not easy, because even though we have a pretty flat hierarchy, when you're the founder, you're the founder. So, people will say ‘yeah, but you know, I'm not gonna tell this guy he's full of BS.’ So, you need to create that culture where people dare to [speak up], that's number one.
But then number two is just constantly staying curious, right? When you think you figured it out, you probably just know enough to come across, like looking like you figured it out, you know too little for really understanding it. So, I just work on the assumption that I never know enough. You can't know everything. Sometimes you don't need to go further because it's just you're now looking at the 20%. They're going to take too much time. But if you stay curious enough, you'll see the big shifts. If you listen to the weak signals, you'll see the big shift coming and you can surround yourself with people who are a little bit different.
The more people are like you, the less you're going to see the shift coming and that's the problem of established companies. They do the same thing day in day out. They don't see what's coming. However, if, for example, you create a portfolio of projects where people can explore outside of your core business, then all of a sudden you see, ‘…wow, they're getting traction with that? I thought that was never going to be a market….’ And, ‘they're starting that customer segment – really?’ So, you need to create ecosystems that keep you alert. It's very hard again, so I don't trust myself to be able to check my own BS. So, you need to create ecosystems that keep you alert. I think that's the challenge. And you know, maybe my team will say, ‘yeah, Alex, you're talking about these things on a podcast.’ But you know, you don't really do that. So, I really have to be careful that that doesn't happen. That's why I admire people who can rise to really, really senior positions, but they stay grounded.
One of my favorite examples is Alan Mulally. He turned Ford from a 17 billion loss-making monster into a profitable company. I was really fortunate to get to know him. And he's just grounded, like, a really nice guy. So, it doesn't mean when you have some success, you have to get full of yourself, you just stay grounded, because… we're all just people at the end of the day, right? But it's a challenge, right? It's always a challenge to remind yourself, I knew something now, maybe tomorrow, it's different. I get passionate about this stuff. So, I just go on rambling.
Ula Ojiaku: [13:09]
You know, I could go on listening to you. I am passionate about it from a learning perspective. Now, let's move on to the next section. I understand that the Business Model Generation, the book, which you wrote in collaboration with Yves Pigneur, I hope I pronounced his name correctly. Yeah. Oh, well, thank you. So, it came about as a result of the work you were doing as part of your PhD studies. Could you tell us a bit more about that story? And how, you finally arrived at the Business Model Generation book and the artifacts?
Alex Osterwalder: [13:46]
Sure, sure. So, in year 2000, I became a PhD student with Yves Pigneur. And he was looking for somebody who could help him with mapping out business models. And the fundamental idea was, can we kind of create some computer aided design system- so, we could build business models, like architects build buildings and computer aided design? That was the fundamental assumption. But in order to make computer systems like that, you need a rigorous approach, right? You need to model, what is a business model can be fuzzy, because otherwise, how are you going to build some kind of system around that?
So, in architecture, it's easy. We're talking about structures and about materials. In business, it's a bit harder, what are the structures? What are the materials, what are the building blocks? So that was the starting point. And I did my PhD with him - amazing collaboration. Then I went out into the world and did a couple of things that work to help scale a global not-for-profit, then I had a consulting firm together with a friend. But then ultimately, the business model work I did on my PhD got some traction; people started asking me if I could speak in Colombia, in Mexico. First at the periphery - it was pretty interesting. People started downloading the PhD (thesis), reading it in companies… So, there were a lot of weak signals. And then, when I had enough of those, I asked Yves, ‘hey, let's write this book that we always wanted to write.’ So, we embarked on the journey of Business Model Generation. And we thought we can't write a book about business model innovation without doing it. So, we tried to do it in a different way. We did Kickstarter, before Kickstarter existed, we asked people to pay us, you know, because we needed the funding, or I didn't have any money, I just came out of doing not-for-profit work.
So, we got people to pay us to help us write the book. And I did workshops around the world. And it was, really fun, entrepreneurial experience. And then we launched it and became a big success. And I think a little bit of the secret was, we built something with that book, or we designed something that we would have wanted to buy, there was no that there was no visual business book, there were visual business books, but not the type we wanted to buy. And turns out, almost 2 million people had the same kind of desire. And with that, we realized the power of visual books, we realized the power of visual tools. And we started digging deeper. And then we made more books, not because the world needs more books, they're enough out there. But we always tried to address the next business challenge we would see; we would try to create a tool. If the tool works, we would create a book around it. That was the Value Proposition Canvas. And we thought, okay, people are doing testing, but they're not really good at it. Let's write another book: Testing Business Ideas. And we did that in collaboration with David Bland.
So, we created a library of experiments to help people get more professional. And then you know, we saw okay, large companies, they still can’t innovate. Why don't we write a book called The Invincible Company and we give them a tool that helps them to do this in a large established company. So, every time we see a challenge, we try to build the tool and the book around it to help people around the world. So, it's kind of the same. And what's fun is that behind that, behind the books, we build the technology stack to help actually bring those tools into companies. So, you know, Strategyzer doesn't earn, we earn some money from the books, but the core is really building the technology stack. So, the idea that we had in the PhD is now what we're building 20 years later.
Ula Ojiaku: [17:21]
Oh wow! Now when you mentioned that your company, Strategyzer, builds the technology stack on which the books are based. What do you mean by that?
Alex Osterwalder: [17:32]
Maybe the easiest way to describe it is that we believe in technology-enabled services. So typically, let's say big company comes to us and says, we want to work on growth and transformation, can you accompany one of our teams.
Now, traditionally, a consultancy would just put a number of people on that. And then it's just the people are going to try to solve the problem - they sell hours. We look at it slightly differently. And we say there is a type of challenge that we can productize because it's actually the same challenge all the time, how do we go from idea to validation to scale. So, there are a couple of things there that are actually exactly the same for every single team that needs to go to through that process. And then there's some things that are very domain specific; in Pharma, you will test ideas differently than in Consumer Goods, etc., etc. But we would then start to build the online training and the software platform that would allow us to address that challenge of going from idea to validation to scale, in a lot more structured way, in a lot more technology enabled way.
There’re things where a human coach adds huge value. And there's things where online learning or a software system will create a lot more value; online collaboration, tracking the data, comparing the data understanding how much have you de-risked your idea so far. I'm sharing that with senior leaders. All of that can be automated. The way I like to compare it is like ERP’s in companies like SAP and so changed operations, there are tons of companies out there and today, we have a lot less. But when they changed operations, they did that with software, I think the same is going to happen to strategy and innovation today. That today, we don't use a lot of good software, we use PowerPoint, Word, and maybe Excel, right? That's not good enough. Those are general purpose tools, which create a lot of value. But you shouldn't use those to manage your strategy and innovation, because that's becoming a very dynamic process.
When you talk to a big company, a corporation, they have thousands of projects going on at the same time; thousand innovation projects. How do you manage that portfolio? It's more than just typical project management, we're talking innovation project portfolio, so you need to understand different things. That's the kind of infrastructure that we build, not just the software, also the tools and the content, online training, so become scalable, so people can change the way they work.
Ula Ojiaku: [20:08]
Fascinating. Now, when you talk about the automated part of your tech platform, are you talking about dashboards?
Alex Osterwalder: [20:16]
Yeah, let me give you a simple example. Right? So, when I'm a team, and I start mapping out my idea, an idea is just an idea, right? Technology, market opportunity… I need to create my Value Proposition Canvas and my Business Model Canvas to give it a little bit more shape. How am I going to capture value from customers? How am I going to capture value for my organization? Right - that you need to sketch out.
Okay, you could use a digital tool to do that because then you can share as a team – sort of useful but not breakthrough. But then as a team, when you start to manage your hypothesis, you need to ask yourself, ‘okay, what needs to be true for this idea to work?’ You might have 10, 20, 50 hypotheses, you want to start to track those hypotheses. You want to start to track ‘how are you testing those hypotheses? What is the evidence that I've captured?’ You need actually whole-knowledge management around the evidence that you've captured in the field. ‘Oh, we did 50 interviews, we have about 30 quotes that confirm that people have a budget for that particular process’, right? That is not something you easily manage in a spreadsheet, it gets a mess very quickly; that's at the team level.
Now, once you have that data captured, what if you could take that data and automatically create a risk profile so the team knows ‘this is how much we de risk our idea. Oh, we looked at desirability, maybe 10% of desirability, 20% of feasibility. We looked at some viability...’ Once you have data, you can manipulate the data in very different ways and understand the challenge better - that's at the team level. Now imagine at the senior level where you have, again, you know, 100, 500, 1,000 teams doing that; you want to understand which team is working on the biggest opportunity. ‘Okay, this one. But yeah, we invested maybe half a million dollars in that team, but they actually didn't de-risk the idea at all.’
So, it looks like a great opportunity, but there's no de-risking. So actually, that might just be hot air, right? And you want to be able to do that for a thousand teams. Today, the way we do it is the teams pitch to a manager who pitches to the senior leader. And that's just a mess. So, it's very similar to what I mentioned with ERP. There's a lot of data there, that is hidden in different places - in spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. There's no way to aggregate that. So, guess what? Strategy today and innovation is badly managed - if people are doing it right, that's already another challenge. You know?
Ula Ojiaku: [22:45]
Alex Osterwalder: [22:46]
Today, people are not that good at strategy and innovation. But that's radically changing, because the tasks are getting really big. It's not just about profit, it's also about impact. So, there are a lot of exciting challenges ahead of us, that require a different toolset and different software stack to even be able to do that.
Ula Ojiaku: [23:05]
Wow. So, do you consider lean innovation important for organizations of all sizes? And if so, why? Why? Why? I know, it's an obvious question. But why do you consider that the case.
Alex Osterwalder: [23:20]
Very simple and the challenge is different for the startup than for the established company. So, for the startup… So, for both… let's start with what's shared. For both, it's a matter of survival, okay? Now, let me start with the team first. Well, what's the challenge when you're a startup, you don't have any customers, you don't have any revenues, you might have some self-funded or VC funding, you're gonna run out of money. And I think we're in an age where there's too much money.
So, for a while you for quite a while, you can live without a business model, we have some great examples, billion-dollar unicorns that have no business model, and they're still alive, because they're just funded by VCs. That is a very rare thing. That's not for everybody.
So, at one point, you do need to understand how you create and capture value. So, you want to get as fast as possible, from idea to not just validated business, but actually a company that makes money that captures value, right? Because, you know, yes, it is. You can say, ‘yeah, but the beginning is about users.’ That's okay. But users, you know, without revenues, not going to keep you alive for a while, VC funding is not a revenue stream. Let me just make that clear. VC funding is not a revenue stream.
Ula Ojiaku: [24:34]
They are out for a profit as well.
Alex Osterwalder: [24:36]
So sometimes young founders confuse that. Yeah, you can focus on funding. But ultimately, the funding needs to allow you to find a profitable and scalable business model. Sometimes people forget that. So that's survival at the startup stage, right? Now, what Lean does, and I'm not sure the word is very well chosen, because Lean comes actually from making things better. But in the startup world, is actually figuring out what's going to work in the first place, you're not making your business model better, you're trying to figure out which one is going to work.
So, the testing of your idea is essential to get faster from idea to real business, or, in some cases, to shut it down. Because let's say you take VC money, and you find out, this is not a scalable business, you better give the money back or buy out the VC share, because all they care about is scale. And there's quite a few companies that bought back their shares, Buffer is a very well-known example, because they figured out the business model they're comfortable with, which is not further scaling. Highly profitable… definitely growth, but not the insane kind of growth VC venture capital’s looking for.
So you get faster from idea to real business with the Lean Startup approach and Customer Development by Steve Blank and Eric Reis, or you get faster to the point where you say, ‘this is not working, I'm going to change, I'm going to stop - not pivot - I'm going to stop.’ And then, radical pivot - maybe you start a new startup with a completely different goal. That's for startups.
For the established companies, it's a matter of survival for a different reason. Because their business models are dying and expiring. So, most established companies are very good at efficiency innovation; new technologies, digital transformation…, they improve their business model. Now, that is important, and you need to do it. But if you just get better at what you're doing while your business model is dying, you're just going to more efficiently die. So, at the same time, you need to learn how to reinvent yourself. So, it's a matter of survival that you figure out what's tomorrow's business model. And you can't do that without the Lean approach because it's not about making big bets, it's about making a lot of small bets. But here's the nugget that people get wrong. So, they say, ‘yeah, we're gonna do Lean Startup.’ So, they have five projects, and they believe that out of those five projects, if we just pivot enough, we're gonna get a multibillion-dollar growth engine. That is delusion at its best. Because, if you look at early stage venture capital, you actually need to invest in at least 250 projects to get one breakthrough success.
So, what it means for established companies, if they really want to find the winner, they need to invest in tons of losers. And they're not losers, per se. But some of those projects need to be killed after three months, some of those projects might make 10 million or $100 million in revenues. But only something like one out of 250 will move towards 500 million or a billion. That, is a matter of survival. So, the companies that don't build an innovation portfolio and don't apply Lean in a broad way, not for five projects, not enough - that's what I call innovation theater. They need to apply it across the board, right? And I think that's where Steve Blank’s work, our work together has actually made a pretty big difference.
Now, we just need to convert a couple more companies, because there are only very few that have been able to pull this off - that are really what we would call ‘Invincible Companies.’
Ula Ojiaku: [28:15]
Can you tell me a bit more about the book, Invincible Company?
Alex Osterwalder: [28:19]
So, there are three main components to the Invincible Company. Let me tell you about the three characteristics of an invincible company. The first thing is, invincible companies constantly reinvent themselves. So, they're not laying back and saying, ‘hey, I was successful’, they don't get arrogant. They constantly reinvent themselves. Typical example is Amazon, constantly reinventing their business model; going into Amazon Web Services, going into logistics, etc. That's number one.
Number two, invincible companies, they don't compete on products and technology alone. They compete on superior business models. I believe it's much harder to stay ahead with technology because it’s easy to copy. Patents don't make that much sense alone anymore. It's all about speed. So today, if you don't build a superior business model, it's hard to stay ahead. Let me give you an example.
Take Apple with the iPhone. It's not the phone per se that's keeping them ahead. What's keeping them ahead is the ecosystem around iOS, with a lot of developers that create a lot of applications; you cannot copy that. You can copy the phone technology - there are tons of phone makers out there. There’re only two operating systems, right. So that's a superior business model.
The third one is, invincible companies; they transcend industry boundaries. Today, if you look at Amazon, you can't classify them in an industry. They do e-commerce, they do logistics for IT for, you know, web, web infrastructure for companies around the world. Their logistics company - they're competing with UPS. So, you can't classify them in an industry, they have a superior business model. My favorite example, at the moment is a company called Ping An in China, one of the top 30 largest companies in the world, in terms of profitability. Well, what did they do? They moved within seven years, from being a banking and insurance conglomerate, towards becoming a technology player that built the biggest health platform on the planet, a platform called Good Doctor. That came from a bank and insurer - can you imagine that? Right? So, they transcended industry boundaries. And that's why they're ahead of everybody else.
So, those are the three characteristics of invincible companies. And then in the book we show well, how do you actually get there? We just described you know, how that animal looks like. How do you become that? So, three things. One, you need to manage a portfolio of business models, you need to improve what you have, and invent the future - innovation funnels, etc… What I just told you before. It's not about making five bets, it's about making 250 bets. And how do you manage that? How do you manage measure risk and uncertainty?
Second thing, superior business models; we have a library of patterns, business model patterns, where we give inspiration to people so they can ask themselves questions: ‘How could I improve my business model? How could I create recurring revenues? How could I create a resource castle to protect my business model? How could I shift from product to service? How could I shift like Apple from selling a device to becoming a platform?’ So that's the second aspect. And then the third one, which most companies are struggling with, is ‘how do I create an innovation culture systematically? How do I design and manage an innovation culture?’ So, it's almost, you could say three books in one. So, you get three for one, if you get The Invincible Company.
Ula Ojiaku: [31:54]
It sounds very exciting in terms of the work that you must have done to collate these trends and attributes that make up an invincible company. So, what exactly made you guys now say, ‘hey, we need to write this book?’
Alex Osterwalder: [32:09]
That's a question we always ask because there's so many books out there; the world does not need another business book. So, if we put energy into this, because these projects are pretty big, we had a team of five people working on it, three designers actually six people, three content people. So, it's a crazy effort. The reason was very simple. We had already put a lot of tools out there - and processes - and companies were not moving at the scale we believe is necessary for them to transform to either revive their business models, or tackle challenges like climate change, right?
So, you have to be very inventive, innovative, to actually make a profit and become sustainable, like Unilever. So, we said, ‘well, what's missing?’ And the big piece missing is the shared language at the senior level, where they can think about ‘how do I manage a portfolio of businesses to fight off disruption? So, I don't get disrupted. But so, I am among the disruptors. So, I invent the future, like Ping An, like Amazon - they invent the future.’ You know, they're not the victim of Porter's five forces, they shaped entire industries, right? Porter's five forces was 1985. That's quite a while ago. ‘The world’s changed; we need new analytical tools…’, I like to joke, right? But so, we didn't see companies moving enough. So, we asked, ‘could we create the tools to help these companies to help the leaders change?’ So, we created a very practical set of tools and processes, and procedures so these companies would start to move. Because a lot of senior leaders will tell you, ‘but innovation is a black box. I don't know how to do this. I know how to do mergers and acquisitions. But I don't really know how to do this innovation thing.’
So, they kind of move towards buzzwords. ‘Yeah, we're gonna do agile!’ Well, that means nothing per se. So yeah, we're gonna work in an agile way when we do this. But that's the mindset. But there's a more to it when you really want to start building an invincible company. So, we packaged all of what we've learned in the field, plus our whole thinking of how can we make it easy for them to capture and work on it. So, taking down the barriers to action, so nothing would prevent them from action. That's how we always decide, ‘should we do another book?’ Well, only if we believe we have a very substantial contribution to make.
Ula Ojiaku: [34:37]
Talking about the three ‘hows’ of becoming an invincible company, you did say that the third element was about changing the culture.
Alex Osterwalder: [34:48]
Yeah, sure. Yeah. Yeah.
Ula Ojiaku: [34:49]
Now, there is this book I read by John Kotter about Leading Change...
Alex Osterwalder: [34:57]
Yeah, yeah absolutely
Ula Ojiaku: [34:58]
And culture changes last. So, what's your view on how best to change culture because usually, people are resistant to change?
Alex Osterwalder: [35:09]
So, I believe you can actively design and manage culture. You know, every company has a culture. It’s just that very few companies design and manage their culture. So, the first thing is, you need to map out the culture that you have. So again, we're tool obsessed. So, we created a tool together with Dave Gray called the Culture Map. And with the Culture Map, you can map out the culture you have, and you can design the culture you want. Okay, that's in a general way.
In The Invincible Company, we talk about innovation culture. So, we show what are the blockers that are holding companies back from creating an innovation culture? And we show what are the enablers that companies would have to put in place to create an innovation culture? So simple stuff, right? What's the blocker? I'll give you some blockers. Companies require business plans, business plans are the enemy of innovation, because you force people to sketch out a fantasy over 50 pages, and then you invest in a fantasy and it blows up in your face. It's ridiculous.
So, business plans are one enemy of innovation. It's a blocker. Okay, let's look at an enabler. An enabler would be to embrace a culture where you can experiment, fail, learn and iterate. That sounds trivial. But in most companies, you cannot fail, you'll jeopardize your career. So, you need to create a space where experimentation and failure is not just possible - it's mandatory because you know, you need to test ideas. So, if you don't do that deliberately; if you don't have the governance that's going to reward that, in the right place, it’s not going to work. And now a lot of people would say, ‘yeah, we do that… we do that.’ But it depends how you're doing ‘that’.
So, we're very specific with these things and say, well, ‘you're at risk of having an innovation theater, if you don't enable leadership support.’ ‘Yeah, well our leaders are supporting it…’ Okay? ‘How much time is your leader, your CEO spending on innovation every week?’ If he or she is not spending 40% of his or her time on innovation, innovation will not happen at that company, period. So that's an enabler that is not a soft factor is a very hard factor. Because it's actually even less about what the CEO does. It's the symbolic value of a CEO spending 40% of his or her time on innovation, which will show ‘this is important.’ And then everybody will work towards what's important for the senior leadership.
So, all those kinds of things - we codify them, to take them from the anecdotal evidence towards, ‘here are the three areas you need to look at: leadership support, organizational design, innovation practice. You need to work on those three areas. And you can start to systematically design an innovation culture.’ So, I'd say the difference between the days of Kotter, I still love Kotter's work, is I do believe today, we can more actively design culture and make it happen. Is it easy? No, it’s really hard. Are we going to face resistance? Yes. But if you do it well, I can tell you when it comes to innovation, people are hungry for it. They're just waiting for it. So, all you have to do - you don't even need to design enablers, just take away the obstacles and everything else will happen.
Ula Ojiaku: [38:40]
Oh, fantastic. So, the what book do you find yourself giving as a gift to people the most and why - in addition to your fantastic suite of books?
Alex Osterwalder: [38:53]
So… there's just so many that I don't have one ‘go-to’ book that I would really recommend. It's depending on what are people looking at, you know, what is their challenge, and I would recommend the right kind of book that I have in mind for the right challenge. So, I don't like doing an overall thing. There is one book that I just put is the foundation of working the right way, which is John Medina's Brain Rules.
So, it's actually a brain scientist. He's very funny. He wrote a book called Brain Rules. It's all based on peer reviewed science, there's a certain number of rules that you need to follow in everything you do: designing a workshop, managing your company, you know, teaching something, being a parent. So, if you follow those brain rules, well, you're very likely to have more success. With the work you're doing, you're gonna achieve better results, because you're following the way your brain works, right? And a lot of the work we do is actually not, not right. So, I'll give you an example.
He talks about visuals, every single person on the planet is visual, guess what? It’s evolution – (there) used to be a lion running after us. Well, we would need to see it and run away. That's visual. That's evolution. Those who didn't see it coming, they're not here anymore, right? Evolution ate them up. So, we're visual, by definition. That's why when you write when you create a book or a slide deck, using visuals is not a nice to have; of course, everybody has their style. But if you really do it well, you use the words for the right thing, use visuals for the right thing, you're gonna have a huge impact. Because by evolution, every one of us, every single one of us is visual. So that's one brain rule, which sounds a little bit trivial. But the really good insights there of rules you should never break. Right? So that's one I do recommend.
But then everything else is based on the challenges I see with, you know, what people are struggling with.
Ula Ojiaku: [40:47]
I would add that to my library of books to read then. Now, would you have any advice for individuals starting up in their entrepreneurship journey? And also, what advice would you have? So, there are two questions here: what do you have for organizations starting off their lean innovation journey? So, individuals and organizations.
Alex Osterwalder: [41:14]
So, for both, I would say fear nothing, embrace failure. So, you know, then people tell me, ‘don't always talk about failure. It's not about failure. It's not about failures, is it? It's about learning.’ No, it's not about learning. It's about actually adapting your idea until you figure out what works, right? But a lot of that will be failure. And a big part of the innovation journey is you know, falling down and getting up. So, my big advice to individuals is, don't believe those people on the cover of a magazine because you don't see the failure they went through. And if there's somebody who didn't have that much failure, they kind of got lucky. But that's one in a million.
So, don't get blinded by those pictures that the press put in front of us. Success; there is no shortcut. Yeah, you can get lucky. But that's one out of a million. Success is hard work. It's a lot of failure. It's a lot of humiliation. Those who get over humiliation, those who can stand up, those are, those are gonna win.
However, sometimes you need to stop, right? So, when people say, ‘ah, never give up!’ Well, knowing when to stop is not giving up. When you're not made for something, when the idea (you had) – (you find out) there’s no business there, you better stop because you're gonna waste all of your money and energy for something that's not there. But you can take those learnings and apply it, maybe to a different opportunity. So never, never fear failure, right is an important one to always get up. That's for individuals. For companies, I'd say go beyond innovation theater. So, break the myths and figure out how innovation really works. Open up what still might be a black box or question yourself, you know, are we really doing Strategic Growth and Innovation? Because a lot of companies will say, ‘Yeah, we do that, we do Lean Startup, we do Agile.’ Yeah, but then you look under the hood, it's really innovation theater. When you really do this well, you actually invest in 200, 300, 400 projects at a time, small amounts. And you're really good at killing ideas to let the best emerge.
So, it's not about making a few big bets. It's about making hundreds and hundreds of small bets. And then continuously invest like a venture capitalist in those ideas and teams that are bubbling up, right. So, go beyond innovation theater, learn how this really works. This is a profession. This is not something you learn over a weekend at a masterclass anymore. That's how you get started. This is a hard profession treated differently than management. Managing an innovation, management and execution and innovation and entrepreneurship are two different planets. So please accept that. That's my advice to organizations. Take it seriously, otherwise, you're gonna die.
Ula Ojiaku: [43:51]
Thank you so much. It's been a wonderful conversation with you, Alex, thank you again for being on this show.
Alex Osterwalder: [43:58]
Thanks for having me. Wonderful questions. Great conversation.