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Agile Innovation Leaders

Mar 21, 2021

Episode Summary:

In this episode Dr Sharon Tal and I discuss how the book she co-authored with Prof Marc Gruber, ‘Where to Play’ complements the Lean Start Up movement and Design Thinking. She also explains how the Market Opportunity Navigator could benefit large organisations as well as start-ups.



Dr. Tal helps entrepreneurs and managers identify, evaluate and prioritize market opportunities for their business. Together with Prof Marc Gruber she wrote the book ‘Where to Play’ to help companies choose a promising strategic focus and move forward with confidence.

Dr. Tal is the co-founder and former Executive Director of the Entrepreneurship Center at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, and a Senior Lecturer in Marketing and Entrepreneurship.

She runs courses and workshops in accelerators and universities around the world, and serves as a mentor in many organizations that aim to help budding entrepreneurs.

Sharon has vast experience in marketing, as she served as a marketing manager for firms in several industries, as well as extensive experience in strategic consulting. Her PhD research looked at market entry decisions of hundreds of startups and its consequences on firm performance and flexibility.

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Books mentioned in this episode:

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Interview Transcript:

Ula Ojiaku:  01:16

So, we have with us today, Sharon Ta1, who is the co-author of the book Where to Play. Sharon, thank you so much for making the time to be our guest on this podcast.

Sharon Tal:  01:28

My pleasure - hi, Ula!

Ula Ojiaku:  01:30

Hi! So, let's start! I did a bit of research, you know, just to find out a bit more about you before this conversation and I Googled (the name) Sharon Tal - it seems like it's a very popular name for famous people. So, I saw an actress who is famous and a notable TV producer who used to be with Amazon… What do you think about that?


Sharon Tal:  01:53

Actually, that’s a unique question Ula - original one. So it's true - Sharon is a very popular Israeli name. I come from Israel, and it’s a very popular Israel name, especially for women around my age. The meaning of Sharon is actually a geographical area in Israel.

And I've never been the only Sharon in class, university, work, wherever. And of course, there are many others with even the same surname. So, I'm used to some of these confusions by now.


Ula Ojiaku:  02:26

Okay, I love the name. And I remember seeing the reference to it for the first time in the Bible, you know - the Rose of Sharon. It has a significant meaning to me as well.

Sharon Tal: 02:36

Thank you.

Ula Ojiaku:  02:38

You are a very accomplished person, having written the book, the significant work you did with your PhD that culminated in the co-authoring of the book, Where to Play with Professor Marc Gruber.

And yet in my limited interaction with you, you come across as a very personable, down to earth person, very easy to communicate with.  Can you tell us a bit about your journey so far? How did you get to where you are currently?

Sharon Tal:  03:05

Well, first of all, thank you for the warm words. And always nice to hear that other think you are well-accomplished. I started my journey as a Marketing Manager. But at some point, I wanted to go back to study masters thesis in Strategic Management. And I went back to where I did my first degree, which is the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, and I kind of fell in love with the academic field and a great place to stay, especially when you have kids at home. So, after I finished my masters thesis,  I stayed in the university and I co-founded the Entrepreneurship Center there.

So, then I was managing the Entrepreneurship Center at the Technion and that's where I got to learn so much about the entrepreneurial journey and meet and consult with hundreds of early-stage startups and entrepreneurs - especially technology entrepreneurs.

And during that time, I noticed that there is a challenge that is very common to many of them and that was figuring out which market to pursue with their innovative idea. And given that I was coming from a marketing background, I wanted to help them find a structure for this decision, and we couldn't find a good tool. So eventually, I decided to do my PhD on this topic. And we looked at hundreds of early stage startups and how they managed this trade off, this question of where to focus, and how to focus properly. I'm telling you all this because it's just a step-by-step process in my career that at the end led me to have this deep know-how and expertise in figuring out how to focus properly for and find the best market.

So, given all this academic and practical understanding, at the end, we decided to write this book and develop this methodology, the market opportunity navigator to bring this know-how, which is (the) theoretical and practical, together to the practitioners. At the end, that's my career story and today, I work mainly when training this methodology, either in academic institutes or early stage entrepreneurs’ programs, for budding entrepreneurs, and also larger organizations and innovation managers.

Ula Ojiaku:  05:25

Okay, so that means you are open to like consulting with either budding entrepreneurs or large or small organizations.

Sharon Tal:  05:34

Correct. Only thing I want to refine here is it's not exactly consulting. As far as I said, it's more of a facilitation, so I facilitate the process with them.

The difference is, as a consultant -  and I used to work as a consultant in the past - you don't only ask the questions, you also bring the answers. When you facilitate a process, you help the team ask the right questions, but they bring the answers to the table, and then you'll help them digest and make the right decisions out of that. So, that's what I mainly do today I think, facilitation rather than consulting.

Ula Ojiaku:  06:13

I like the way you've differentiated the term, ‘consultants’ and you've emphasized that you're more of a facilitator. That gives me the impression that it's more about you drawing out the information or the answers that they already know that’s within them - because they know their context better than you ever could - having been there. But you are helping them to draw out the answers and helping them to use the tool adequately in their context.

Sharon Tal:  06:41


Ula Ojiaku:  06:42

Ok, thanks for the clarification Sharon. What would you consider as the main challenge you've experienced in your career or personally?

Sharon Tal:  06:51

Yeah. Okay. So, let me divide this into two. So professionally and personally. From a professional perspective, I think the most challenging part was to bridge the gap between academia and the practical world.

In a way, I was blessed to have prior experience in both. And when we started to write the book, we also thought it's going to be quite easy to find a way to bridge this gap. But it took us much longer than we expected, because it's very challenging to find the middle ground between being thorough enough and simple enough. And that's the challenge of combining theories, and bringing them to - in a very simple, appealing way - to practitioners. So, from a professional perspective, I think that's the main challenge.

From personal perspective. But that's not only me, I'm sure that many women in general, I think the main challenge always has been to balance life and career, especially having three kids at home and finding the way to be both a good professional and a good mother and wife. So that's always the thing for me. And almost every decision that I've made in my career was somehow made having this challenge in mind.

Ula Ojiaku:  08:15

I totally empathize. I mean, you're a little bit ahead of me, because I have a nine-year-old and a seven-year-old and…


Sharon Tal: 08:23

They will grow.

Ula Ojiaku:  08:25

They will and they are, I mean, things are much better than when they were in diapers, certainly. But I've found myself having to make decisions professionally, that take into consideration how it's going to affect them, especially at their age. Yes, so I've made sacrifices and compromises and I’ll do it all over again.

Sharon Tal:  08:48

So, would I. So, would I, so I am proud of my sacrifices. I think they were right. So, I would do it all over again.

Ula Ojiaku:  08:56

They're not always young, like you said, and that gives me hope - they'll grow up and give us freer times. Now moving on to… so moving on to your book, Where to Play. I've already had a very good chat with your co-author, Professor Marc Gruber. And he gave us an overview of the work you'd done and what the market opportunity navigator is all about. For the audience members who are yet to listen to this and just as a recap, can you give us a recap of what this is (about) please?

Sharon Tal:  09:26

Sure, so the book Where to Play presents a structured methodology or framework if you want that is called the market opportunity navigator. This process helps entrepreneurs and business managers to find or discover the best market opportunities for their innovation. Think about any almost any technological innovation or idea that you have or even existing business line of company, they can always apply it to create different offerings or address the needs of different types of customers.

So, the process helps you with three steps. First, it's about identifying; discovering different market opportunities for this innovation. What type of applications, I can stem from your core abilities, and who may need it - in any combination of application and customer is a market opportunity for your company?

The second step is the evaluation step. So, you need to be able to comprehensively assess the attractiveness of these different directions, or different opportunities, either if you're an early stage startup, or if you're looking for the growth engines for your venture for your company. So, the second step helps you to systematically evaluate the potential and the challenge of every market opportunity on your plate and compare them visually.

And the third step is about prioritizing. How do you compile all this information that I’m learning to set a smart to design a smart strategy for your company, a strategy that can utilize this multiple market opportunities in your favour? So, if you are an early stage startup, you can utilize these multiple opportunities to set your backup and growth options and keep them open for the future. If you're a large organization, you can utilize these multiple opportunities, to design a portfolio of growth options - those that are a little bit more related and more far out from your existing business line - to create this balanced portfolio of growth or growing options.

Just to summarize this three-step process, and very structured because every step has a dedicated worksheet to help you go through this decision making. So, it's very easy, in a way very easy to apply either as a sole manager, but also in a team. Probably one of the main benefits is that it creates a shared language or communication tool. You can now walk through this strategic design or strategic process in a very systematic way, involving different people, or employees or stakeholders.

Ula Ojiaku:  12:09

Thanks a lot. That's a very good overview. Just tying to that, because you said it could be used by you know, both individuals and small and large enterprises. So, for large organizations, how could the market opportunity navigator benefit large organizations?

Sharon Tal:  12:37

Yeah, it's interesting, because, you know, when we started developing this tool, we had startups in mind, and it was actually based on our deep, you know, research for how early stage startups make decisions. But very quickly, we figured out that large organizations also need a structured process to identify their next growth opportunities.

And some of them, of course, already apply some processes, but they are not always  comprehensive and some of them are just doing this messy decision-making process with no systematic practices. And that creates a little bit too much emphasis on luck rather than systems.

Ula Ojiaku:  13:09

And sometimes, it’s really about the most senior person who is just, you know, pushing it (their agenda) or the loudest, right?

Sharon Tal:  13:16

Correct. Definitely, right. Definitely, right. So, so I think the very first thing to keep in mind is if you have a structured tool that can involve different types of employees and managers and manager levels. In this process, it's very valuable.

Now, the thing that we've found most beneficial for larger corporates when they use the market opportunity navigator is actually the identification phase. So, let me explain why. Many times, managers are bounded within their existing industry lines. And today, we know from different books and different studies, including a very good one by Rita McGrath that industry lines are quickly blurring, and competitive advantage is very temporary. And therefore, organizations need to find and identify opportunities, not necessarily within their existing industries. So, they actually need to learn how to break out from existing industries and think wider. And that's a challenging process.

So, the first step of the Market Opportunity Navigator helps you to first characterize your core strengths or core abilities in their own right. And then think how you can combine or recombine them in different ways to create completely different offerings, for completely different market segments or market opportunities. That really helps you to think outside your limited industrial boundaries. And what we see happening many times is, these structured brainstorming sessions are very powerful. You can use them to analyze your core strength and think what else you can do with it. It's like an exercise in cognitive flexibility.

But you can also use this to ask yourself, okay, now that I've listed this core strength, what if I had a new one? What if I developed another core element in here? For example, blockchain abilities, whatever, okay, and how would that open up different opportunities for my company? So, it's a semi-structured discovery process, which is very powerful to help companies discover their opportunity arena.

So, an arena is a concept again coined by Rita McGrath that said, don’t forget your industries, think about your larger opportunity spaces or arenas, and that discovery process is very valuable in this manner for this specific issue.

Now, also, I think, larger organizations are looking for ways to bring in entrepreneurial mindsets and entrepreneurial imagination.

So, using these tools which were originally tailored for startups and bring(ing) them into their meeting rooms is actually very nice. You can put this thing (the Market Opportunity Navigator template) on a wall, you can use sticky notes, you can run these brainstorming sessions. It's fun, it's enjoyable, it's engaging. And I think large corporates could definitely find the benefit in this approach as well.

Now, another thing to keep in mind probably is that once you discover opportunities with this first step of the Navigator, the second one helps you to quickly distinguish or characterize them based on the potential that they bear for your company and the challenge in pursuing them. So, you can very quickly or you can characterize or distinguish between these ideas, and find your goldmine opportunities - those that are higher on potential and relatively low or manageable on challenge.

You can also use this to find your quick wins, which are maybe modest on potential but relatively safe. And actually, quick wins have a good benefit in larger organizations because they help make the change. If you start your process with applying some or pursuing some quick wins, you get the buy in of stakeholders’ entire management more easily. And you're on your way to a larger change in the future - for your moonshot’s opportunities, for example, in the future. So, I think that's maybe another benefit to keep in mind.

Ula Ojiaku:  17:48

So, Sharon, can you define what you mean by a moonshot? I mean, goldmine sounds like it's something that would be potentially highly profitable, with medium to minimal effort on the part of the organization. And there is the quick win, you know, the low hanging fruit, which is easy-to-get medium-sized opportunities, but it's easier to implement and get but what would be a moonshot?

Sharon Tal:  18:12

So, you're definitely right with your interpretation. The moonshot opportunities are those with a high potential, but also extremely high challenge. Now many breakthrough innovations or if you think about large corporates, breaking beyond their existing business lines, beyond their existing customer segments is challenging, but you want to have those in your portfolio as well. Right?

So, that's when we talk about the attractiveness of different opportunities. We categorize them based on these two dimensions: potential and challenge. And moonshot is one of these quadrants, you know, matrix.

Ula Ojiaku:  18:47

Okay, you mentioned Rita McGrath's book, were you referring to The Competitive Advantage? Or is there any other book…?

Sharon Tal:  18:54

Yeah, so she has actually two books that relates to this topic. One is The End of Competitive Advantage, exactly the one you mentioned, where she talks about the fact that competitive advantage is very temporary these days, and companies must be able to explore new opportunities all the time, and move quickly, or reconfigure their assets quickly to move from one opportunity to the other. And the Market Opportunity Navigator helps you to do just that. How do you leverage your existing abilities and core strengths to completely new opportunities?

The other book that was recently published is Seeing Around Corners, where she provides some more guidelines on how to identify when disruption is coming into your industry, and then you need to quickly figure out what to do with that.

Ula Ojiaku:  19:52

Okay, okay. That's great. You've beautifully explained why the Market Opportunity Navigator would be beneficial to large organizations as well, even though it was originally put together, synthesized for startups, for entrepreneurs. How does the Market Opportunity Navigator complement the Lean Startup cycle?

Sharon Tal:  20:14

Yeah, yes, that's actually a great question. Because when we designed it, we didn't want to (re-)invent, you know, the wheel. We wanted to join the Lean Startup movement. But we felt that the tools of the Lean Startup customer development process, the Business Model Canvas, the Agile development - all of these tools are very good to quickly find your product-market fit within a market domain, or pivot quickly if you find out it's the wrong one. But what they don't tell you is where to actually start digging in, where to actually start your customer development process.

And that's where the Market Opportunity Navigator comes in, and there was recently a blog published by Steve Blank, the father of Lean Startup, where he actually talks about the key addition of the Market Opportunity Navigator into the Lean Toolset. The idea is that the Market Opportunity Navigator helps you to figure out where to play, find out this market domains where you can dig in or you can have some businesses. And then the Lean Toolset helps you to zoom in and figure out how to play. And you can very quickly experiment and refine and figure out your business model within the market domain.

So, it's the wide lens perspective to help you define the boundaries for your lean experimentation. Now, one thing to keep in mind that at the end of the day, this is a very iterative process, right? You zoom in and zoom out, you can do this wide lens analysis, figure out the domain, zoom in with the lean experimentation, use these great Lean Startup tools, learn and go up and reflect again, on what you've learned with this wider reflection tool, which is the market opportunity navigator.

So, definitely complements these great tools in the title, interestingly, the title that Steve Blank gave to this post is ‘Stop Playing Target Market Roulette’, so use this systematic process to define the boundaries of your lean experimentation.

Ula Ojiaku:  22:26

Steve Blank actually mentioned your book as well, when I interviewed him, he had high praises for it in terms of how it helped with structuring…at least giving startups a targeted view of where to focus on.

I also get the sense that the Navigator ties in quite well with Design Thinking, because it's not about being haphazard. It's really about adding some rigor and structure to how you determine where you play. So, can you tell me a bit more about how the Navigator complements Design Thinking?

Sharon Tal:  23:01

Sure. So, first Design Thinking has very, some very, you know, common elements with the Lean Startup, especially when we talk about prototyping and experimenting, validating an idea early on in the market.

The key issue for me in Design Thinking is the first steps of customer empathy. So, identifying new opportunities, by putting yourself in the shoes of different customer segments. Now, I think this is actually a great methodology to discover new opportunities for your company. And the reason it complements the market opportunity navigator is because the navigators actually don't start with empathy with customer, it starts with what are your core strengths or abilities, and how can you leverage them to create different or to address the needs of different types of customers.

So, at the end of the day, to have a good opportunity, it has to have these two ends, it has to have a clear need from the market. But also, you should be able to address these needs with your core strengths and abilities. So, the discovery process can begin with putting yourselves in the shoes of different types of customer like Design Thinking. But it could also begin with figuring out what's your core abilities or technological elements, and how you can reconfigure them differently. At the end, you will need to tie both ends anyway together to have an opportunity. My main way of looking at this is that they are different perspectives for identifying new market opportunities for the company and both are excellent. And then you create this multiple set of opportunities and you move forward to evaluating and prioritizing them.

Ula Ojiaku:  24:52

It gives me the impression that you could start using the Design Thinking and putting yourself in the customers shoes, but you could start from evaluating your strengths, and also understanding what the customer needs. And then finding that, you know, that happy place where what you have, can adequately meet customer’s needs or demands.

Sharon Tal:  25:12

Exactly. And now, this is a process that it's a discovery process, and it takes time to find and the great thing is, by having multiple opportunities or a large set of opportunities is a real asset for your company. Because at the end, it will help you to find those most promising fertile grounds.

So, you can definitely use both methodologies to bring in as many ideas as possible and then start validating them, be able to make sure that you have some good options on your table.

Ula Ojiaku:  25:48

So how would you balance this though, because you could go on analyzing, how do you prevent yourself from going into analysis paralysis versus acting and knowing when you've done enough?

Sharon Tal:  25:56

Yeah, good, good question. Okay, so I think the first thing I would say I would recommend is, again, is to have a structured process - adopt a structured process. Understand, how do you plan to actually bring the data or the evidence in to make a choice, but you also need to understand that even if you have a systematic process, it doesn't give you a crystal ball to know the future.

So, you also need to learn to live with uncertainty because the business world is unpredictable. Innovation is unpredictable. So, my suggestion would be, use a systematic evaluation process, clearly define your criteria and in line with the Lean Startup, start with your assumptions and prepare a clear action plan how you're going to bring evidence to support these assumptions. And at some point, just compile all the data that you have, and make a decision.

And one thing that we have learned is that, it's often difficult to compiled all the data that you have to have to create a clear pattern out of this. So, you send your employees, you send your teams to gather information, to talk with potential customers, to do market research on the competitors on different landscapes of opportunities. But how do you then compile all these bits and bytes of information into one clear image or pattern? That’s I think, one of the challenges where the market opportunity navigator comes in handy, because it helps you to first be very systematic about the consideration, the criteria, and also consolidate these different factors into one simple image that we call the Attractiveness Map.

Ula Ojiaku:  27:53

It kind of brings to mind Alex Osterwalder book on Value Proposition Design and Testing Business Ideas So, there are concepts that I believe that could also help with a structured approach to processing the data collected to help with decision making. What's your view on that?

Sharon Tal:  28:11

Oh, yeah, you're definitely right. Again, I think different tools help you to do different jobs. And the tools like the tools by Osterwalder and Pigneur, and his new book on how to test your ideas. They're all really great resources to help you validate these opportunities, make sure you have a scalable, repeatable business in there.

And that's why I said it's a ‘zoom in and zoom out’ type of process. And in the book, we actually also describe how these tools go together in a very complementing manner, especially because they not only help you to zoom in, but also to validate your initial potential and challenges.

Ula Ojiaku:  28:58

So, let's move to the next part of this conversation. So, what books would you recommend to someone who wants to learn more about the topics we've discussed? Where to Play is the key one, but what other books would you recommend?

Sharon Tal:  29:13

Yeah, okay. So, first of all, it's the trivial ones, those that are, you know, the, on the top of the list of the lean processes like the initial book by Steve Blank, and the books by Osterwalder and Pigneur, which described the Business Model/ Value Proposition Canvases, and of course, Eric Ries lean startup, these are the basic ones for the lean processes. I think it's challenging a bit to bring this startup methodologies into larger corporate settings.

So, one book that I find that does it quite nicely is The Corporate Startup, by Tendai Viki and Dan Thomas. And they, they translate this process that comes from small organizations into processes, which are adequate for larger corporates and I think that's quite an interesting read.

On a different perspective, I recently read a book called Building a Story Brand by Donald Miller, which talks about how to clearly phrase and define your messages within a specific market. So, I think, once you have done this search, validated it and decide to focus on pursuing a specific market opportunity, this is a very valuable next step read, because it really gives you a good perspective on how to simply explain your message and convey your message.

Ula Ojiaku:  30:55

Well, thanks, Sharon. If any member of the audience wants to contact you, how can they reach you? Are you on social media? Do you have a website?

Sharon Tal:  31:02

Yeah, sure. So, the natural first pass is our website. It's and then we have all the information about the Market Opportunity Navigator. You can download the worksheets and the Navigator for free. You can read all these posts and articles and examples and case studies and also about the book. So, there's a lot of information and resources out there.

Actually, we also have free slide sets and materials for mentors, for consultants, for managers that want to run brainstorming sessions around this. So, there's a lot of materials out there and it's almost all for free except for the book of course.

And then you can find me on LinkedIn, both my personal account, and its under Sharon Tal Itzkovitch and Where to Play, we also have a where to play account on LinkedIn. And I'm also active on Twitter under Where to Play, so you can find me on wheretoplay on Twitter.

Ula Ojiaku:  32:05

Okay, I'll add all these links to the show notes. So, thanks a lot, Sharon. So, any final advice to the audience? Based on what we've discussed so far for someone or an organization starting off in their lean innovation journey? What would be your advice?

Sharon Tal:  32:28

Oh, wow! Maybe the one key thing to keep in mind is that it's a continuous work. It's a continuous process, innovation and exploration never ends actually, for and doesn't matter if you're a startup or a large corporate.

And given that it's a continuous effort. You need to make it a habit, and you need to make it iterative. And I think the more you're able to put systems and structured processes inside this, the easier it gets to make it iterative and to make it a habit. That's my advice.

Ula Ojiaku:  33:08

That's a great advice. So, innovation and exploration never end. Make it a habit. Make it iterative. Yes. That's great. Fantastic. Thank you so much once more, Dr. Sharon for taking the time for this chat. It's been a great pleasure having you.

Sharon Tal:  33:24

Thank you very much Ula for hosting me and it was my pleasure as well.