A New Kind of Startup

Watching the Super Bowl last weekend, the pinnacle of American football, I reflected back on my own gridiron career. I was one of the biggest—if not the biggest—kids on the field during most of the eight or so years I played organized football. I was strong from lifting weights with my teammates, and I understood the fundamentals of the game as well as anyone from watching countless hours of pro ball with my football fanatic father. I had good technical skills and could catch, throw and read plays as well as anyone. And yet I was terrible. Not even so-so…just terrible. This is not false modesty, I assure you. I will provide references, if desired.

And why was I so egregiously bad at the only sport I ever really played?

Well, despite being big and strong and technically proficient, I lacked two characteristics critical to success in football: speed and intensity. I couldn’t bring my size and skills to bear in most situations because the action was moving too fast…I was never where the play was. And if I did get there by some miracle, I tended to overthink situations and lacked the necessary instinct to just put my head down and sacrifice my body for the good of the team.

Turns out, big companies like GE are sometimes sidelined by some of the same problems that kept NFL recruiters from beating down my door.

Size and scale, so often an asset in the corporate world, can be a real hindrance as the pace of business (especially in the technology sector) continues to accelerate. By the same token, expertise in process and technology—attributes that have made GE the envy of the business world—can cause us to freeze instead of act. Many companies will analyze, plan, investigate and verify their way into irrelevance if permitted.

methodology_diagramThe answer is to get nimble—to fight the heavy and monolithic culture that can hold back speed and sap intensity. It’s easy to talk about, but doing it requires a fundamental adjustment of how we approach our products, our processes and our market strategy. We call this process FastWorks, and it’s fundamental to the way GE Intelligent Platforms (and the rest of GE) is going to be doing business as we move forward.

Based on the disciplines of lean manufacturing and agile software development, FastWorks draws heavily on the work of Eric Ries, entrepreneur and author of The Lean Startup. GE has not been a startup since the late 19th century, but there are entrepreneurs inside our company creating new products under conditions of extreme uncertainty—the very definition of startup, according to Ries. Our HPEC initiative and the RTR8GE Rugged Router are examples of startup initiatives we have undertaken in recent years.

Most startups, be they standalone organizations or new initiatives within existing companies, fail. And they fail because they build something the market does not need, want or consider valuable enough to pay for. Technology companies full of smart engineers, like GE Intelligent Platforms, are perhaps especially vulnerable to the Field of Dreams mentality—“build it and they will come.” Nothing is more dispiriting than spending months or even years building “perfect” products that nobody ultimately wants. These exquisite failures are the product of design and development processes that see the customer as a passive recipient of innovation, rather than a partner in those processes.

FastWorks means getting to market now with something that may not be a 100% solution but that allows your customer to provide real feedback. Ries calls this process the build-measure-learn feedback loop. The feedback from these first thrusts into a new market, product, service or process allow you to validate your critical hypotheses about what customers want, what they’re willing to pay for and what needs your contribution may leave unaddressed. With this information, leaders can then decide to persevere on their previous course towards a final product—or they can pivot, changing their road map and heading in a new direction. Sometimes, pivoting may mean abandoning the effort altogether.

This does not mean that we are going to compromise on quality or build less-capable products. It does mean that we may engage customers in experiments with new products in demo configurations before doing a full-up build or that we may get feedback from the market on a product we could build, but haven’t yet. Don’t be surprised if someone from GE comes to you with a draft spec sheet for a product that has not yet been built and asks what you think. This is your chance to give us critical insight into what the end result should look like.

As GE Intelligent Platforms continues to innovate and develop new products in the months and years ahead, FastWorks is going to be integral to the way we work. We are going to get to the market faster, with more new ideas, and rely on market feedback to shape the direction of those innovations at every step in the process. It will mean spending even more time talking to and understanding our customers…because it is our customers who will ultimately benefit most.

We are at an inflection point. Is GE going to be like one of those NFL defensive linemen who weigh 330 lbs., run faster than most amateur sprinters and can be counted on to bring maniacal intensity on every play? Or is it going to be like me in high school—big, technically proficient and irrelevant to the action? FastWorks means we’ve chosen the former and are committed to make it happen. As for me, I’m just happy to get a second chance to strap on my cleats.

Image via The Lean Startup

Todd Stiefler

Todd joined GE from the world of Washington politics, and in no time at all has moved on to his second assignment, which sees him managing business development for the services GE is increasingly looking to offer to customers, including the Proficy SmartSignal predictive analytics software.

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