Hard Skills For The Startup-Driven Revolution

Institutional education probably didn’t teach you this

'In this era, the market developer is just as important as the product developer.'— Sean Sheppard, GrowthX

Customer discovery interviews, iterative design, and Lean UX aren’t standard in sales and marketing curriculum, but they need to be. Last year, in a survey commissioned by KPMG, 90% of corporations said it was essential to work with startups. In this collaborative era, corporate marketers are asked to bring outside ideas to the market using a new set of hard skills.

Sean Sheppard is the Founding Partner at GrowthX and GrowthX Academy, a skills academy for marketing professionals who want to work in tech but aren’t technical.

The Academy thrives because institutional education doesn’t teach these skills. 'What we see every day when we help companies grow is that there’s a dearth of talent that knows how to effectively get a product to market, and get to the truth as quickly as possible.'

What truth is Sean talking about? 'Is somebody willing to pay for this in a scalable and profitable way?'

As Sean and the Academy teach professionals and founders on their SF campus, corporations are scrambling to fill the ranks with capable growth hackers, customer discovery interviewers and Lean practitioners who can operate with and like startups.

Traditional marketers need to learn these skills as companies like GE, Capital One and even government agencies like the IRS transition into Lean enterprises.

The challenge is getting people to buy-in and apply them.

When ING sought employees for its startup collaboration model, they found two types of people: A) those that had high hopes of starting the next Facebook and B) those that didn’t want to work with strangers in an uncertain environment.

When you join the Studio’s accelerator for six months, you step into a period of high uncertainty. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You need to make sure that you don’t select people that will spend the last 2–3 months protecting their job, rather people that really want to learn new things and are not worried about what their next position will be.
And it’s not easy to find these people before you start the cycle.

ING’s Innovation Studio functions in a more of a silo than other models. It works for their goals. The Board of Directors protects the innovators and early results from their model and shows positive results.

Companies that take a more holistic approach to implementing their models are still in the minority. GE wants everybody applying the startup skills. Capital One wants everybody applying them. This type of company doesn’t have to choose which employees to train or hire. For most, though, to start at least, a small group or team is chosen to learn these skills.

So how does the majority choose who to teach first?

Finding the Startup Collaborators

How did Ericcson narrow their search from 10,000 to 10?

Ken Durand works with Ericcson at the Atlanta Idea Factory. It was there they found at least two ways to identify innovators from the pool of 10k employees managing core operations.

To get from 10,000 to 1,000 Ericcson uses a mixed structure. Some employees are chosen or recommended, others volunteer. From there, they use assessments. They’re looking for certain behaviors and a specific thinking style.

  1. Behavior — Do they have the behaviors of entrepreneurs? Are they action-oriented? Through self-assessment or peer assessment, Ericcson learns if someone has a bias towards action. This narrows the list from 1,000 to 100.
  2. Thinking Style — Do they have a mature thinking style and is it dominated by either causal or effectual thinking? There are scientifically validated tools that Ericcson uses to find out. Following the research of University of Virginia Professor Saras D. Sarasvathy, Ericcson looks for effectual thinkers. This brings the list to the 10 or 15 people that have the maturity of thinking and the entrepreneurial behavior.

But How Do They Learn?


  • The story of GE Fast Works is well documented. Fast Works was a major piece in a larger cultural shift, the first since the entire company was required to test into the Six Sigma culture decades ago. To be sure the entire organization was not only learning but applying these skills, GE brought in a number of coaches and asked employees in 75 countries if they’d like to have access to them part-time, full-time, or in some other capacity.
  • Capital One’s Amee Mungo joined the I/O podcast and discussed how hiring experienced startup founders and in Lean UX coaches changed the company’s trajectory. The startup hires taught Capital One employees about Design Sprints, iteration, and Lean processes, and in turn, the Capital One employees taught them about the existing businesses, operations, and brands.
  • The IRS is not one to waste money invested in Lean counsel to teach staff how to accelerate projects in a highly-regulated environment. Watch one of our favorite talks from last year’s Lean Startup Conference. (We’re sponsoring this year, so keep an eye out for the I/O Podcast!)

    Training a few employees to use these skills in these projects is a great start, but don’t expect it to spread and make your entire workforce more skilled from there. Training an entire organization the hard-skills is common in the startup-driven revolution, it requires a passionate commitment from key decision makers.

    In time, startups and corporate teams will speak a common language. As Sean says, 'You need to be able to speak to humans and engineers.'

    Bonus Thought from the I/O Podcast




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