One of my favorite television shows is the series Shark Tank. For those unfamiliar, each week a half-dozen entrepreneurs pitch a business to the sharks, a group of investors and businesspeople from a variety of backgrounds. The entrepreneurs start with a brief overview of their product or service, after which the sharks fire questions at the entrepreneur. Ultimately, the sharks may choose to invest their own money in the company, or the entrepreneur may leave the room without a dime. Occasionally, a well-executed pitch will cause a bidding war, or multiple sharks to pool their investment to get a piece of the action. The producers do a good job of selecting all manner of products, from technology services to consumer products and even the esoteric, with one entrepreneur pitching a service to draw cats for $29.95 a drawing.
What's interesting is that after a few episodes, the viewer starts to notice trends with the entrepreneurs. Some are obviously uncomfortable with numbers, and struggle to articulate basic financial metrics. Others are in love with their product or service and refuse to respond to any reasoned criticism, instead growing defensive. Still others have fallen victim to the hype surrounding a particular technology or hot market segment, arriving with ridiculous valuations or unreasonable expectations for customer adoption.
Building your own tank
Intriguingly, I've heard from several clients that they've implemented their own internal version of Shark Tank. In some cases, VPs make Shark Tank-like pitches to the board of directors, attempting to convince them that their business plans are a sound investment for the company. In other cases, presentations use sharks from other business units to vet a series of divisional business plans. The CMO and COO might be sharks who audition various IT initiatives, for example.
What's different about a Shark Tank-like format versus the usual presentation is that the presenter is forced to pitch his or her idea as one option among several, rather than a single initiative considered in isolation. Furthermore, while the Shark Tank is not inherently adversarial, there's a diligence and frankness that comes with the sharks investing their own money in a business. Rapid-fire questioning is the norm, and it quickly becomes apparent when a business plan hasn't been fully considered. In some cases, it can be a bit unsettling to see the lack of consideration that's been invested in huge, highly-strategic initiatives that could change the fortune of the company.
If you do consider launching a Shark Tank format to vet initiatives, ensure that all participants have seen a few episodes of the show and know what to expect. While this might sound like a novelty to some participants, the intent is very real: to quickly and rigorously vet an initiative before the company invests money in it. Like the participants in the show, each entrepreneur must be fully prepared with an overview of their initiative, a strong understanding of the financial case, and how the initiative will ultimately generate revenue from the company's end customers. Ask the sharks you select to consider each idea along these three dynamics as well, and consider corporate funds as their own investment dollars. Would they ultimately spend their own money on the initiative that's presented?
Occasionally, an internal Shark Tank can end as a borderline disaster, with high-level leaders unable to articulate how an initiative will positively impact the company, or incapable of answering even basic questions about the financial metrics they've provided. This should compellingly demonstrate the remedial work that needs to be applied to an initiative's business plan in fairly stark terms.
In other cases, you may be left with an overabundance of top-flight concepts, and long for the funding to launch all of them. This can build the case for acquiring additional budget quite compellingly, or generate interest in consolidating several initiatives across business lines.
In either case, the Shark Tank should increase the quality of initiatives that are presented, and create an obvious need for additional diligence before they're presented.
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Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.