If you're not launching a new business, you should be

IT is the perfect place to incubate and launch new business ideas. You might find a way to bring in more revenue and brand recognition.

Staff working on new idea

Image: iStock/scyther5

As COVID vaccines roll out, and weary workers and consumers contemplate the future, the only certainty is that change is likely, and that anyone claiming to have the answer to what the future holds is probably going to be wrong. Predictions range from wildly optimistic forecasts of a boom in travel and consumer spending, to pessimistic predictions of new COVID variants and additional lockdowns. There are generally two options in times of uncertainty: batten down the metaphorical hatches and hope to ride out the storm, or place a variety of informed bets on new products and services that position your company to capitalize on rapid change.

SEE: Gartner's top tech predictions for 2021 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Thinking like a new business

Most tech leaders are no strangers to exploring new opportunities, from emerging technologies to projects that fundamentally change a business. These same organizational muscles can be readily extended to consider markets and customers, perhaps in conjunction with colleagues from marketing and operations. IT usually has the project management chops and technology savvy to be the right place to start exploring new businesses, and most organizations have an untapped entrepreneurial energy. You'll often find people in your company who have long dreamed of starting their own business and would love the opportunity to channel that entrepreneurial energy into exploring new opportunities for their existing employer.

SEE: Let go of perfection: Don't waste time on projects that won't yield much result (TechRepublic)

The key to thinking like a new business is assembling a team of people with a combination of diverse skillsets and a willingness to learn and explore, providing a well-defined limit to the time and funding available, and allowing them the autonomy to pursue opportunities that might appear unconventional. A four-person team with technology, marketing, financial, and operational experience is generally the right size to start. A 90- to 120-day initial timeframe gives that team time to research and explore opportunities, develop a plan to test them in the market and gather enough data to determine whether the startup should receive additional people and funding.

As anyone who's attempted to start a new business or establish a new division knows, it's unlikely that you'll identify an overnight success or a complete and utter failure. In most cases, your new business teams will identify opportunities that require further development as formal projects or initiatives, with the occasional winner that presents an opportunity for a new revenue stream.

Keep the date

This structure's power is that having a fixed amount of time from the outset of the internal startup creates a focus on getting enough data to convince the organization to continue with the project or proving beyond a reasonable doubt that there's no opportunity. Most organizations I've worked with are amazed by the pace with which these teams get things done. When there's a ticking clock that cannot be paused or adjusted, meetings, presentations and organizational formalities suddenly lose their importance, and the team will relentlessly focus on determining whether there's an opportunity worth further investment.

SEE: Try adding ambition to your department's goals to gain better clarity (TechRepublic)

This organizational magic hinges on providing your internal startup with the autonomy to act unconventionally and not be subject to your organization's usual formalities and approval processes. Just as actual startup organizations aren't subject to bi-weekly status presentations and four-hour calls to perfect PowerPoint slides, so too should your internal startup be allowed to determine its own tracking, reporting and investor relations functions, treating the broader organization as an investor rather than an overbearing manager.

Manage a portfolio

In uncertain times such as these, having a portfolio of opportunities allows you to capitalize on different market and societal shifts. As you develop your ability to test and launch new businesses, you can assemble a set of teams pursing different market areas with different combinations of risk and reward. You might have one team that's exploring a new product offering that compliments your existing products, and another group exploring a completely new service that might perform well if the economy goes into high-growth mode.

SEE: How to apply "platform thinking" to your tech strategy for greater success (TechRepublic)

Just as most IT organizations are used to managing a portfolio of projects at various levels of risk and reward, these skills can be applied to managing two to six small teams exploring new business opportunities. The overall portfolio investment and return can be tracked, allowing your organization to develop the right combination of high- and low-risk opportunities to explore. Done well, you can ultimately create an immensely valuable organizational capability to quickly identify and create new revenue streams. Even when an opportunity doesn't pan out, capture what was learned to inform the next startup team and accelerate the process of positioning your organization for growth, irrespective of what the future holds.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...