A conversation with Tristan Kromer, innovation coach and founder of Kromatic.
Tristan Kromer coaches startups and intrapreneurs on how to put startup principles into practice. Along with his team at Kromatic, Tristan has worked with early-stage startups, as well as billion-dollar companies. Just one of the many cool things about Tristan is that he volunteers his time by hosting free office hours for early-stage startups.
Long before he was teaching companies how to use lean principles to solve big problems, Tristan was part of the music industry for ten years. “It’s informed how I’ve approached team building and innovation. The tech industry is very similar to the music industry. When you’re an independent performer, you need to be doing a little bit of everything. I‘ve produced, I’ve acted as a paid sideman, I’ve acted as a lead singer and bandleader.”
Practice What You Preach
After talking about our mutual love of music, Tristan and I spoke about innovation programs and what can go wrong with them. “What bothers me are innovation programs that [promote] design thinking as gospel, but they don’t apply those same thoughts and tactics to the design of the innovation program themselves.”
He explained the importance of using the principles you preach: “You can have accelerator programs that teach start-ups to fill out a business model canvas when they have never filled out a business model canvas. You have innovation change programs or Agile transformation programs that are preaching the MVP, to move small and fast, and that you can’t predict things out four years in advance. Yet, most of them are structured as four-year change management programs. It’s a lack of self-reflection and buying into Lean or Agile as a dogma as opposed to as a philosophy which you must practice.”
When I asked Tristan his perspective on measuring innovation, he made an interesting distinction between measuring an innovation project versus an innovation program.
When you have an innovation team or project, he explained that the methods of measurement might be more traditional. “An innovation team is one team with a specific idea for a product that will operate under some business model. That’s a project; you can measure the success of that project by more standard metrics like acquisition rate, activation rate, retention rate, or, at the end of the day, how much are you making?”
On the other hand, measuring an entire innovation program is not as clear-cut. That’s because an innovation program is generating many ideas or projects: “The metrics around one project is not going tell you how your innovation program is doing because the odds of success are relatively small. Even with the best estimates, you’ve only got a 50/50 chance of any one individual project having success in the market — not even “unicorn” level success. Just some level of success.”
“You can’t judge [your innovation program] on just one project; you have to launch 20 projects or 100 projects…”
He went on: “If you judge the entire [innovation] program on the success of one project, you condemned the entire program to a coin toss. You can’t judge [your innovation program] on just one project; you have to launch 20 projects or 100 projects and see: are you hitting that 50% mark? Are you getting 60%? Or are you getting 10% because there are fundamental obstacles to success in your ecosystem?”
Tristan also stressed the importance of looking at leading indicators of success rather than lagging indicators. You can’t wait for the cash to reach the bank, so to speak, to know if an initiative is working. He encourages companies to watch for early signs that something is going well: “Look at early signs like your acquisition rate and your activation rate. You need to have those early indicators of interest and engagement; otherwise, you’re risking you might only learn you’re failing when it’s too late.”
A commitment to long-term thinking is fundamental for companies who want to innovate. But, because I’ve seen that that mindset doesn’t always come naturally, I asked Tristan how he encourages the long-term view with his clients. With start-ups, he usually finds that conversation easier: “For a start-up, investors are generally aware of the length of time it takes to get a return. Most investors, hopefully, are investing in areas where they understand the rate of return, so it’s not an issue to have some level of patience.”
On the other hand: “In the corporate world, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on getting this quarter’s results in and this year’s results in.”
With the knowledge that some projects won’t land when you’re running an innovation program, I asked Tristan how teams might navigate failure and the emotional letdown that comes when something doesn’t go as planned: “It’s not failure. It’s learning as quickly as possible. If you put up a landing page and [no one visits it], there’s one way to look at that: ‘We failed.’ That’s very demotivating. But if you look at it like: ‘Thank god we figured that out very quickly and now we can quickly modify and iterate that page and try again.’”
“It’s not failure. It’s learning as quickly as possible.”
He talked about how the mindset we approach projects with is critical. “It’s important to recognize that you are not attempting to build a landing page or a product, you’re trying to build a business model. That business model is composed of, not lines of code or widgets spit out from a factory; it’s composed of little bricks of knowledge.”
“You need to understand who the customer is, what they want, where they’re going to buy things, what channels you’re going to use, how you’re going to support them, and what partners you need. All those things are bits of knowledge, and you need to gather that knowledge as quickly as possible. Your unit of progress is learning and knowledge. Running an experiment that doesn’t work — that’s just adding to your understanding.”
“Running an experiment that doesn’t work — that’s just adding to your understanding.”
Learn, But Not for Too Long
While working from a belief that learning is incredibly essential, Tristan has seen some teams go down a rabbit hole of endless knowledge. “It can be very liberating to free yourself from the mindset that everything must succeed and to get into the iterative learning mindset. However, you need to be careful you don’t swing too far in the other direction and learn, learn, learn, but never execute.”
“Some people enjoy the thrill of the discovery, but don’t enjoy the thrill of executing”
“I’ve seen teams that get so attached to talking to the customers that they spend too long talking to people, and they’re no longer learning. They’re not making any progress on the business.” I asked how you can know when you’ve learned enough. Tristan encouraged frequent check-ins or moments for reflection. For example, if you’ve had a week of ethnographic research: “At the end of the week, sit down with your teammates and say, ‘What did we learn? Do we have a new distinct concept of who our customer is? Have we changed our target market? Have we changed the value proposition?’ If there is nothing or if the change is so small as to be irrelevant, maybe you should be moving on…”
“As long as you’re learning something useful, then you should keep going. The moment you’re getting diminishing returns on any particular experiment or research method, then you should try something else. Some people enjoy the thrill of the discovery, but don’t enjoy the thrill of executing.”
Common Metrics for Success
We also talked about how to ensure that new innovative ways of working don’t fizzle out inside a company: “I think to have a lasting impact you have to begin with agreeing on the metrics for success. Otherwise, you risk that short-termism. If you’ve been focusing on culture change or mindset change, but everybody else in the company is asking for ROI, you’re sunk. You have to have an agreement right at the start of what metrics you’re going to be measuring. Otherwise, it’s just not gonna work.”
“Having a rigorous approach to innovation allows you to persevere.”
He continued: “Getting that agreement upfront is critical, and then measuring yourself religiously is critical. It’s essential for companies or accelerators that are promoting a business model canvas to have a dashboard for the program. Having a rigorous approach to innovation allows you to persevere. If you don’t have the metrics and the data to back up what you’re doing, then you will wind up on the chopping block when it comes to shoring up the profit margin of the company.”
Too Much Advice
We wrapped up our conversation by talking about well-intentioned things that can backfire in the innovation space. His answer might be surprising: “mentor advice or expert opinions.”
He explained: “These are mentors that are very familiar with an industry or have seen this innovation project more than one time. They’ll earnestly try to pull the team aside and say, ‘Hey, this project is not gonna work because of X, Y, and Z.’ That doesn’t work. Start-ups or very passionate founders are never going to abandon an idea just because somebody else tells you it’s a terrible idea. You have to get the team— as quickly as possible —to discover that information on their own.”
So, instead of telling startups what’s wrong with their approach or preaching at them, Tristan encourages mentors to help teams discover potential issues on their own. “You have to show them how to find that information themselves. Otherwise, they will ignore you. Perhaps they will admit that you were right two years later, but they’re going to ignore you at the moment, so it’s not useful advice.”
It was great chatting with Tristan and if you’d like to read more about how he thinks, definitely check out his blog Grassholder Herder, where he writes about lean startups, innovation ecosystems, and user experience.
If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.