A Checklist for Launching Micro-battles

At Bain, we run our global micro-battles program as a micro-battle itself. In doing so, we use the rather odd phrase: “Let’s make sure we eat our own dog food.” Don’t ever question our abilities to adopt wonderfully inspirational mission statements.

About three months ago in our review sessions, we looked at different micro-battles that were both on and off track. We recognized a pattern. If a micro-battle was off track, we found that most of the time, the team should have been able to predict the trouble. We knew that off-track micro-battles display common flaws. We agreed to design a launch checklist to help micro-battle leaders make sure their teams are ready for takeoff. Two months ago, we developed a prototype that we’ve been testing around the globe (the winning stage). Now we’re ready for scaling, so we want to deploy it to a broader group. True to micro-battles, we’ll continue to learn and adapt, so we welcome your feedback.

Why launch micro-battles?

To develop our checklist, we started with the question, “Why launch micro-battles?” Our answer: Micro-battles help you rediscover how to build new businesses by competing on the basis of scale and speed. The motions of micro-battles are built on the skills of the best founders—winning, scaling and amplifying.

  • Winning. Micro-battle teams take an important strategic initiative and translate it into a prototype that can be tested with customers. They quickly turn bold strategic goals into results through testing and learning. To “win,” you must identify the first failure point and set up a failure-point schedule (which sets out the full test-and-learn agenda for your new business). You act like an insurgent by making problems smaller. Winning brings the “insurgent” to the phrase “scale insurgent.”
  • Scaling. Micro-battles aim to keep your initiatives from going the way of pilot programs, which always succeed once, but almost never succeed at scale. Teams must test prototypes for transferability (they’ll work elsewhere) and repeatability (they’ll fit into daily routines and behaviors). This requires the scaling community, or a team of individuals who are obsessed with taking good ideas and embedding them in the playbooks of the execution community, or the “doers” who make up a majority of your firm’s activity. Good scalers move beyond innovation (introducing a better product or service proposition) and toward true business building (taking an innovation to market and influencing the market to achieve scale economics). Scaling brings the “scale” to a scale insurgent.
  • Amplifying. For micro-battles to succeed, the organization must learn from its full micro-battle portfolio and act on these lessons. Micro-battles require a leadership team that’s committed to becoming a scale insurgent. These leaders acknowledge that they must change their own behaviors to support each micro-battle. They must build a scaling community and act like venture capitalists (VCs) by accelerating business-building efforts or pivoting to new ideas when the teams hit obstacles. Amplifying turns a one-off attempt to become a scale insurgent into an institutional capability.

The 10-point checklist

We built our launch checklist for winning, scaling and amplifying to help micro-battle leaders determine if their team is prepared to succeed (see Figure 1). As with a rocket launch, if you can’t confirm each item, avoid takeoff.

Figure 1

A launch checklist ensures your micro-battle is ready to succeed

A launch checklist ensures your micro-battle is ready to succeed

Are you set up to win?

1. Your senior leaders are committed to the goal of scale insurgency. Micro-battles start with ambition. The journey will be fun but tough, and the last thing you need is a group of sponsors questioning why you’re doing it. Most large corporations have a huge “special project graveyard” where the stars of the business had been asked to lead something new and special. As with all bold new initiatives, these projects inevitably hit rough patches. Too often, the leadership loses the will to persevere and the star’s career hits the skids. Don’t start revving your engines, dear pilot, unless you’re sure your leaders are committed to the journey. If you’re in doubt, ask them to complete our Founder’s Mentality diagnostic or, at the very least, watch this video. Both tend to force the conversation.

2. Your micro-battle is linked to a key strategic priority. You need to understand how your micro-battle is linked to your strategy—more specifically, your “strategy on a hand.” In this metaphor, the “thumb” is your insurgent mission. The “fingers” are your firm’s unique “spiky” capabilities, which will help you achieve that mission. If you can’t link your micro-battle directly to the insurgent mission and to one of the spiky capabilities, pause and clarify it. Item No. 1 helps you determine if your leaders are committed to micro-battles in general; this item helps you determine if they’re committed to your micro-battle specifically. When the going gets tough, it matters that everyone is aligned on the strategic importance of the initiative.

3. You have a strong micro-battle leader and you can assemble a dedicated team. Every micro-battle should have a micro-battle leader who owns the mission. That leader is typically a franchise player. We define franchise players as the leaders who help deliver the benefits of scale and the benefits of intimacy to the customer. Your micro-battle must have a customer in mind (see the next item). This customer demands that she benefits from your firm’s scale (your size provides a cost or convenience advantage) and intimacy (your local team is empowered to understand and meet her specific needs). Your micro-battle leader guarantees that she gets both. Once you’ve determined your micro-battle leader, you also have to ask about the team. Beware of two classic allocation mistakes. In the first scenario, you could be promised a team, yet the team members haven’t been identified. Pause! In the second scenario, you could be promised certain people, but they need to allocate more than 50% of their time to their day job. In both cases, you’re unlikely to have a very successful micro-battle. You also need to make sure that your team isn’t promised to a dozen other project owners. Today, the corporate agenda is overwhelmed by special projects, with all flavors of “digital” and “agile” initiatives. The company should recognize that micro-battles are the right combination of all of these. It’s important to remind everyone that micro-battles give employees a critical opportunity to take part in designing the future of the business, while learning from senior executives.

4. You know the first failure point. At the very least, you need to determine your first failure point, or the most important part of the strategy that you don’t know how to execute. To identify this, you’ll need to know your customer. You should ask, “Who tries out the prototype and gives feedback?” To answer that question, we ask micro-battle leaders to complete their micro-battle mission, which helps them plot the move from strategic initiative to prototype and determine the most important first item to test.

Are you set up to scale?

5. You’re building a repeatable model to deploy across the organization. The winning section of the checklist focuses on prototyping. The first item in the scaling section ensures that those prototypes build toward a repeatable model that can scale across the company. Of course, there’s a tension. Winning means the team must check on the narrow and specific. Scaling means the team must align on the goal of the micro-battle and the size of the prize—the value that you can deliver by scaling the solution across the organization. While winning starts a conversation with your customers, scaling continues the conversation with your execution community. You need to ask them, “Are we making something that we can make, sell and deliver every day?”

6. You have a failure-point schedule that outlines how your micro-battle will scale. Winning forces you to confirm the first failure point with the prototype tested in the first cycle. Scaling forces you to think three to four steps ahead with a failure-point schedule. A failure-point schedule maps how your prototype will lead to a repeatable model that translates into your daily routines. If you’re successful with the first failure point, what do you have to test at each round to build your new business? We’re asking you to move beyond innovation to business building. You not only need to test new propositions with customers, but also consider the business from the route-to-market strategy to the routines of execution. We have developed a workbook to help you think through the failure-point schedule. It’s worth keeping with your checklist.

7. You know if your business building goal is to “deliver” or “develop.” You’ve checked that your leaders are committed to the journey and that your micro-battle is strategically critical. You should also understand how your micro-battle fits into your company’s deliver agenda or develop agenda. The deliver agenda contains all of your company’s actions to achieve the full potential of your existing businesses. The develop agenda contains the actions to build new businesses for the future. Micro-battles focused on “deliver” must leverage the current business. You might add new capabilities or reach new customers, but at the end of the day, your new repeatable model will fold into your core business. In contrast, micro-battles focused on “develop” must build new businesses. You could fold this business back into the core, but you might not. Your existing business is a source of neither leverage, nor constraint. You have fewer assets to start with, but also fewer limitations. You could easily look beyond your existing businesses to find new external partners. Understanding whether your micro-battle is a part of the deliver or develop agenda helps you decide whom you need to bring on board in order to succeed. It’s amazing how often companies try to implement an initiative without a basic conversation on deliver or develop.

Are you set up to amplify your results?

8. Your leaders are committed to building the scaling community and you have scalers on your team. You’ve now set the winning and scaling agenda, working through the tensions of the narrow prototype and the wider repeatable model. But micro-battles require more than the will to win and scale. They also require skill. You’ll need skilled scalers on your team from the start. You’ll also need the flexibility to bring in the right expertise at the right time. But first, your leadership team must be committed to building the scaling community and making its members available to micro-battle teams. Ask for this commitment early, because your later success depends on it. One executive had a nice way of describing the issue: “The job of the leader is to work in the business and on the business.” Good leaders will work in the business every day to deliver quarterly and yearly, but they’ll also work on the business, by giving teams the leverage needed to scale their micro-battle.

9. Your leaders have a “growth mindset” and help micro-battle teams learn from each other. To endorse constant learning across teams, your leadership team will need to lead differently than it has before. It will need to adopt the right attitude—a growth-oriented mindset. It must shift from control to trust and from protection to learning. Leaders should run “amplify reviews,” or learning sessions where you hear the most important insights from the micro-battle journeys of your peers. When new capabilities or skills are built elsewhere, you benefit from instant access.

10. Your leaders have a venture capitalist approach. Let’s remind ourselves how venture capital works. First, a venture capitalist raises a fund, or allocates the full amount of capital to make deals. If you’re a VC investor, this is a big part of your due diligence: Are you backing a fund that has sufficient capital to double down on winners? The same hurdle must apply in a corporate environment. Your leaders must be creating a fully resourced fund to support their micro-battle agenda, because the teams need help accelerating their results. While your leaders can give you access to scalers and help you learn from your peers, you also need resources, including capital and people. Each review cycle must feel like a funding round with good venture capitalists who accelerate the results of their entrepreneurs. The review cycles are key checkpoints where teams that have reached the next stage of scaling receive more resources to move to the next level. They need to free up capacity for special projects to help them succeed, or “create slack,” as one leader puts it. In addition, your leaders should rigorously explore the options to pivot and accelerate. They should be prepared to stop initiatives or micro-battles that aren’t delivering value, in order to intensify the focus on the highest-value micro-battles.

How to use the checklist

If you answer “yes” to all 10 points, you’re set up to succeed at winning, scaling and amplifying. The good news is that you don’t need to confirm all of these items before launching. You can confirm some while you’re in flight (see “The Micro-battles Launch Checklist” below or print here to get started). But in your first micro-battle discussion, you’ll need to answer “yes” to the first six items in the chart before moving forward. If you find yourself answering “no” to any item, you’ll need to map out how to get to “yes.” About three to four weeks after launching, you’ll need to answer “yes” to the next set of items, or map out the actions needed. (Now is probably a good time to read our blog “Seven Types of Yes.”)

The checklist isn’t a box-ticking exercise, but rather a way to set up the right conversations between you and your leadership team on trade-offs. The boxes raise the issues, but as with all real business issues, the value lies in evaluating how these boxes best fit together. For example, using the checklist, a team could realize that the size of the prize isn’t big enough to justify the capabilities it needs to build.

Let’s say a company called BatteryCo is launching five micro-battles as part of its strategy to move from product sales (large industrial batteries) to a service business (customers rent a battery system to run key machines off the electric grid). One micro-battle involves introducing a small business version of this new service in Nigeria. As the team runs down the checklist, it gets an all-systems-go for winning. The senior leaders are committed to the journey to scale insurgency, and the service business is critical to their strategy. The Nigerian micro-battle has the right leaders. The team completes early work on the failure point and is clear on the right initial prototype.

But as the team moves to the scaling section of the checklist, problems arise. First, the team realizes that the channel structure in Nigeria is specific to the local market and doesn’t apply elsewhere. The prototype isn’t transferable to other markets (item 5). Moreover, as the team moves to amplifying, the micro-battle leader realizes that senior leaders probably can’t bring scaling resources to the Nigerian team (item 8). There are no local scalers, and any generalist scalers would need significant training to understand the Nigerian market.

Houston, we have a problem. The micro-battle in Nigeria isn’t scalable enough to justify the investment required to build local capabilities. What’s the remedy? The BatteryCo team decides to refocus on a slightly different channel proposition that could transfer to South Africa and Brazil. The general managers of both markets are willing to invest in scaling resources. In the end, the team is able to rebalance the size of the prize (transferability) against the resources required (shared resources across three core markets).

Here’s another example of catching a scaling issue from the start. A European food-service company wants to help customers manage their food inventory to reduce both stock depletion and waste by dramatically improving its salesforce capabilities. It plans to arm the salesforce with tools to report the inventories of each customer and help salespeople adjust orders during site visits. The team checks all the boxes on winning and scaling. But the scaling community (item 8) encounters a problem. The IT department can’t free up people to join the micro-battle team, so the leaders would be forced to use outside partners. Without internal resources, the team’s early prototypes might not scale across the firm’s IT infrastructure. The team decides to postpone the micro-battle and start only when it could free up the right IT resources, to guarantee that the solutions could be scaled.

The right checklists lead to the right conversations. In both of these cases, having hard conversations early on helped the companies avoid stalling. We believe that you’re better off starting slow when learning to go fast, which is what makes the micro-battles approach so successful. The goal is to build new businesses and capabilities. You don’t want your micro-battles to end up in the special project graveyard, so start the uncomfortable conversations from Day 1.

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain’s Global Strategy practice and is based in London. He is coauthor of The Founder’s Mentality.


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