Even Angels Need a Guiding Light

Even Angels Need a Guiding Light

Make your innovation program more effective by training its governing team

During a recent Lean Entrepreneurship CIO Event in Atlanta I was asked a fantastic question: “Did you have to train your Angel Team?” The “Angel Team” was our incubator’s governance board. The team was responsible for deciding which ideas entered the incubator and provided mentoring to all of the startups within. Today, the answer to this question is “yes”. Although, that is not the answer we would have given earlier in the program’s life and this is because of a very important lesson we learned during our journey.

A great beginning

The people who formed the inaugural Angel Team had been involved with our incubator since the program’s inception. In fact, many of them had been participants in the workshop where we initially defined the challenges the incubator was designed to address and set the program’s strategic objectives. They had an enormous amount of context. However, once we were ready to launch the program in earnest, we needed to expand the Angel Team to ensure it was large enough and sufficiently diverse. We also needed to ensure it adequately represented the company’s broad business interests and varied organizations.

As we expanded the team, we realized that new members were unaware of things like the program’s objectives and intent, its structure and stages, and their own role within the team. The need for this level of orientation was fairly obvious, and these “introductory topics” required only an hour or two of review. As the program matured, we discovered the need for another class of, arguably more important, training – for Angels with all levels of experience.

Bad habits

Over time, the performance of the Angel Team began to drift. We had added more businesses to the incubator and those businesses were in various stages of maturity. As the volume and variety of activity increased, and the Angels became more comfortable with one-another, we found the Angel Team beginning to develop some bad habits. These bad habits included diving deeply into interesting, though irrelevant, topics (“chasing shiny objects”) or pursuing a line of inquiry too early in a business’ life. The latter can have dire consequences, as it can cause an incubating team to run out of time and funding by focusing on the wrong activities. Founders will often act on any topic an Angel raises, whether relevant or not, therefore it is critical that the Angels stay within the proper context when speaking with them. At best, this behavior created unnecessary stress for incubating teams.

Providing a North Star

Left unchecked, these simple habits can place an incubating business, or an entire program, at risk of failure. We created an “Angel Fitness”  program to ensure each Angel had the skills necessary to give each business the best possible chance to succeed, and that Angels focused their efforts on activities most critical to the success of each incubating business. The program consisted of some simple memory aids and extremely lightweight training resources.

Training your own Angel Team is critical. To ensure your innovation governance team is effective and focused, the following points can help your team stay on track:

  • Ensure the team is diverse (demographically, organizationally, and in experience)
  • Use simple “ceremonies” (meeting formats) to ensure focus and reduce waste and time
  • Supply lightweight training on skills essential for a member of any board
  • Remind the Angels the stage the incubating team is at prior to the beginning of each ceremony to ensure they are operating in the appropriate context
  • Provide active facilitation during all formal interactions between the governance and incubating business teams to:
    1. Focus conversations on the right stage of maturity
    2. Keep the group from “chasing shiny objects”
    3. Ensure they are in the proper meeting context (i.e., mentoring or judging)

Less is more

We also provided a one-page overview of our innovation program outlining each stage’s objectives as well as an illustrative set of questions for each stage. It, alone, had a tremendously positive impact on our Angel Team’s performance. The Angels often referred to it during our “pivot, pause, or persist” reviews to ensure they were operating in the right context; and the illustrative questions often inspired new, relevant, and exciting questions of their own.

Thank you to everyone who attended the event. I enjoyed our discussions and your fantastic questions.

Photo Credit: Skeeze from Pixabay


About the author

George Watt is a Partner at Becker-Carroll, a Converge Company, and is responsible for Strategy and Lean Innovation. A transformative leader, George has spearheaded initiatives that have enabled businesses and global enterprises to address complex technology problems, deliver new business benefits, and drive millions of dollars in savings and productivity gains. He has delivered innovations of his own such as a knowledge base for a neural network-based predictive performance management solution, one of the earliest private clouds (2005), and a lightweight event management agent.

As VP of Strategy for a multibillion-dollar technology company, he was responsible for global scientific research, worldwide innovation initiatives, and the design and operation of an innovative startup accelerator program. He has held many national and global leadership positions and has led global teams spanning North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. George is co-author of “The Innovative CIO” and “Lean Entrepreneurship” and tweets as @GeorgeDWatt.