First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Valerio Zanini: Like everyone around the world, we had to adjust our rhythms to stay-at-home policies. With both my wife and my kids at home, we had to adjust a bit, but we made it work. Actually, I appreciate the lack of commuting – it saves me almost two hours every day that now can be devoted to productive tasks. I miss the human connection, though, and travel.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Spark Engine.
Valerio Zanini: I have worked in product management and innovation for almost my entire career. I co-founded an Internet startup in the late 2000s, worked for two Fortune 500 companies, and now I’m back to entrepreneurship.
While consulting with several clients, I realized that many organizations struggle with innovation. Many lack a consistent method and a mindset to spark innovation even when they are along their journey of adopting lean and agile practices. With this realization, we created a training program called Spark Engine. The name combines the concept of a spark, a creative idea that energizes innovation, with the concept of an engine, a repeatable process that makes innovation real.
We conduct training programs with organizations in the US and Europe, helping their product teams understand key practices and principles to spark innovation and transform their mindset. Our programs incorporate a portion of training, followed by several weeks of hands-on practice while working on a real product.
We get participants from all career levels. Some senior leaders in product management are responsible for driving product innovation in their organization and managing product teams. Some are product managers and product owners who desire to grow in their career and learn new skills to stand out from the crowd. And others are people new to product management and desire to develop the skills needed to get a job and drive valuable contributions to their teams.
How does Spark Engine innovate?
Valerio Zanini: In simple terms, we focus more on the problem that we need to solve for our customers rather than the solution that we would like to build. It’s second-nature for product people and entrepreneurs to jump into solution mode and build something they believe in. While sometimes this approach works thanks to a spark of intuition, most of the time, it’s ripe for failure. Without a proper understanding of the actual problem that we are trying to solve and the customer’s needs, it’s risky to build a solution. There are many, too many, examples in the market of products that were built without a proper understanding of the customer needs and have resulted in failures.
With our program, we help organizations learn how to adopt the right mindset, focus on problem discovery, and then build solutions that deliver real value. We often work with small startups that see these practices as a great way to validate their idea and minimize the risk.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Valerio Zanini: Before the pandemic, we invested in in-person classes, preparing printed materials and physical assets for our programs. When the pandemic hit, we quickly pivoted to rebuilding our digital format programs, using video conferencing and digital whiteboarding tools. In the beginning, it was painful, as we were under a ton of pressure to redesign the program quickly.
But I’m very happy that we did that. We have developed tremendous experience in running virtual training, and our program has gotten better because of that. I think that today we have an awesome training program and great materials to really help participants learn as much as they can. Participants often tell us that they prefer the program’s online version even if they miss personal interaction with other people.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Valerio Zanini: As entrepreneurs, we often face difficult choices. Most recently, the pandemic forced us to make a decision that I was not prepared to make. As said earlier, we were forced to redesign our programs to adapt to virtual delivery. In the end, it was a good thing, as now we have a really good program and are getting awesome feedback from our participants. I would not have invested in virtual delivery if the pandemic had not forced us to do so.
The lesson learned is that sometimes we face hard times and difficult choices. Yet, even these may offer us opportunities that were not available before, and it’s up to us to make the most of what we have available, pivot, and create something new.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Spark Engine in the future?
Valerio Zanini: I tend to take a lot of work and do it on my own. This has always been my winning formula, and I’m known as someone who gets things done. However, recently I’ve learned that this “formula” is also my main limitation because there is only this much time in a day available. I can’t possibly get everything I’d like to do in a day without the help of others.
I have made the commitment of working with other people, asking for help, and reaching out when they have more experience than I do. I owe a lot to my partner Zeina Zeitouni, who has helped me take this company off the ground and has contributed a lot to the creation of the program. With Zeina, I’ve learned the power to work together, bounce off ideas on each other, and get help in doing work that otherwise would be too much. We are now discussing how to further expand the team and grow the company.
Your final thoughts?
Valerio Zanini: This pandemic has come by surprise and has forced many organizations to reinvent themselves. Driving a culture of innovation is even more essential now than before. I believe we have a unique program and are well-positioned to help any type of organization foster a culture of innovation and learn the tools to bring it to reality.