When I registered for the first Strategy Tools Global Coach certification program back in November 2018, my expectations were to learn new frameworks and tools in corporate strategy and innovation. This certification would be a great complement to other training I have carried out in Design Thinking, business model generation, and other emerging strategy frameworks and methodologies.
At that time, I was very clear about my target market – corporations – and my areas of expertise – strategy and innovation.
However, everything changed when Christian Rangen, Strategy Tools CEO and mastermind, reached page 26 of the presentation he was using. This page detailed the seven series and the 44 tools that made up the Strategy Tools toolkit (three and a half years later, the toolbox has expanded to 18 series and just over 300 tools… and counting).
Series No 7 was about Superclusters. Superclusters? What the heck is a supercluster? and why haven’t I heard about them before?
After that first day, I spent several hours online researching superclusters in Costa Rica, where I currently live, and in Guatemala, where I lived for five years. Of course, I didn’t find anything that referred to “innovation superclusters” in both countries; just a few references to “clusters”.
After the certification program, I mentioned to Christian that I believed that superclusters could be a high potential area where we could explore projects together. I remember asking Chris where I should start. I don’t remember his exact words, but I’m pretty sure he told me at least to do three things: 1) understand the country’s cluster landscape, 2) get out of the building and start connecting with the right people, and 3) read and research all I could find on clusters and innovation superclusters. From that day on, he began to bombard me with case studies, references, reports, people to follow, new tools, ideas, etc.
Building the Skillset
I remember that the first activity I carried out was to read from start to finish two quite large documents: Guatemala´s National Competitiveness Policy 2018-2032 and Costa Rica´s Bicentenary National Development and Public Investment Plan. Then, I walked out of the building and started knocking on doors to understand if Guatemala and Costa Rica had a national cluster policy, strategy, or program. In parallel, I began to read everything Christian sent me. I got involved in the publication of the report Building Innovation Superclusters. Economic Development for the 21st Century written by him and published by Engage // Innovate and Strategy Tools. I began a deep immersion in the existing Strategy Tools Supercluster Series toolkit. I worked hard on understanding the underlying principles behind each tool, how they connect among themselves and how they would differ from the traditional and more econometrical cluster theory.
I also studied some national cluster programs like Norway’s and Canada’s, as it was very clear early on that these were two of the best practices, but with very different approaches and timelines. I developed my own interpretation of both case studies. Time well spent.
Slowly but steadily, I was clocking hours of learning, getting an intuitive but comprehensive understanding of the frameworks, the tools, and the different approaches for building better clusters and developing national cluster programs. At the same time, I was also building relationships, and navigating the political and bureaucratic interweaving of the public sector in Costa Rica, where I felt I had better chances of nailing a project considering that there was an ongoing initiative to design and build a national cluster program.
Once I understood what I had to investigate and what doors to knock on, I began to explore the cluster landscape across Latin America. I mapped the different innovation or economic development agencies, identified key players in each country, and started connecting with them. Many ended up in dark allies, but others were very helpful in expanding my understanding of the local cluster landscape, and in growing my own cluster network.
As my interest and time investment in this space grew, Christian brought me into some of the work he was doing in clusters in places like Canada, the US, and Europe, giving me greater exposure to the global cluster world and providing me with the experiences to come up with my own stores. In every interaction we had, with every new resource or story he shared with me, and with every single challenge he put in front of me, he was grooming me and providing me with the skillset to fly solo.
Early Wins as a Cluster Expert
After almost two years of knocking on doors in Costa Rica, of being part of the national cluster conversation, I closed, together with my business partner Carlos Gallegos, the first contract related to clusters…two workshops, one to design an innovation supercluster in life sciences, and the other to review the strategy of an emerging cluster in the medical devices sector.
Less than one year later, we closed two more contracts in Costa Rica, one to train more than 200 people on how to design, manage and lead innovation superclusters, and the other one to support the strategy process of two clusters: CRbiomed and Cybersec.
After three years of hard work, we have positioned Engage // Innovate as the leading global consulting firm on clusters and innovation superclusters, and Strategy Tools as the official platform for designing innovation clusters. We have also helped create a common language and understanding of innovation superclusters and have become close advisors to senior government officials and industry leaders.
In the process, Christian has been recognized as one of the three most important global experts in clusters worldwide and, arguably, the leading thinker on what the innovation superclusters of the future should look like, while I personally have been recognized as a cluster expert with a global view and with access to a large network of cluster leaders and practitioners from all six continents.
My journey as a cluster consultant is still in its early days. Still, this journey already includes my direct or indirect participation in cluster strategy projects, national/regional cluster programs, or cluster capacity-building programs in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Finland, Serbia, and Montenegro.
I have also had an active role in some of the most recent cluster work done by Christian, either by writing a piece on how to create a blueprint to design winning cluster business models or by working as the research lead of a report on national cluster programs.
Building Blocks of Expertise
A key component of this journey is obviously Strategy Tools, both as a framework, tools and learning platform, as well as a community. The Strategy Tools Global Coach was the first step and an important foundation, but the key program that really helped me understand how I could maximize the knowledge behind the tools was the Master Trainer program.
Spending 50+ hours in an intense learning environment with Christian and 11 fellow Global Coaches from 7 different countries, helped me developed the confidence, the depth, and the understanding of how to connect the dots, both in terms of frameworks and the tools. This program has been a key building block of my growth as an international cluster consultant.
Small parenthesis… one of my favorite authors and thinkers is Malcolm Gladwell. One of his first talks I heard from him had to do with the 10,000-hour rule, which, in a nutshell, states that mastering a subject or a cognitive activity takes about 10,000 hours of practice.
I knew, right off the bat, that if I was to pursue clusters as an area of expertise and work, or better, partner with governments, national agencies, or existing clusters, to build high-impact innovation clusters I had to start accumulating hours of learning, practicing, networking, and of course, working with clients, in some cases for free.
If you ask me how far I am after almost four years in my 10,000 hours mileage, I will say that I am halfway. Just the first 12 months I probably invested over 1,500 hours alone. It was at that point that I felt quite confident in my domain knowledge. This is not a scientific method at all, but it is a good proxy on the amount of work that takes to gain enough expertise in this field.
Some Lessons Learned
- In the cluster space, one will find very smart people (actually, I would say brilliant people) who are working or have been working on this topic for a long time. Still, the prevailing thinking is to develop clusters behind the triple helix paradigm and with an econometrical lens. But, high-impact innovation clusters and superclusters must be built as ecosystems, which requires different mindsets and frameworks; precisely those that Christian Rangen has designed and made available to the entire Strategy Tools community through its other platforms. This is a big differentiator. If you already see strategy, innovation, and value creation with an ecosystem lens, you are ahead of the curve.
- Just as clusters must be designed and developed with a time horizon measured in decades, business development in this space must be thought of in years, especially if the goal is to develop long-term relationships. Focusing on small short-term projects won’t move the needle enough. Investing time in building relationships with the right people across the national cluster landscape, at the individual cluster level, and within industries that could potentially develop new cluster initiatives, is necessary. Trust me, there are no shortcuts.
- All the ingredients are in your hands reach; it’s up to you to invest the hours. I don’t know if you need to put in the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell suggests for you to become a global cluster expert or THE global cluster expert, but certainly, 100 or 200 hours will not be enough. The reports Strategy Tools has written are great, the Global Cluster Leadership Program is top-notch, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. I suppose that my “secret” or “magic recipe” has been my willingness to invest the necessary hours in studying the subject, learning, and developing mastery in the different Strategy Tools supercluster frameworks and tools, and connecting with public policy designers, business leaders, professors, ecosystems builders, and leaders of national and regional cluster programs and clusters initiatives from all over the world. If I can do it, you certainly can do it as well.
- Finally, if you are interested in working in this space, make sure you have a solid understanding of some of the other frameworks, models, tools, and solutions that Strategy Tools has developed for working on strategy, innovation, transformation, ecosystems, accelerators, and or startups. I don’t know of any other consulting firm or strategy platform that has identified the crossroads among all these different topics or work areas. Yes, Strategy Tools provides you with more than 300 Lego pieces that you can combine, which is fantastic; but if you spend the time understanding these crossroads, you will stop seeing the individual pieces or just a couple of permutations, and you will start seeing the systems you can create. That is the superpower you want to develop.
If you are interested in becoming a global cluster expert, I wish you good luck and safe travels. If I can be of any help or assistance along your journey, you know where to find me.