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Confederates with a common vision

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Lea Müller

Published

07.12.2020

The Migros Pionner fund scouts Robin Born and Linda Sulzer in conversation

From idea to implementation: The scouts of the Migros Pioneer Fund are not only constantly on the lookout for new solutions to benefit our society, but are also sparring partners for pioneers. We talk to two members of the team, Linda Sulzer and Robin Born, about their personal view of utopias and experiments, as well as about conventional paths and the challenge of getting bold ideas off the ground.
 

When did you yourselves last have a courageous idea?

Linda: Yesterday I asked my parents for new orange bedding – although I don't actually like that colour. That was courageous. Perhaps a bit too courageous (laughs).

Robin: For me, being courageous is an attitude. You have to stand up for your ideas and convictions every day. You can train yourself to be courageous.

As Migros Pioneer Fund scouts, you are always looking for pioneers who want to improve the world with new ideas. How do you recognise which ideas have potential?

Robin: An idea has potential when it is based on a compelling analysis of the problem: What exactly is the problem the idea is trying to solve? Where does the solution apply leverage to effectively tackle the problem at hand head on?

Linda: You need pioneers who are passionate and will put their life and soul into the project. If they stand behind their idea with conviction, that ticks an important box for me. And by listening to your gut you can usually tell very quickly whether they will carry that conviction through to the project itself.

Is this combination enough? Or does an idea also need to be new or unconventional?

Linda: The degree of innovation and the transformative potential of an idea play a key role. And because we begin by analysing the problem, we quickly uncover any gaps in the social area in question.

How do you find these gaps? What is your process when scouting? 

Robin: We continuously follow social developments and identify relevant problems, for example with regard to the processing of personal data. We explore these problems in more depth and analyse the underlying mechanisms, key barriers and potential allies. Then we look for people who have already developed interesting solutions or drafted new approaches in this problem area. Together, we ask, in which area is there still potential? Where can we take action? How can we bring about a systemic change?

Linda: We always keep sight of the urgency of the problem at hand and the potential impact of the solution. And we look in places where our funding approach makes particular sense. For example, if the project relates to scientific research, we are not the right partners. But if it relates, for example, to piloting a promising approach together with stakeholders from different sectors, that's when it becomes interesting.

Linda Sulzer, project leader at the Migros Pioneer Fund (Photo: Jasmin Frei)

I am driven by the fact that the Migros Pioneer Fund allows other people to test utopias – always with the goal of advancing society as a whole.

Linda Sulzer, project leader at the Migros Pioneer Fund (Photo: Jasmin Frei)

How do you find people who are ready for such a project?

Robin: Our network is of the utmost importance. One person can only ever have a very limited view of all the different, usually complex problems. That's why we speak to as many different stakeholders as possible, who are active in the fields in question.

Linda: Exactly, these multipliers are very important. We can use them to gain access to new networks and get to know new people and ideas. Most of the ideas we examine are not yet mature. As a development fund, we therefore assume an active role and work together with the stakeholders to determine the areas in which there is potential for pioneering projects.

The Migros Pioneer Fund is an initiative of the Federation of Migros Cooperatives. Does Migros set the agenda?

Robin: Migros gives us the big responsibility of finding the "right" pioneering projects. While the steering committee guides us in this challenging task and sets the strategic approach, it is up to us to put out our feelers to find new and unconventional pioneering projects.

What is the most important criterion for a pioneering project to meet to be granted funding?

Linda: Passion! For me, pioneers have to be people of conviction. They need to demonstrate the impact their project will have. It's not enough to create a project that is an end in itself. And it is precisely this impact-oriented attitude that is at the centre of our funding approach.

Robin: The vision behind a pioneering project really needs to be compelling. This is because projects often tread unconventional paths that are fraught with significant risks. No risk, no impact! It is also important to create a stable, trusting and equal collaborative relationship, as we provide assistance to projects for a period of three to five years – through the good and the bad times.

How does the internal selection process work at the Migros Pioneer Fund?

Robin: Picture it as a multi-step process that starts with numerous ideas and ends with just a few potential projects. The most compelling ideas are pitched to our team – and that's when they have to be able to bear up under critical questions. With each additional step, the idea becomes more specific and more precise, and its strengths and weaknesses become increasingly tangible. Lastly, fleshed out projects are presented to an internal committee which puts them through their paces and ultimately gives them a green or red light. Each year, we check around 150 ideas resulting in around ten to fifteen new projects.

If an idea does not end up succeeding, how do you react as the project scouts? 

Linda: As a scout, I am always on the side of the project during the entire selection process. I stand behind the project fully and completely and pursue the same objective as the pioneers. If a process is turned down at the end of the process, I am of course also disappointed. In that case, it is important for me to pass the message on the project partners to keep going! 

Robin Born and Linda Sulzer at Löwenbräukunst-Areal in Zurich. (Photo: Jasmin Frei)

Robin Born and Linda Sulzer at Löwenbräukunst-Areal in Zurich.

Together with the pioneers, you are always taking a step into the unknown. How do you get courageous ideas off the ground?

Robin: I'm not sure there is a recipe for success for pioneers, but if there is, then it's implement, implement and implement again. And implement quickly. This not only helps you to reach your goal faster, but can also help to continuously improve the quality of implementation. With every failed attempt, things will get better.

Linda: You need an experimental mindset. The project teams supported by us have a unique opportunity to try out a new approach, backed by financial and conceptual support. Many ideas do not work right away. Failure is part and parcel of the process. That is why it is so important for us to be able to speak transparently to the project teams about failures and lessons learned. This is the only way we can find a way to succeed within a reasonable period of time.

How exactly does support by the Migros Pioneer Fund work?

Linda: We provide advice to the project partners. From experience, we know which barriers keep occurring and which aspects are often underestimated or systematically overestimated. We ensure that the pioneers benefit from the experience of other pioneers when designing their project and have the important aspects on their radar. This ensures that they are well prepared when they start the implementation process.

Robin: The message is the same for scouting: we are on your side! This is very important to us, but not always completely obvious to our project partners. As a development fund, we provide feedback and ask questions, including uncomfortable ones. However, we are sitting on the same side of the table, and have the same objectives.

Linda: Exactly! We are allies with a common vision.

When is collaboration for the pioneering project most intense?

Linda: Our support is very intense prior to the actual start of the project in particular. After that, the project partners are in control, but we still regularly meet them for interim reviews.

Robin: Based on our experience, the first interim review – i.e. after half a year – is followed by another intensive phase of collaboration. At this point, many projects have reached an exciting yet trying stage. The originally planned path to the goal and success is met with multiple reality checks following exchanges with the project's target groups, and has therefore certainly changed by this time. The original plan is then gradually moulded into a plan that works. 

Robin Born, project leader at the Migros Pioneer Fund (Photo: Jasmin Frei)

The vision behind a pioneering project really needs to be compelling. This is because projects often tread unconventional paths that are fraught with significant risks. No risk, no impact!

Robin Born, project leader at the Migros Pioneer Fund (Photo: Jasmin Frei)

How can you tell that you've backed the right idea?

Robin: When our project partners implement the project independently and swiftly and are driven, rather than held back, by barriers. The idea itself is therefore of secondary concern. The people implementing the idea are more important. 

Linda: I am confident when I see the project partners opening themselves up to this kind of experimental mindset. It's not about carrying out the project plan 1:1, but about actually achieving the desired effect. Flexibility and endurance are what counts.

What happens when projects take off and then crash down?

Robin: Small insights, as well as small failures along the way, are not warning signals, but signs that the project is learning and everything will work out in the end. If I had to walk to Bern, I probably wouldn't walk there in a straight line. But it's very unlikely that I'd end up in Basel.

Linda: (laughing) Continuing with this example, you might realise halfway to Bern that you're going in the wrong direction. And then you'd have to have the courage to turn around.

Do projects ever change direction?

Robin: Absolutely! If we notice that three of four project objectives are not achieving the desired effect, we go back to the drawing board and adapt the objectives together with the project teams. It's an agile process. We always have our eyes on the vision.

What are the values that drive you to look for new ideas day after day?

Robin: It's just a habit for me (laughs). The world – as it is now – is good, but not perfect by far. We will only make progress if we take steps forward. For me personally it means I help others to put their ideas into practice.

Linda: In the words of Oscar Wilde: "Progress is the realisation of utopias". I am driven by the fact that the Migros Pioneer Fund allows other people to test utopias – always with the goal of advancing society as a whole.

About the interview partners

Linda Sulzer is a project leader at the Migros Pioneer Fund and scouts out pioneering projects in the area of collaborative innovation. This political scientist was involved in founding the Operation Libero movement. In her role at the Migros Pioneer Fund, she wants to create beacons of light that will give society courage and light up new paths to a sustainable, equal future.

Robin Born is a project leader at the Migros Pioneer Fund and scouts out pioneering projects in the areas of people & digitalisation and collaborative innovation. This qualified mechanical engineer believes that new technical achievements should be put to use for the good of society. At the Migros Pioneer Fund, he takes care to ensure that technological advancements also result in a step forward for society.