Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Treating Innovation as an experiment

Most businesses recognize that they "need" to do innovation, just like I recognize that I "need" more exercise.  Unfortunately, while for me more exercise simply means setting aside the time to do it and having the discipline to actually go out and jog, or swim, or bike, innovation takes more than time and discipline.  It takes resources, and few firms today have any spare resources lying around.  Which means that innovation is often taken on board very carefully, in a very controlled experiment, with limited time and limited resources.

Far too often large businesses treat innovation as a risky experiment, a concoction held at arm's length.  These firms fail to create a hypothesis, fail to invest fully in the experiment and are often quick to reject or ignore the results.  This is a Potemkin Village of innovation, which appears robust and interesting from a distance but what on closer examination is full of holes.  Why is innovation treated as a dangerous, risky experiment?

As noted above, innovation is new, risky, uncertain and requires time, resources and discipline.  Unfortunately none of the last are in big supply.  So, to minimize the impact and requirement for time and resources, the exercise is often limited to some small team focused on some unimportant issue.  Since there's not a lot of risk involved, the ideas are small and the investment is small.  Everything becomes smaller and smaller until there's no longer an experiment.  What's left is just an exercise to validate the existing thinking. 

Don't get me wrong - I don't think any firm can simply "jump" into full-fledged innovation without learning the ropes and gaining skills, but many innovation efforts are so carefully crafted and so limited that they produce nothing of value, or they are so isolated and target such unimportant or uninteresting issues that the results aren't replicable or valuable.  Once these innovation experiments are finished, everyone nods and agrees that a) the firm isn't really innovative and the results prove the original thinking or b) innovation doesn't really add any value.  In many cases the experiment proves the unspoken hypothesis.

We need to either conduct a real innovation experiment, fully cognizant of the investments and risks, with a clearly stated, important hypothesis, and let the work run its course, or we need to stop pretending to test the waters with phony innovation experiments.  Today we've trained our teams to believe they should know the answer to every question and every initiative before they begin, which eliminates the possibility of discovery and reduces what people are willing to work on, since they may not know the likely answers.  At one time experiments were meant to help prove hypotheses or introduce new learning, now we expect them merely to validate our existing beliefs.

As I noted in a Twitter post which led to this blog post, we should stop experimenting with innovation and start innovating with experiments.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:12 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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