Tuesday, September 04, 2012

There's no innovation without experimentation

Many times people will ask me what I think is "wrong" with so many companies.  Why can't they innovate? they ask.  Where are the innovative new products and services.  Many will look back to innovators like Edison, Marconi, Alexander Graham Bell and wonder why businesses today cannot seem to innovate the way these individuals did.  Was there simply a spark of genius, or is something larger at work?  I think one powerful answer is provided when we examine how many of these early innovators worked.

Perhaps my favorite quote (potentially apocryphal) from Edison is the statement than he knew 1000 ways not to make a lightbulb.  Edison is famous for many inventions, but what is often overlooked is how many different paths he attempted to create the significant success.  Edison was an inventor, yes, but at his heart he was a synthesizer and an experimenter.  He learned by combining disparate technologies and concepts, and experimenting repeatedly.  The failure of any given experiment didn't block his work, it simply opened new areas for exploration and created new learning.

Contrast that approach to the work we do today.  In many corporations, outside of research and development teams experimentation is a dangerous word.  Experimenting has lost its luster and is often equated with "winging it", rather than an attempt to extend insight and knowledge.  In an environment where everything must be perfect the first time, experimentation loses and sameness wins.  There are several reasons why experimentation is viewed with suspicion, and why sameness seems so compelling.


Good experimenting takes time, and is DIVERGENT.  Divergent in the sense that as one experiments, one attempts new things and strays from the "straight and narrow" since discovery and learning is part of good experimentation.  You can either experiment to prove something false, or experiment to learn something.  The mentality matters.  Good experimentation means you'll have lots of failures, but obtain a lot of learning.  However, no Six Sigma certified firm tolerates "lots of failures" for long.  Too often that experimenting looks like "non-valued added" work which should be eliminated.

Outside of R&D most business functions don't have experience with experimenting and don't understand the value proposition.  It's as if learning or attempting some new functions or offerings is verboten.  Only the fully expected and fully perfected are allowed.  Yes, I know we've trained our customers to expect only perfection.  Perhaps we should demonstrate for them why experimenting with new offerings, new services and new business models is potentially to their benefit.

Sameness is next to godliness

There's another reason experimenting seems so dangerous and outdated.  It is far safer and much easier to simply copy a competitor's product, or channel, or business model rather than experiment with new offerings.  While the returns are marginal when copying, there's no "wasted time" or wasted effort experimenting to create something new and interesting, that is more than likely to "fail".  Since marginal success is rewarded and failure is punished, it should be little surprise that experimentation, no matter how small or insignificant, is rarely attempted.

The Reverse of Edison

What we have today is the reverse of Edison.  Most organizations do so much research, so much perfecting of one product or service, and so little experimentation that they too can claim not to know hundreds of ways to deliver value to their customers, but not because they experimented and failed, but because they never experimented at all.  As the amount of experimentation falls, awareness and knowledge becomes narrower.  As the rate of experimentation falls, the organization becomes more conservative, isolating and fearing risk.  And this simply feeds a vicious circle, to the point where experimentation seems difficult, dangerous and unlikely to add value. 

On the contrary.  Good innovators understand that experimentation is vital to gaining new insights and new knowledge.  Many small, expected innovation "failures" based on experiments are far more valuable and tolerable than one large product introduction failure, but that's the tradeoff many make.  Experimentation doesn't just belong in the R&D suite, but is increasingly necessary across all business functions.  Experimenting doesn't increase risk and inefficiency, it lowers failure rates and increases insight and learning.  One of the first best questions to ask someone who wants to create new products is:  what have you tried?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:17 AM


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