Sunday, December 28, 2014

Innovation Through Experimentation is Key

The Wright brothers, Orville (August 19, 1871 - January 30, 1948) and Wilbur (April 16, 1867 - May 30, 1912), were two American brothers, inventors, and aviation pioneers who were credited with inventing and building the world’s first successful airplane and making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, on December 17, 1903.

From 1905 to 1907, the brothers developed their flying machine into the first practical fixed-wing aircraft.
Although not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft, the Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.
From 1900 until their first powered flights in late 1903, they conducted extensive glider tests that also developed their skills as pilots. Their bicycle shop employee Charlie Taylor became an important part of the team, building their first aircraft engine in close collaboration with the brothers. 

Trial and error

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, did not build the networking site into a $1-billion valued company in one day. He developed his skills and tested ideas while launching and experimenting at SocialNet and PayPal.

Kevin Systrom, founder of Instagram developed his skills, experimented ideas while working  at Google, Odeo, Twitter and Facebook, before launching his successful venture. “The most pivotal moment for us was when we decided to stop working on Burbn (the mobile HTML5 checkin app) and start work on what would become Instagram”, confessed Kevin.

Going back to my son, he rode his bike for the first time last spring. He worked really hard to learn how to ride.

Did he work out the theory of how to do it, jump on the bike, and start riding flawlessly? Did he follow my advice on what to do and what not to do? No. He started with training wheels and worked it out through trial and error, with determination, repetition while focusing on the end goal.
Experimenting is a critical innovation skill. None of us think twice about learning to ride a bike through trial and error, so why is it so rare in business?
There are two main reasons: One is risk and failure aversion. In a work or school setting, our brains are formatted to learn theory and what the outcome should be instead of experimenting through trial and error. People don’t like to make mistakes, and they don’t like to look foolish, whether it is an adult or a child. Trial-and-error can cause both of these things to happen when things don’t work out as expected.

The second reason is that our organizational cultures are often not designed to experimenting. In larger organizations, we are often trying to improve efficiency. Doing this means that we must reduce variation and risk. But innovation and experimentation increase variation. There is a tension between efficiency and innovation.

However, the benefits of experimenting outweigh these issues. The problem that experimenting solves is this: it’s nearly impossible to know in advance which ideas will work and which won’t. If we experiment, instead of guessing which ideas will work, we can test them. This helps us get better making decisions based on data.

At a Centric event last year, John Evans from Allegion explained how his company is able to kill or shelf innovation if first results are not encouraging. It is important to encourage, allow space and time for experimentation, and coach employees that potential failures are just a way to learn how to better products.

Failures are just a part in the innovation process, not a discouraging and painful end. When first results are not looking positive, John Evans’s team will either merely kill the project, or shelf it for future opportunities and experiments. Allegion employees understand that some experiments may not prove to be successful, but it is not the end, just a step (back) in the innovation process.

In the experimentation process, budget and time should not be a concern. As soon as we put barriers (budget constraints, time constraints, failure aversion), we kill the intent to create, innovate. Creativity and innovation only thrive when there is no boundaries, no aversion of failure, wasting time or money.

When the Ford factory in Detroit made a 3D printer available to its employees, it never imagined that the number of new patents registered would jump by 30 percent the first year! One Ford employee, for example, designed and produced a defogging valve prototype.

If he had not been able to test his idea easily, he would have probably given up before it could take shape and be developed. Providing experimentation tools thus makes it possible to release great innovation potential, invaluable in times of crisis. The material and technical obstacles to experimentation are being lifted.

Many tools are free or can be pooled, relieving the need to request additional budget. It is no longer necessary to engage experts, because prototyping tools can often be utilized intuitively. When technical skills are needed, the existence of dedicated communities makes it possible to receive immediate assistance. Technically, just about anyone can thus develop his or her own prototypes.

On the other hand, intangible obstacles persist. Providing tools for experimentation is not enough to change the company culture. Many teams never or only belatedly consider developing even rough prototypes. So how can one capitalize on these new opportunities and make experimentation an everyday practice? 

Enlighten innovation through experimentation

Eric Ries promotes a core method for experimentation. Although the Lean Startup method is essentially built for tech start-up companies, it can be applied and customized to any type of business.

Here is a method you can apply:

Ideation: form a team of various skills, expertise. Collide ideas and define what need the product or service might fill. Focus on the opportunities, not the obstacles.
Build: anything can be prototyped (product, service, customer/user experience, business model …).
Test: test not only the practicality of the prototype, but validate on a small market or through trials.
Measurement: gather qualitative and quantitative data, user insight, and figure out what works and what does not work.
Learn: from the data and insight collected, apply what you’ve learned, either to make adjustment (go back to build) or to launch. After the launch, we have to accept that we may not have made the perfect product or service right away, but that it is a opportunity to improve it and perfect it along the way, by taking consumer feedback and consumer insights.

If you’re a change agent in your organization, encourage your team to do this as well. As people get better at, things will start to improve. And you’ll start to build a culture of experimentation.
It’s like learning to ride a bike.
image credit:

Source: Lean start-up –

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