“I often say that I’ve learned but one thing in 40 years, since I began my management career. … And that is … “try stuff” … faster than the next guy.”
— Tom Peters
At it’s core innovation is a numbers game. You have to ensure that your innovation pipeline has a large number of ideas coming in at the front end in order to yield an adequate number of successes at the back end.
You have to accept that for every 100 ideas 10 will merit a small scale experiment, and of those, only 1 or 2 will turn out to be successes.
The truth is experiments fuel creativity and change. Experimenting means you are intentionally going off the map and pushing beyond the status quo.
Examples of experimental innovators abound, here are a few examples that we can learn from:
Play the odds with volume and frequency
Kevin Nalty is a YouTube celebrity and created an entry on Google Knol on how to get popular on YouTube. Here’s his take on how to make videos that don’t suck:
This chapter sounds arrogant, and its somewhat hypocritical. Because I make so many videos, many of them suck. If anyone should have the ?magic recipe? for a decent online video, it should be me. But I’m still learning each day, and that’s part of what makes it so fun to create videos. People often ask me why I don’t focus on creating fewer quality videos instead of posting routinely. There are two reasons for that. First, if I stop creating for more than a few days, I generally don’t feel like posting anymore. Second, I have no Earthly idea which of my video ideas will resonate and which will become popular. There are a lot of factors involved, so I play the odds with volume and frequency.
Testing beats guessing
Ebay, one of the most popular websites on the web, gets huge amounts of people coming the site everyday looking to buy and sell stuff. Knowing what all these users want is important, converting most of the users is Ebay’s most critical activity. A recent article from Harvard on how to design smart business experiments (registration needed) explains how Ebay built it’s own application called the Ebay Experimentation Platform to lead testers through the process of testing pages in the website and to keep track of what’s being tested at what times on what pages.
Thousands of small experiments
Consider Chris Rock, the popular comedian, who uses small experiments as part of his process:
First, he picks small venues where he can do rapid, low-risk experiments with new material. In gearing up for his latest global tour, he made between 40 and 50 appearances at a small venue called the Stress Factory in New Brunswick, New Jersey, not far from where he lives. Rock told the Orange Country Register, “It’s like boxing training camp. I always pick a comedy club to work out in.”
In front of audiences of say 30 to 40 people, Rock will bring a yellow legal note pad with lots of joke ideas scribbled on it, according to fellow comedian Matt Ruby. In sets that run say 45 minutes, many of the jokes will fall flat, but according to Ruby, “There were 5-10 lines during the night that were just ridiculously good. Like lightning bolts. My sense is that he starts with these bolts and then writes around them.”
Fail fast, fail cheap, and move on to the real winners
A recent example of a company investing incrementally in a new market is Dell’s agreement to sell PCs in Wal-Mart stores.
Rather than sell the entire line of Dell PCs in stores, it conducted a test, offering only a select few models in many stores, providing Dell valuable information about its mass appeal.
There’s simply no way around it, your chance of finding the next big opportunity is largely a function of how many seeds you sow and how many new things you try.
The great thing about the web is how easy it is to try something new. Experiments can be frequent and small and the best can be built into something big.