The shortest path to innovation

there is no innovation without experimentation

In the past week I’ve had some interesting conversations with colleagues, friends and random people about culture and innovation capability. There are a couple of themes that have come up, one of which I’ll touch on here: feedback as it relates to innovation.

First, let’s put one thing on the table: there is no innovation without experimentation.

Why? Because…

People need feedback to learn

The way to get creative is by breaking a routine, like doings things you would never do so those unconventional ideas come to the fore. You do that by reading stuff you normally would not read, by visiting places you would not go to, by hanging out with people who are not like you.

That is one part of the equation, with an added observation that you should be mindful about what you read, see, hear, smell, taste and feel. The next part of the equation is to do something with that new knowledge.

For example, I know people who read a lot. But they don’t do anything with that new information, either reflect on it or something else. For me, it’s not about reading. It’s about doing. Reading is an input, but without an output there is no feedback. People need feedback to learn.

This is the most obvious, but rarely, talked about insight of what it takes to innovate. People need to do stuff to learn. And if you, as the CXO, don’t let them experiment, there will be no feedback. This is what Intuit does so well, they don’t spreadsheet and then validate, instead they conduct quick experiments to learn about what to do next, keep doing or change course completely.

So, if you ask “what is the expected ROI from this idea?”, you are kidding yourself that you will get a real answer. And if you do, you’ll get a bunch of lies. Instead ask: what is the shortest path to getting feedback from this idea?

The fear of losing old habits

Here is another insight about why feedback matters: you won’t learn anything new if you keep the old habits.

I think people get overwhelmed by the idea of doing because they imagine it should be really complex. It isn’t. What they are really worried about is that they will stop doing something they know how to do really well.

For example, I have a friend that you won’t consider creative, he is a salesman. One that talks about selling all the time. That’s all he sees. And he’ll use the typical sales tactics you’ll find in any sales 101 manual. So, it is very hard for him to ask himself provocative questions like: how can I make my sales approach more memorable? What is the shortest path to the client? What would be surprising?

Provocative questions like these will take to you to different places, where you can start from a different point of view. But, as I said yesterday, going from questions to action is where the rubber meets the road.

With that said, take a recent idea that came out of a workshop I recently did. This B2B team wanted to find a way to market themselves differently than expected. It wasn’t difficult to arrive at an insight, all I did was ask a question I use all the time: what if instead of selling yourselves, you invite prospects to join you? How would you invite them? What does that look like? What would the invite look like?

This group came back with a very creative idea that didn’t look or work like your typical marketing collateral. It was something anyone of us can make with our own hands, and it cost less than $10 USD to make.

This team didn’t say goodbye to old habits, they simply changed how they did a routine. In the mind of others, sometimes that is all that it takes to change the perception of what you do.

Put yourself on the evolutionary advantage tread mill

Frequent feedback, trial and error, is key to driving better productivity and long term advantage. And, the reason your big and powerful company moves slower than startups, is because your feedback loop is very long and time consuming. Instead of breaking rules to find your next revolution, you’re focusing on optimizing what you already have. This where the balancing act between reducing errors and increasing insights comes in, because to innovate you have shed old skin to make room for the new.

So, if you are operating a company that is having a midlife crisis right now, remember that it is your job to find the revolution before it finds you. This, of course, is easier said than done. But it can be done, and must be done if you want to avoid becoming another Kodak.

Bottom line: There are no shortcuts to innovation, it is messy, non-linear and requires relentless focus to push through. But, you can accelerate your way to insights by shortening the feedback loop through relentless outside-your-core experimentation.

Remember, great ideas are not solitary things. Feedback from other people, customers or prospects is the best catalyst for innovation.

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