Quick-Win Innovations

Point: Get quick wins by encouraging small experiments throughout the organization. They’re fast, inexpensive, and reduce the fear of failure.

Story: One of the biggest obstacles to innovation is fear of failure. Rarely do people want to bet their careers or companies on what might — or might not — be the next big thing.  But fear of failure becomes a self-imposed obstacle to success.

As Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos says, “Innovation is part and parcel with going down blind alleys. You can’t have one without the other. But every once in a while, you go down an alley and it opens up into this huge, broad avenue. And that’s so satisfying and, from a shareholder’s point of view, so successful, that it makes going down blind alleys worthwhile.”

The key twist isn’t to avoid failure but to avoid high costs from failure.  To reduce those costs, institute and encourage ongoing little experiments throughout your company.  For example, Google does this by testing more than 5000 software changes a year. Amazon does it by continuous A/B testing.  And CEO Scott Cook made experiments common practice at Intuit. In Cook’s experience, 89% of experiments don’t lead to a breakthrough or even to an improvement, but that doesn’t make them a “failure” — the experiments simply provide data on what doesn’t work.

These little bets cost little in terms of time and money. They don’t require weeks of planning; rather, they’re tweaks to an idea that can lead to eventual, substantive breakthroughs.  Ever hear of a company called Odeo? Most people haven’t, because Odeo was a small podcasting company of little distinction until its CEO, Evan Williams, gave employee Jack Dorsey two weeks to develop his idea of a short messaging system. That quick prototype developed into Twitter.

Action

  • Don’t use uncertainty of success as a filter — the more you don’t know about your chances, the more you can learn by trying.
  • Do consider how you might inexpensively look down a possible avenue to see where it leads.  You might use a A/B testing, co-innovation with a lead customer, or a quick minimum-viable prototype.
  • Test fast, test often, but pay attention to the results, especially if the unexpected happens.
  • Learn what you can from any failures — not just that the idea failed, but why it failed and what it says about your customers, your markets, or your business environment.
  • Use each test of a new avenue to scout for other avenues. Even a blind alley can have a side-passage that leads somewhere wondrous.

For more information:

Dave Gray, The Connected Company

Bloomberg BusinessWeek, “Jeff Bezos: ‘Blind-Alley’ Explorer.”

Peter Sims, Little Bets and “What are Little Bets?

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