What’s the worst possible nightmare you could have as an innovator? It’s launching a product or service nobody wants, making it an instant failure. The sooner you know your new innovation is attractive and be able show it the better. That’s why you should experiment at the start of innovation. Don’t wait until the delivery phase.

As you keep discussing your idea with others, it tends to evolve in your mind continuously. It’s important that your innovative idea and business model be concrete so your fellow innovators or even more importantly potential customers know what you mean.

That’s why it’s an important step to convert an abstract idea into a concrete offering. It helps you to materialize your idea for yourself and others. And it is a great way to test and improve your concept.

Experimenting means validating the adoption and attractiveness of your new product, service, process or experience through systematic research or testing. 

You test your new concept to learn if it really delivers value to your customer and if the business model you came up with is valid. By doing so, you validate the future business potential of your new concept.

The goal of experimentation at the start of innovation is simply to learn and improve. I couldn’t agree more with Davila & Epstein who state in their book The Innovation Paradox that: “Because breakthrough innovation is all about managing ignorance (rather than managing knowledge, as in incremental innovation), the way to learn is through confronting assumptions concerning a market with the reality of that market.

The right technology and the right business model are discovered and shaped through smart experiments. A successful breakthrough innovation is not simply an ingenious idea, but an entire process of discovery and crafting.”[i]

“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.- Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn”

An important potential pitfall in this stage of innovation, might be your own perfectionism. It might be your own tendency to endlessly add new features and content to your concept, especially when you know that it will be judged by customers.

By going about it this way though, you will be stuck in your innovation lab forever and your concept will never see the light of day. You know by now that a short time-to-market is more important than ever before. So, be sure to experiment with your concept in its early stages.

Be inspired by Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, who said: “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.

ONSET Ventures, a pioneer among accelerators to help early-stage startups, tried to identify which criteria were important to success by gathering information on 300 early-stage investments that had been funded by existing Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

According to their research they found that the best predictor of failure was stubbornly sticking to the original business plan. The business models of successful startups, in contrast, nearly always underwent at least one major revision (and countless minor tweaks) before they were stabilized. This insight underpins that innovation is ‘learning by doing’ and stresses the need for experimentation.

Inventors, startups and big corporations all experiment

Did you know that the inventor James Dyson had made 5,127 prototypes of his famous Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner before settling on the model that would make him a billionaire? I for one was surprised to learn this. It’s surely an amazing example of the perseverance of a true innovator.

James Dyson had made 5,127 prototypes of his famous Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner

All that matters at the start of innovation is creating the right concept. This is emphasized in a quote by Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky: “Create the perfect experience however you need to do it, and then scale that experience. Every company that makes something is just two things.

It’s creating an experience. And then it’s multiplying them. We care about just two things: How great that one experience is and how many we make. Too many people start in technology with ‘how many you sell’ and then they try to make it better. A lot of movements start with a small set of evangelists.”

Inventors or startups aren’t the only ones who are experimenting. Big organizations, like the Mayo Clinic in the US are also checking if they are on the right track in an early phase by doing something they call prototyping.

The Mayo Clinic is a non-profit medical practice and medical research group based in Minnesota, USA. It is the first and largest integrated non-profit medical group practice in the world, employing more than 3,800 physicians and scientists and nearly 51,000 allied health staff.

The Mayo Clinic is known for its innovation facilitated by their Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, where experimentation plays a huge role: “We rely a lot on prototyping, and we believe we do prototyping well. Our prototypes are complete and realistic, yet fast to arise and fast to give us ‘proof of concept’.

We’re not afraid to do a prototype a little ‘rough’ to get it out there and see how it works. We get real patients, real physicians, real staff, real facilities, and real systems involved in prototypes as quickly as possible, and we don’t shy away from adjusting or tweaking the prototypes once they’re set up. Our prototypes not only prove concepts, but they also become vehicles around which to collaborate and for demonstrating our programs.”

Experiment with pretotypes instead of prototypes.

The outcome of an experiment is a decision based on the feedback to persevere with your new concept or to pivot it into something else. The ultimate deliverable of an experiment or several ones, is a solid ‘proof of concept’: a verification of the potential of your new concept. It serves as a solid base to build your new business case on.

The more realistic your experiment is, the more you will learn and the better you can assess the validity and attractiveness of your new concept. A real-life experiment with a working prototype, like the Google Glass Experiment, would be the perfect building block for a convincing well-founded new business case.

Unfortunately, at the start of innovation you sometimes lack the technology itself or you lack both the time and money to develop one. It might take you months or even years to develop a working prototype. In most cases you will need a new business case to raise the R&D budget from investors or your board to develop the technology.

So, it’s time to improvise and be smart. I am very charmed by the work of Alberto Savoia, who led the development and launch of the original Google AdWords as well as coined the term: prototypes, a testing concept in which you pretend you have a real prototype. Savoia defines prototyping as, “a way to test an idea quickly and inexpensively by creating extremely simplified, mocked or virtual versions of that product to help validate the premise that ‘If we build it, they will use it.’” Prototypes are what the Mayo Clinic innovators call “rough prototypes to get it out there and see how it works.”

My favorite definition of Savoia’s pretotyping is:

Make sure – as quickly and as cheaply as you can – that you are building the right it before you build it right.

It’s a great motto for the Experimenting phase at the start of innovation, as pretotyping focuses on answering one very basic question: Is this the right thing to build?

Note : This article was originally posted on LinkedIN

Gijs van Wulfen

Gijs van Wulfen is a recognised authority and keynote speaker on innovation and Design Thinking. He was chosen as one of the first LinkedIn Influencers and as of 2017, 300.000 people across the globe are following his notably engaging, prolific and insightful posts. In 2016 Gijs came number 2 in the international Top 40 Innovation Bloggers. In 2017 his book ‘The Innovation Maze’ was elected ‘Management Book of the Year’.



Shenzhen Blog Editor