Discovery Skill #4: Experimenting – Leadership Network Blog
This is our fifth post in our series on innovation “discovery skills.” If you haven’t read the previous posts, catch up on them here:
- Introduction: 5 Discovery Skills of Innovators
- Discovery Skill #1 – Association
- Discovery Skill #2 – Questioning
- Discovery Skill #3 – Observing
As I mentioned in the last post, observation is critical to developing breakthrough ideas. But what you do afterwards is even more critical. A big part of moving ideas to implementation to impact is interacting with new insights through experimentation.
When we think of experiments, we think of scientists in lab coats or of great inventors like Thomas Edison. Like scientists, innovative entrepreneurs actively try out new ideas by creating prototypes and launching pilots. (As Edison said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve simply found 10,000 ways that do not work.”) The world is their laboratory. Unlike observers, who intensely watch the world, experimenters construct interactive experiences and try to provoke unorthodox responses to see what insights emerge.
Innovative entrepreneurs regularly engage in some form of ‘active experimentation,” whether it is intellectual exploration, physical tinkering, or engagement in new surroundings. As executives of innovative enterprises, they make experimentation central to everything they do. And this experimentation is ongoing, even after a working model has been developed. Consider one example from The Innovator’s DNA: well-known entrepreneur Jeff Bezos. Bezos’s online bookstore didn’t stay where it was after its initial success; it morphed into an online discount retailer, selling a full line of products from toys to TVs to home appliances. The electronic reader Kindle is an experiment that is now transforming Amazon from an online retailer to an innovative electronics manufacturer. Bezos sees experimentation as so critical to innovation that he has institutionalized it at Amazon. “I encourage our employees to go down blind alleys and experiment,” Bezos says. “If we can get processes decentralized so that we can do a lot of experiments without it being very costly, we’ll get a lot more innovation.”
Is Experimentation Worth the Risk?
To many leaders, experimentation seems too risky. To invest time, energy, and resources in multiple, often divergent prototypes and trial phases appears wasteful. But for every small experiment that fails, there are likely two or three large-scale roll outs that either come up short of their goals or never see the light of day because the idea wasn’t fully formed to begin with, or the “lens” they were looking through wasn’t sufficiently wide enough to bring about success.
Purposeful experimentation allows leaders the opportunity to gather data and broaden their fields of view. The best decisions and ideas don’t come from relying on our default orientations or perspectives, but through careful consideration of information and insights that don’t naturally come into focus. Embracing experimentation provides a path into the unknown that draws in emergent ideas and insights. Rejecting experimentation leads to decision-making that relies on incomplete narratives, which is riskier by far. As Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman said, “Be wary of constructing a story based only on what you see—you may not realize what you don’t know.”
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