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Innovation in its Most Elemental Form

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Created on September 27, 2012

What’s Level 1A? At Level 1, there is a single innovative idea. It improves or expands the existing business and measuring its success is no different from measuring the performance of the existing business. Also, there is no need to hire new kinds of experts or to substantially change job descriptions or core business process. At Level 1A, innovations can be implemented in a short time period — at most, a few months.

Innovation Principles: The most fundamental innovation discipline is one of learning quickly from experiments. That is easiest when feedback is rapid and the innovation makes only limited departures from the existing business. The most prepared innovators identify the specific performance measures that are likely to be affected by the innovation, understand how those changes will impact profitability, and are ready to react quickly should the experiment produce disappointing results.

The discipline of innovation is first and foremost a discipline of experimentation. Innovation projects have uncertain outcomes. Many managers, by training, abhor uncertainty. They endeavor to eliminate as much of it as possible. The more accurate the forecasts, the better the decision-making, the thinking goes.

While innovators should, of course, resolve as many uncertainties as possible before taking the plunge, uncertainties inevitably remain. What do sophisticated innovators do in the face of uncertainty? They identify the uncertainties as clearly and specifically as possible, and they set out to resolve those uncertainties by running experiments, measuring outcomes, and analyzing.

The core discipline of innovation is a discipline of experimentation. To be only slightly more specific, it is a discipline of learning quickly from experiments. Some learning environments are more challenging than others. Under ideal conditions — when experiments depart from the familiar only in a small number of readily identifiable ways and performance feedback is rapid — learning is practically second-nature.

In such innovation endeavors, the most dangerous pitfall is overconfidence. When innovation leaders presume success, they have no motivation to identify uncertainties, and they overlook relevant new information, even critical information that might otherwise lead to quick discontinuation of a project that is on a path to failure.

Innovation is uncertain, and thus innovation invites failure. The best failures are those that innovation leaders recognize swiftly, learn from, and move on from before sinking even one dollar more in the innovation project than is strictly necessary. Thus, a core innovation virtue is humility.

Download The Sophisticated Innovator authored by Chris Trimble, Dartmouth College - Hanover, New Hampshire.

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