The other night I read the story of the Wright brothers to my son. It is a fascinating story that highlights how important experimentation is to the success of innovation.
The Wright brothers, Orville (August
19, 1871 – January 30, 1948) and Wilbur (April 16, 1867 – May 30,
1912), were two American brothers, inventors, and aviation pioneers
who were credited with inventing and building the world's first
successful airplane and making the first controlled, powered
and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, on December 17, 1903.
From 1905 to 1907, the brothers developed their flying machine into the
first practical fixed-wing aircraft. Although not
the first to build and fly experimental aircraft, the Wright
brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing
powered flight possible. From 1900 until their first powered
flights in late 1903, they conducted extensive glider tests that
also developed their skills as pilots. Their bicycle shop employee
Charlie Taylor became an important part of the team,
building their first aircraft engine in close collaboration with the brothers.
Trial and error
Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, did not build the networking site into a $1-billion valued company in
one day. He developed his skills and tested ideas while launching and experimenting at SocialNet and PayPal.
Kevin Systrom, founder of Instagram developed his skills, experimented ideas
while working at Google, Odeo, Twitter and Facebook, before launching
venture. “The most pivotal moment for us was when we decided to stop
working on Burbn (the mobile HTML5 checkin app) and start work on what
would become Instagram”, confessed Kevin.
Going back to my son, he rode his bike for the first time last
spring. He worked really hard to learn how to ride. Did he work out the
theory of how to do it, jump on the bike, and start riding
flawlessly? Did he follow my advice on what to do and what not to
do? No. He started with training wheels and worked it out through trial
and error, with determination, repetition while
focusing on the end goal.
Experimenting is a critical innovation skill. None of us think twice about learning to ride a bike through trial and error, so why is it so rare in business?
There are two main reasons. One is risk and failure aversion. In a work or
school setting, our brains are formatted to learn theory and what the outcome should be instead of experimenting through trial and error.
like to make mistakes, and they don’t like to look foolish, whether
it is an adult or a child. Trial-and-error can cause both of these
things to happen when things don’t work out as expected. The
second reason is that our organizational cultures are often not designed to experimenting. In larger organizations, we are often trying to improve efficiency. Doing this means
that we must reduce variation and risk. But innovation and experimentation increase variation. There is a tension between efficiency and innovation.
However, the benefits of experimenting outweigh
these issues. The problem that experimenting solves is this: it’s
nearly impossible to
know in advance which ideas will work and which won’t. If we
experiment, instead of guessing which ideas will work, we can test them.
This helps us get better making decisions based on
At a Centric event last year, John Evans from Allegion
explained how his company is able to kill or shelf innovation if first
results are not
encouraging. It is important to encourage, allow space and time for
experimentation, and coach employees that potential failures are just a
way to learn how to better products. Failures are just
a part in the innovation process, not a discouraging and
painful end. When first results are not looking positive, John Evans’s
team will either merely kill the project, or shelf it for
future opportunities and experiments. Allegion employees understand
that some experiments may not prove to be successful, but it is not the
end, just a step (back) in the innovation
In the experimentation process, budget and time should not be a
concern. As soon as we put barriers (budget constraints, time
constraints, failure aversion), we kill the intent to create,
innovate. Creativity and innovation only thrive when there is no
boundaries, no aversion of failure, wasting time or money.
When the Ford factory in Detroit made a 3D printer available to its
employees, it never imagined that the number of new patents registered
would jump by 30 percent the first year! One Ford
employee, for example, designed and produced a defogging valve
prototype. If he had not been able to test his idea easily, he would
have probably given up before it could take shape and be
developed. Providing experimentation tools thus makes it possible to
release great innovation potential, invaluable in times of crisis. The
material and technical obstacles to experimentation are
being lifted. Many tools are free or can be pooled, relieving the
need to request additional budget. It is no longer necessary to engage
experts, because prototyping tools can often be utilized
intuitively. When technical skills are needed, the existence of
dedicated communities makes it possible to receive immediate assistance.
Technically, just about anyone can thus develop his or her
own prototypes. On the other hand, intangible obstacles persist.
Providing tools for experimentation is not enough to change the company
culture. Many teams never or only belatedly consider
developing even rough prototypes. So how can one capitalize on these
new opportunities and make experimentation an everyday practice?
The key is to enlighten innovation through experimentation
Eric Ries promotes a core method for experimentation. Although the Lean Startup method is essentially built for tech start-up companies, it can
be applied and customized to any type of business.
Here is a method you can apply:
Ideation: form a team of various skills, expertise. Collide ideas and define what need the product or service might fill. Focus on the
opportunities, not the obstacles.
Build: anything can be prototyped (product, service, customer/user experience, business model…).
Test: test not only the practicality of the prototype, but validate on a small market or through trials.
Measurement: gather qualitative and quantitative data, user insight, and figure out what works and what does not work.
Learn: from the
data and insight collected, apply what you’ve learned, either to make
adjustment (go back to build) or to launch. After the
launch, we have to accept that we may not have made the perfect
product or service right away, but that it is a opportunity to improve
it and perfect it along the way, by taking consumer feedback
and consumer insights.
If you’re a change agent in your organization, encourage your team
to do this as well. As people get better at, things will start to
improve. And you’ll start to build a culture of
It’s like learning to ride a bike.