In our chapter on Evolutionary Innovation, Chandra Brown of United Streetcar and Oregon Iron Works says, “I often get asked if I have a crystal ball. Why did you think that Streetcars would be an emerging market? Why would you look at wave energy? How do you know what is the next big thing? It’s an incredibly difficult question to answer because there is no formula or specific science. I am a big believer in taking in great amounts of data, so I read a ton, books—fiction and non-fiction, lots of different papers, trade magazines, everything. I serve on six or seven non- profit boards including some for the State of Oregon. I travel a lot. I like to see what other countries are doing, how they do it – this is incredibly beneficial. Finding the next big thing is really about synthesizing a lot of different data input. I know what my company’s skills and strengths are and so it’s about making that leap in how to apply them to the next thing coming along. A lot of the battle is to actually be aware that you need to continually be changing and improving. You have to have an embracing attitude for new things to pop. And once people know you are open to ideas, they will begin to bring them to you more often.”
Chandra has built a reputation – a “word on the street” – that she will listen to any idea, and that she is willing to invest in prototyping good ideas to see if they are workable. This reputation works to ensure that Chandra hears a whole lot more ideas than the average business leader – dramatically increasing the odds that she will be the first to hear the next great idea!
In their book, Why Not?, Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres tell us that it is precisely this way of approaching every idea and problem that fosters innovation and improvements in an organization. The problem is that many “why-nots” are counterintuitive and that’s why we don’t think of them. We have train ourselves to habitually ask why not?, but the great news is that once this mind-set is activated, it’s hard to turn off.
And once you ask the question, and have the idea, the next step is to prototype it – test it! In his book The Ten Faces of Innovation, Tom Kelly explains that the most innovative organizations are those that have a strong culture for “rapid prototyping”. They are always ready to create an inexpensive, simple prototype that helps bring the idea to life so that it can be better understood, tested, and subjected to experimentation.
This is exactly the kind of “how hard can it be?” thinking that Evolutionaries are famous for. Evolutionaries are natural idea generators, idea cultivators, and always ready to prototype something! Up until now, I assumed this was a pure strength for Evolutionaries. But this week as I was absent-mindedly flipping through the pages of the latest Harvard Business Review an article caught my eye: “Early Prototypes Can Hurt a Team’s Creativity” by Paul M. Leonardi, Chair of Design at Northwestern University. What? Do explain!
Actually the article warns against making prototypes that are too polished, too detailed, or too specific. Studies in the automobile industry showed that when prototypes became too detailed or “true to life” teams lost focus on the problem or pain point the idea was created to solve and instead focused on the details, the design, and perceived problems with the product, quickly degenerating into arguments that impeded progress. The key is to keep prototypes crude to preserve the necessary ambiguity early on that serves to drive innovative thinking and creative design.
So to all the Evolutionaries out there – keep on prototyping! And don’t worry if they are rough around the edges, because that’s just what’s needed to keep the creative juices flowing and fulfill your innovative potential.