new formula for innovative cultureLooking back over the last few years, people across every industry and discipline have tried several methods to increase innovation. The executive leadership teams have told people to "speed up product development." They have told people to "fail fast." They have created formal innovation teams and processes. They have put a mix of processes, both formal and informal, for handoffs from the innovation departments to the enterprise at large. They have even gone so far as to set up separate campuses right next to college campuses with the notion that proximity to the youth culture will somehow infect the enterprise.

How Has That Been Working?

Has asking IT and Product teams to "Speed up product development" without providing any specific support to change their collective mindsets and working dynamics done anything to speed up innovation? Has being told to "Fail Fast!" while introducing even more boards and checkpoints to increase the feeling of certainty created more freedom inside the enterprise? Has creating a slew of formal innovation teams done anything besides unintentionally segregate people into creative innovators and robotic order takers? Have the semi-formal handoff processes from one department to another created high-trust relationships with high-speed decision making? Have any of these platitudes or actions unleashed our creativity? 

So what's going on here? Why has it been so hard to create a culture of innovation? Perhaps it's because we have been asking the wrong question to begin with. Perhaps we should not be seeking to create a "culture of innovation" at all. Maybe the right question is: "How do we create a culture of experimentation?"

A New Formula? Eureka!

One of the big struggles that I'll bet many design and technology professionals have experienced is that people have a hard time finding a way to contribute to a "culture of innovation." If the individual contributors immediately knew how to "innovate," would there be a need to try so hard to establish the culture in the first place? Conversely, it's pretty easy to know how to experiment. After all, experimenting is part of being human and from the moment we become the tiniest bit self aware, we do it all the time throughout our entire lives. 

Experimentation, unlike innovation, is immediately understandable:

  • Create a hypothesis
  • Create a series of incremental experiments to verify or disprove the hypothesis
  • Capture the data from the experiment
  • Repeat as necessary until insight around the original hypothesis arises
  • Publish your findings

Here's an easy way to think about the difference between the two:


Don't Look for Innovators, Look for Mad Scientists

A funny thing happens when you start examining the new formula. Not only does it become easier for individuals to contribute, it becomes easier for leaders to manage and grow the culture. While it may be hard to spot "an innovator," it's not that hard to spot a "mad scientist." Once your scientist has been spotted, it won't be that hard to pair them up with a patron to articulate small "leap of faith" hypotheses. The scientist and the patron can then expand these hypotheses with a plan for:

  • how to execute an experiment to provide insight into the hypothesis
  • a method for collecting data to provide insight into the hypothesis
  • a method for sharing data on the results with the larger enterprise community.

Once the results from the experiments have been collected and socialized, the path to business value will become more clear. Understanding this outcome is critical to making the new formula work. In order to overcome old fear-based reactions to new ideas, you must champion the idea that rather than looking at lack of certainty as barrier to experimentation, look at experimentation as a method to reveal a path to certainty.

New Method, New Role, New Understanding, New Mantra

When utilizing this method several new ideas and outcomes reveal themselves:

  1. New insight and understanding will be delivered from each and every experiment, making it easier to bring the most promising ideas to fully operationalized reality. In other words, "Targeted Innovation"!
  2. The role of leadership shifts from one of asking for certainty to one of making the process of experimentation easier and faster.
  3. Experiments don't have to validate hypothesis to be considered successful, they only have to yield insight. With this revelation, we can help the enterprise understand that value comes out of both the journey and the destination.
  4. Risk is not in the experiments you do. Risk is in the ones you choose not to do. Make sure that people don't take "lack of a patron" to mean "you cannot proceed with an experiment."

All of these ideas and concepts lead up to a new mantra:

  • Think Big -- Think of big ideas and shifts that would fundamentally change your marketplace and the dynamics underlying the service or product your team offers
  • Start Small -- Develop ridiculously small ways to test the core hypothesis in your big idea
  • Be Quick -- Keep the process to kick off an experiment lean. Articulate the hypothesis, the data points, and your experimentation plan; then run!
  • Don't Rush -- Don't cut corners. Capture your data and share it with the movers and shakers of your enterprise. Getting alignment and consensus on your results can be the most critical part of the process.
  • Have Fun -- Officially putting fun back into the workplace is long overdue. Work doesn't have to be a chore. Dan Pink showed us all the way in Drive. Now it's up to the rest of us to develop experiments that prove the hypothesis true.


Title image courtesy of file404 (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Want more of Stephen's thoughts? Read Leadership How to: Applying the Lesson of Autonomy