How to turn on the innovation light bulb


Expect 80-90% of innovation to fail

This is the goal that VCs target. Building new things is inherently risky. Expecting every idea to succeed is a recipe for failure. The key is to fail fast.

You need a team that has a range of resources

This includes at least 1 product, 1 UX and 1 developer. It’s easy to get tunnel vision. Many developers have a bias toward perfection, which is the enemy of success. It’s also common for developers to focus on current feasibility. Product and UX folks often don’t know what features will make things unimplementable or really really hard to implement. The team should be a three-legged stool. The best teams will have people with overlapping areas of expertise.

Your resources need to be dedicated

They need to be free of all other responsibilities so they can work together on innovation. A dotted-line relationship or having a matrixed organization will fail. Having to borrow resources from UX or product organization will mean that you will likely not have any resources. These people should report to the head of R&D.

Innovation often needs biz dev

Much successful innovation includes reaching out to partners, including hardware vendors, software vendors, content providers, etc. An innovation team has to be able to have those conversations (without setting an expectation that it will lead to something).

This person needs to be empowered to have these conversations without seeking approval from head of bizdev and a 6-month cycle to negotiate a contract. At this stage, you should be able to get by with an NDA.

Understand human behavior

Successful products are as much (if not more) about understanding human psychology than the details of technology, CX, agile, etc. UX and product especially should understand things like behavioral economics. They should also understand that competition is not narrowly defined. E.g. for a social network, the competition is not just Twitter or Facebook. The competition is every possible thing that people could do with their time, whether it is listening to music, watching TV or going to a movie.

Not everyone can innovate – nor wants to

A lot of innovative people (and their managers) believe that an “innovation team” is unfair because everyone wants to innovate. That’s unrealistic. There are plenty of people who are happy changing conversion from 77% to 77.1%. They want predefined tools that they can use on a consistent basis. They are happy to check out at 5, with no work to think about. You need people with a start-up mentality.

Intellectual curiosity is a must

To truly innovate, you need people who have a wide range of interests. These interests can expose them to a lot of different people, a lot of different ideas and how other things work. That combination can spark inspiration.

Don’t spend too much time on focus groups and user surveys

Most people cannot easily understand new concepts. If you’re Proctor & Gamble and want to test Tide w/rose scent, by all means. It’s very easy for people to understand what they are getting. People don’t understand complex products like Facebook until they actually use them and see the dynamics.

Try ethnographic research

A great way to understand use problems is to spend time with them and watch their behaviors. People often have a hard time expressing their needs; good innovators can discover these unexpressed needs by watching.

Failure can have successful byproducts

Success is not binary. Often when you’re trying to innovate you can discover new things. This can be new use cases that you hadn’t thought of. The Post It note was developed by someone failing to build a strong adhesive at 3M. See more examples here

More recently, Slack (a multibillion dollar company) was originally designed to be a gaming company.

Noticing these “failures” and figuring out how to pivot from them is an uncommon skill. Only the very best product people can do this.


About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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