Forget About Being a Fast Follower

by Jeffrey Phillips

Become a Fast Discoverer with Experimentation

by Jeffrey Phillips

Forget About Being a Fast FollowerOne data point is interesting, two points define a line and three points are a trend. Today in my Twitter feed were several articles and stories about the interrelationship between innovation and experiments. When you see a trend, especially one that makes sense, it’s important to call it out, discuss it and unpack it.

In MIT’s Management Review, Michael Schrage is interviewed, primarily about his thinking on innovation and information technology, yet he ends up talking a lot about experimentation. Schrage points out that the cost of experimenting has fallen dramatically, yet few firms use rapid, low cost experimentation effectively, and lays the blame for that fact at the feet of our educational system, which cranks out MBAs who demand deep quantitative analysis. Schrage makes some other good points, especially about the cost of discovery. At one time it was expensive for P&G to film how consumers used Tide in their laundry. Now, they can simply ask moms and dads to send in video clips of their laundry practices. The consumers can, and will, do the work for the company. Here’s a low cost experiment. Send 50 consumers a video camera and a new product. Ask them in exchange for the use of the new product to record their use and experiences with the new product. Ethnography for free!

But I digress, since this was intended to be a post about experimentation. In the Financial Times there’s a blog post entitled Why Don’t We Experiment. In the post the article quotes Dan Ariely as noting there are two significant barriers for experimentation: short term costs for long term gains, which for some reason seems a difficult trade-off, and the value we place on the insight and expertise of experts over our own experimentation and testing. Far too frequently we choose to purchase answers from “experts” rather than simply trying and discovering ourselves.

Third, Michael Schrage (him again) interviews the head of Caesar’s casino about the importance of experimentation and how it should be conducted. At Caesar’s they expect any new idea to be incorporated as part of an experiment, but a rigorous experiment including a control group.

Experimentation is very intertwined with innovation. Both require a hypothesis – if we do X, then we will get benefit Y. Both require a lot of work for uncertain outcomes. Both require rigor and careful planning. And both are consistently avoided by turning to “experts” who provide an answer, which takes less time and exposes the executive to less risk. After all, if the idea fails and the expert supported it, it can’t be the executive’s fault!

Good innovators are good experimenters. The converse is also true. Firms that don’t innovate don’t experiment. They wait for others to create a market and exercise a “fast follower” mentality. Which would be a fine strategy, except that the vast majority of firms fashion themselves as fast followers, and few really are.

Why not reposition your firm as a “fast discoverer” using rapid, low cost experimentation. Then, you won’t have to pay experts, you will be the expert.

Required reading for Congress and Obama if they are serious about fostering innovation

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and