Innovation Strategy

Six Principles for Making New Things by Paul Graham

The answer, I realized, is that my m.o. for all four has been the same. Here it is: I like to find (a) simple solutions (b) to overlooked problems (c) that actually need to be solved, and (d) deliver them as informally as possible, (e) starting with a very crude version 1, then (f) iterating rapidly.

Great advice. Similar to the evidence Clayton Christensen documents in the Innovators Solution on how to innovate successfully. New products and services often start out simple and limited and often are dismissed as unacceptable in various ways. But they solve a real problem and over time are improved and grow market share.

Experimenting quickly and often (iteration) is extremely important and given far to little focus. The PDSA improvement cycle provides a tool to encourage such thinking but still few organizations practice rapid iteration.

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When I first laid out these principles explicitly, I noticed something striking: this is practically a recipe for generating a contemptuous initial reaction. Though simple solutions are better, they don’t seem as impressive as complex ones. Overlooked problems are by definition problems that most people think don’t matter. Delivering solutions in an informal way means that instead of judging something by the way it’s presented, people have to actually understand it, which is more work. And starting with a crude version 1 means your initial effort is always small and incomplete.

He is right. Looking at the whole system there are many reasons for this. Simple solutions don’t seem deserving of big bonuses or great annual performance reviews (so why wouldn’t people focus on them if you company focuses on bonuses and performance reviews). Boring kaizen (to many people) isn’t as glamorous as firefighting critical threats to the company. Splashy launches that provide the suits an environment many of the executives are comfortable with seem more legitimate than soft launches. Etc. So without a commitment to starting simple and iterating the preference for glitz over grit is not surprising.

This innovation strategy doesn’t work for everything (I can’t envision how it fits developing a new class of plane for example) but for many circumstances this is a great model to use.

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