Experiment to Get Support for Your Innovative Ideas

Trying to do things differently or to do different things within an organization is hard. Being an innovator is not an easy job. Especially when you're innovating within a large organization (and you are not the boss), it is a long road. At the start of innovation, you need to inspire and to convince a lot of people that it's an attractive move for the company and has a high chance of success. When you present your idea, new business case or new technology to your management team or board you will often get reactions like: "No, we have done it always this way...", "No, our customers won't like that...", "No, let's be realistic", or "No, that's for the future...".

Here's a great story on "getting support for innovative ideas" from Intuit's founder and chairman of the executive committee Scott Cook. Intuit is an American financial and tax software company with $4 billion US in annual revenues.

Our head of global asked our teams in India to figure out how we can improve the financial lives of people. One team had the idea of focusing on farmers. They're half the population of India. We'd never done anything with farmers. Their bosses were uninterested. So the team went out, researched, spent time in the fields, time with the farmers, time in their homes, came up with a problem that they thought they could solve. These guys don't know where to take their goods when they harvest them. Do they take it to the town to the north? The south? The east? Which wholesaler will give them the best price? So our little team said, "Why don't we collect prices and send them on SMS so they get them on their phones?" Well the bosses had all the reasons it would not work. You know, farmers are often illiterate. Could they read it? Would they believe it? Would it change behavior? And would we even be able to get the price information from the wholesalers? Because of our culture of experimentation, the team didn't listen to the bosses. Instead they ran an experiment. In seven weeks they prototyped a product, went out and tried it. Two weeks later, they had proof it would work. One hundred and ten farmers, on average, reported 16 percent higher incomes. Twelve of the 14 wholesalers said they'd continue to give us data. Thirteen experiments later, we now have over 400,000 farmers who get price information on their phones in India. The bosses would have killed it. But because of experimentation - cheap experiments, that was an idea that could prove itself. This is a new kind of management., where instead of viewing the boss's role as the Caesar to make decisions, the boss's role is to put in a system whereby junior people can run fast and cheap experiments, so that the ideas can prove themselves.

The lesson learned from the Intuit story is that small experiments are a clever way to get support for your innovative ideas. Why? I guess there are three reasons for it:

  1. Ideas are still rather vague. Experiments are real-life: seeing it, is believing it.
  2. The voice of the customer is your best support for a new idea. Use their enthusiast responses to convince your boss.
  3. An experiment provides you with real-life-facts for a new business case and not some abstract projections, which are often too optimistic as we all know so well.

Now be sure that you pick the right moment for your innovation experiments. I like to quote the CEO of BMW AG, the German luxury car producer, Dr.-Ing. Norbert Reithofer. When asked why BMW started the risky E-car project with the BMW i-3 and i-8 he responded very honestly: "Because doing nothing was even a bigger risk." [Autoweek 41-2013]

So when you do have a revolutionary idea, be sure to pick the right moment to experiment. Just wait until doing nothing for your top management is a bigger risk.

--- The Intuit Story was first published in the book of Michael Schrage, The Innovator's Hypothesis, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2014, p. 57-58.

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