With the Winter Olympics in full swing in Sochi and snow and cold gripping my hometown of Pittsburgh for what seems like an eternity, snow is on our minds.
Even though it might seem difficult to grasp the concept right now, there are times when you need more snow. The New York Times Video section has a cool explanation video on the process.
A few years back I wrote a post called ‘What is Innovation?’ and tried to put a definition around the word.
But, hanging a definition onto something that has become such a buzzword is difficult. By definition, any word or phrase that occurs in so many corporate mission statements starts to lose its original meaning.
The definition has expanded. Or, contracted. Or, diffused. Now we feel a responsibility to define what kind of innovation we are discussion at any given time. Is this incremental innovation? Is it breakthrough innovation? Is it market innovation? Is it product innovation? We are obliged define what we mean by each of those terms.
Maybe it is safer to avoid the term all together. In the space of product and service development, what are we really talking about?
Duncan Watts at the MIT Technology Review, recently posted an article called ‘The Scientific Method in Business.’
He argues that business is frequently run on existing data or on the instincts of its leaders, both of which have drawbacks.
Replicating the conditions of a controlled experiment is often difficult or impossible in business or policy settings, but increasingly it is being done in “field experiments,” where treatments are randomly assigned to different individuals or communities. For example, MIT’s Poverty Action Lab has conducted over 400 field experiments to better understand aid delivery, while economists have used such experiments to measure the impact of online advertising.
One application he does not mention is in the development of products and services.
The approach designers take to their work has a lot of the scientific method in it. A designer might not tell that they go about creating a hypothesis and testing that hypothesis against other conditions, controlling for all variables except the one in which you are interested. They do, however, conduct a great many experiments.
We do gather understanding about a space. We also build a set of rules or an understanding of that space. Then we start to make guesses about what would happen if we introduced something new to that space.
We build prototypes and test them. We make models and put them in people’s hands. We walk through a process or a job in a new way to see how it turns out. Then, we act on what we learn—frequently by creating new models and trying again.
Learn. Conceive. Create. Test. Go back to step one.
This is the same king of thinking Eric Reis argues for in the Lean Startup.
As Duncan Watts points out, many other kinds of business decisions do not allow the luxury of that kind of experimentation.
Maybe that is why some companies avoid it in product development as well.
Over at Flip the Media, Cynthia Andrews has a story on Josh Coulson, a data-based story teller at LinkedIn.
His focus is on the interface between big data and stories. Companies are already using our activity on the web to send us targeted marketing. He thinks we’re just getting started:
“The internet of things will bring about a whole new level of data that will enable companies to offer new products and services to each consumer based on their needs. We will continue to tell stories driving the level of intelligence in common decision-making further.”
So our stuff will know our habits and needs and we will get marketing messages that are tailored accordingly. Not sure if I want my toaster sending me adds about whole grain bread.
Still, that worries me less than messages from my toilet.
Many people talk about the power of story in leadership. Steve Denning has written several books on the topic. A leader with a good story can take country to new heights or horrible destruction.
If that leader can articulate a great vision of a better future, then people will follow willingly.
That vision, that story, are what allow people to push through long hours, discomfort, uncertainty—because they know that there is something better on the other side.
Leaders in successful companies understand this.