The Innovator’s Toolbox

The Innovator's Toolbox

Seven Tips for Developing Experimenting Skills

Innovators engage in three types of experimenting to generate data and spark new insights: trying out new experiences, taking things apart, and testing ideas by creating prototypes and pilots. Although questioning, observing, and networking are excellent for providing data about the past and present, experimenting is the best technique for generating data on what might work in the future. In other words, it’s the best way to answer what-if questions. Innovators also understand that by asking salient questions, observing salient situations, and talking to the right people, you will likely need to run fewer experiments. This reduces the cost and time associated with experimenting. Finally, innovators understand—and accept—that the majority of their experiments will not turn out as planned (and indeed may turn out to be a colossal waste of time), but they know that experimenting is often the only way to generate the data required to ultimately achieve success

Tips for Developing Experimenting Skills

To strengthen your experimenting skills, you will need to consciously approach your work and life with a hypothesis-testing mind-set. We recommend the following activities to practice and strengthen your experimenting skills.

Tip #1: Cross physical borders

Visit (or even better, live in) a new country or some other new environment, such as a different functional area within your company or a new company in a different industry. Acquire a passport mind-set to break free of common routines. Explore the world by engaging in new activities. Join new social or professional activities beyond your normal sphere, attend a lecture by someone whose work you’re unfamiliar with, or visit an unusual museum exhibit. When you try out these new activities, ask yourself questions to help produce new insights from the experience, such as: “If my work team were here, what could we learn from this experience that would lead us to do something new? If I were going to replicate one thing (product, process, and so on) from this environment in my everyday environment, what would it be?” Work to cross one border at least once every month.

Tip #2: Cross intellectual borders

Take out a new annual subscription to a newspaper, newsletter, or magazine from an entirely different context (or to help save trees, intentionally and regularly search the Web for country, industry, or profession information about areas distant from your own). If you live in the United States or France, consider reading a publication from China, India, Russia, or Brazil. If you work in the oil and gas industry, read a publication from the hospitality industry. If you are trained in marketing, read a publication related to engineering or operations.

Tip #3: Develop a new skill

To gain new perspectives, create a plan to develop some new skills or acquire new knowledge. Look for opportunities in your community to take classes in acting or photography, or get some basic training in mechanics, electronics, or home building. Try out new physical activities like yoga, gymnastics, snowboarding, scuba diving, or even sky diving (if you are brave enough). Check out the menu of courses at your local university and sign up for classes that sound interesting to you, ranging from history to chemistry to calligraphy. Or closer to home, identify another function in your company, whether it be marketing, operations, or finance, and see if you can learn how that function works in your company.

Tip #4: Disassemble a product

Look through your house for something that no longer works, or go to a junkyard or flea market to buy a few things that you can easily take apart. (This is especially fun to do with your kids.) Search for something that you’ve always been interested in but have never taken the time to explore. Set aside a block of time to take the objects apart piece by piece and search for new insights into how they were designed, engineered, and produced. Draw or write about your observations in a journal or notebook.

Tip #5: Build prototypes

Identify something that you would like to improve. What would it look like if you changed it? Build a prototype of your new, improved invention from random materials in your house or office, or go on a shopping spree to obtain odd things that might work well in the prototype. Play-Doh (the children’s modeling clay) is a great medium for creating prototypes. If you are feeling adventurous and want to splurge, you may even want to buy a three-dimensional printer that produces objects on demand (according to your design).

Tip #6: Regularly pilot new ideas

Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, once recalled that, “most of what I learned as an entrepreneur was by trial and error.” Engage in frequent pilot tests (small-scale experiments) to try out new ideas and to see what you learn from doing something differently than you’ve done before. You, too, can become an experimenter when you embrace learning through trial and error, but you must have the courage to fail and learn from your failures. Make up your mind to plan and carry out a pilot test of an idea you have at work during the next month.

Tip #7: Go trend spotting

Actively seek to identify emerging trends by reading books, articles, magazines, Web links, blogs, and other sources that specifically focus on identifying new trends. Read material written by individuals you believe excel at identifying trends and seeing what’s next. Try reading the work of Kevin Kelly (executive editor of “Wired” and author of “New Rules for the New Economy”), Chris Anderson (editor-in-chief of “Wired” and author of “The Long Tail” and “Free”), or another author who is looking into the future. Then think about how these trends might lead to an interesting experiment with regard to a new product or service. Figure out a way to creatively conduct that experiment.

Join the global innovation community

Innovators DNA AuthorsReprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from THE INNOVATOR’S DNA: Mastering the five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. Copyright 2011 Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen. All rights reserved.

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