Innovation Is Not Mad Science, It’s Good Science

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One of the most common misconceptions about innovators is that they, like artists of popular imagination, reach their ideas through lightning-strike inspiration. Some people believe that radical innovators are dreamers or mad scientists–possibly because some quirky and eccentric thinkers perpetuate this myth, consciously or unconsciously. The classic trope is of the frustrated inventor who builds one strange gadget after another, but none of these seem to have any practical application. This is not innovation (commercialized invention), at best its experimentation, but if it isn’t driven by a need, if it doesn’t solve a problem, it’s actually pretty ineffective.

In analyzing years of research and thousands of case studies of market-proven innovations, however, we’ve found that successful radical innovators don’t fit that mold at all. The picture of an inspired genius, lost in thought and out of touch with immediate business needs, suddenly seized by a brilliant idea out of the blue, does a disservice to the truth about how innovators operate in the real world. Innovation is a very challenging and dynamic process, and people don’t stumble upon it accidently, even if the narrative they promote after the fact makes it seem that way.

Our research shows that radical innovators who succeed typically deploy a mature approach to ideation, apply data analysis in selecting which projects to pursue, do whatever it takes to bring on appropriate resources during development and treat commercialization as its own unique challenge.

We have isolated eight characteristics of radical innovators who can consistently deliver profitable and growth-driving projects. These individuals are:

  1. Are comfortable making decisions in the face of uncertainty
  2. Conduct experiments from clear hypotheses, rather than work from assumptions
  3. Engage internal and external teams for highly productive ideation sessions
  4. Break down silos to create cross-functional relationships
  5. Are purpose-driven and use a clear mission as a compass
  6. Remain open-minded to grow and share the pie with generosity
  7. Are eager to learn, unlearn and relearn on a continuous basis
  8. Take an anthropological approach to customers by not asking them but studying their actions

10 Innovator Personas

Successful innovation teams tend to have individuals that fulfill the following 10 personality types and functional roles (based on the work of IDEO and Tom Kelly):

Anthropologist – Rarely stationary but ventures into the field to observe first-hand how people interact with products, services and experiences. They bring a truly open mind, empathy, intuition and the ability to “see” things that have gone unnoticed.

The Experimenter – Celebrates the process, not the tool, testing and retesting potential scenarios to make ideas tangible. A calculated risk-taker, this person models everything from products to services to proposals in order to efficiently reach solutions.

The Cross-Pollinator – Draws associations and connections between seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts to break new ground. Characterized by open-mindedness, diligent note-taking, tendency to think in metaphors, and ability to reap inspiration from constraints.

The Hurdler- A tireless problem-solver who gets a charge out of tackling things that have never been done before. When confronted with a challenge, the hurdler gracefully sidesteps the obstacle while maintaining a quiet, positive determination.

The Collaborator – The rare person who truly values the team over the individual. In the interest of getting things done, the collaborator coaxes people out of their work silos to form multidisciplinary teams. More of a coach than a boss, who instills their team with the confidence and skills needed to complete the shared journey.

The Director – An acute understanding of the bigger picture, with a firm grasp on the pulse of their organization. Talented at setting the stage, targeting opportunities, bringing out the best in their players, and getting things done.

The Experience Architect – Relentlessly focuses on creating remarkable individual experiences. Facilitates positive encounters with their organization through products, services, digital interactions, spaces, or events. Turns something ordinary into something distinctive – even delightful – every chance they get.

The Set Designer – Looks at every day as a chance to liven up their workspace. They promote energetic, inspired cultures by creating work environments that celebrate the individual and stimulate creativity.

The Storyteller – Captures the imagination with compelling narratives of initiative, hard work and innovation. Goes beyond oral tradition to work in whatever medium best fits their skills and message: video, narrative, animation, even comic strips, to foster collaboration, create heroes, and lead people and organizations into the future.

The Caregiver – The caregiver is the foundation of human-powered innovation. Through empathy, they work to understand each individual customer and to create a relationship, providing a comfortable, human-centered experience.

Method Over Madness

It’s not inspired madness but the scientific method at the heart of radical innovations that succeed.

And yet, the mad scientist can serve as a cautionary tale. Companies can find themselves in a similar position without a framework to guide them. The ideation process is dynamic, exciting, and it’s easy to fall in love with an idea and pour a lot of resources into it before you even realize it isn’t viable. An entire team can get behind an idea that has no proven value, and waste incredible amounts of time and energy building something–many of these ideas have been funded and many have subsequently failed.

These failures are driven by human biases. Biases will always exist, but when we start cultivating innovation we want to eliminate preconceptions and assumptions and develop a data-driven hypothesis to test and develop. These hypotheses are at the heart of innovation management, allowing innovators to test, evaluate and then develop the best ideas into solid innovation projects.

A mix of different styles and approaches correlates to different innovation capabilities and supports the three innovation horizons, allowing organizations to recognize and assign the right talent to each project.

A science-based methodology driven by data and testing keeps innovation in the realm of the practical while pushing the bounds of the possible.

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