Back to Gartner for Marketers Blog

Two Simple Ways to Get Smarter About Innovation

By Jake Sorofman | February 10, 2015 | 0 Comments

While expert opinion may be divided on whether the rate of failure for new tech ventures has in fact declined, I’ve seen far fewer sock puppets skulking around in the wild these days.

You remember the sock puppet: that charismatic mascot of Pets.com; that doomed effigy of irrational exuberance? Back in the days of Webvan. It makes you wonder: where have all the bad ideas gone?

This somewhat random thought came up in conversation with some Gartner colleagues yesterday, apropos of perhaps nothing other than the flu I was nursing.

But look around and you’ll probably agree: despite relatively frothy capital markets these days, there are what seems to be appreciably fewer truly wacky, assertively wrongheaded ideas floating around.*

It was a fleeting observation that I mostly attributed to feverishness, but then I had a more lucid thought:

Maybe we’re getting better at solving the problems that actually matter. Maybe we’re getting smarter.

It’s perhaps a plausible theory when you consider how much more disciplined the average company has become in its innovation and incubation of ideas. In particular, two approaches come to mind:

Iterative innovation

As a software development methodology, Agile has been part of mainstream thinking and practice for quite a while. But it wasn’t until Steve Blank and Eric Reis instigated and then popularized the Lean Startup movement that its first-order application to business strategy became abundantly clear. The idea was to start as small as possible, but no smaller, focusing on a minimum viable product (MVP) as both an initial installment of customer value and a market probe for stimulating feedback. The simple genius in this Agile-inspired concept is that it forces a discipline that most startups require—the need to earn the right to invest only as proof points and knowledge accrues. Iterate through the uncertainty until—eureka!—you’ve built something that customers can’t live without. Only then have you earned the right to scale.

Design thinking

This user-centered approach to problem solving institutes intense periods of design collaboration, something that design-types once called “charrettes.” During these periods, interdisciplinary teams work together to lock in on the highest value problems and to push the boundaries of ordinary ideation. They exercise all options, ideating through the universe of possibilities and focusing on the creative process itself. It may sound subtle, but it’s substantially different from other forms of product design which too often begin, dogmatically, with explicit customer requirements and move directly into wireframes, prototypes and validation. These traditional approaches shortchange the creative process, often leaving the best solutions trapped in the team’s collective imagination.

There’s nothing fundamentally new about either of these disciplines. What’s new is that they’re now part of mainstream thinking.

Increasingly, the emphasis is on solving problems that matter and designing simple solutions that simply work. In a sense, it has taken some of the excitement out of innovation because, on the surface, it yields something that feels perhaps a bit more obvious, a bit less revolutionary in nature. Often, the best solutions appear obvious.

It reminds me of the craft movement that’s taken hold in practically every urban hipster haven on the planet. Here, it’s not about fundamentally new ideas; it’s often about old ideas, done better. It’s about applying a certain thoughtfulness and integrity to maximizing the intrinsic potential of the end product.

It all starts with the identification of problems that are worth solving—and then applying a craft-like appreciation to solving these problems with an abiding appreciation and respect for the customer.

Sometimes it’s the simple things that make us smarter.

(*) Please accept this statement as directional only. Hold fire on what are surely legitimate exceptions. You’re right: bad ideas abound, if you only look closely enough.

Comments are closed