Ultimately, the only thing that really matters in innovation is getting things done. Following on from my earlier post, What is innovation?, an idea is never enough, and believing it is will only guarantee the world never sees it. A big part of the problem is how we are taught to think and act.
It being the end of the term, and the last weeks of fall, I’ve had a burst of presentations from entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs. Some really strong ideas were presented, and some not so strong. The most common factor holding (almost) all these entrepreneurs back lay in their approach. Reflecting on why, I’d have to say that it’s our education system that undermines the entrepreneurial leap.
From our first days of schooling, we’re given one shot at things. We study, and then we take the test. We research and write the essay, then we hand it in. We think, then we do. Then we get judged on how well we thought and did. To get better at anything, we need to get better at thinking, then get better at doing. And if we’re lucky, we’ll get the jobs that require thinking, and have someone else do the doing for us.
Our educational system breeds this one-shot mentality, and corporate america, by separating and celebrating knowledge workers, has taken this process one step further. But it’s the worst possible way to approach innovation (let alone the rest of our lives). Its message:
you need to get everything right before launching a new venture—maybe even before talking about it to your boss, to potential co-founders, or investors.
General Motors used to be famous for avoiding building prototypes until the entire car was designed. Their reasoning? Prototyping was expensive and they wanted to get the designs set before they paid for any. Of course there were mistakes, they just surfaced when it was too late to fix them cheaply (if at all). That was one reason why they spent twice the time as Toyota in designing cars—sometimes four years compared to two—and getting them to the market.
In reality, innovation doesn’t come from getting your thinking right and then executing on it. That may work for more traditional and well-understood tasks, but when you’re trying something that has never been done before it’s a recipe for inaction at best, and catastrophic failure at worst.
Innovation comes instead from the number of times you can get through the cycle effectively. That means having your idea, acting on it, learning from those actions, refining your idea, and acting on it again. How many ways can you test your idea, improve on it, and test it again?
As Edison said, “The real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowded into 24 hours.” The challenge for anyone looking at making the entrepreneurial leap is to get from your first idea to the next revision of it (and then the next) as quickly and painlessly as possible.
That’s not just setting the right milestones—it’s about how you spend your days and nights, who you hire, what gives you energy, and what makes others want to work with you.
There is nothing more energizing than, for example, when one proto-entrepreneur describes to me, not what she’s going to do, but what she’s already been doing. When she told me about what her conversations with customers have taught her; how her prototype worked, or didn’t; what terms her suppliers quoted her. And, as importantly, how each of these experiences has informed her evolving vision and plan. And she did all this long before deciding whether to make the leap.
This is the Think/Do Cycle. It’s focus is not on a single great Revolution, but rather on the number of revolutions through the cycle as you can manage.
The objective of the entrepreneurial process (and the focus of these posts) should be RPMs—revolutions per month. How many times can you move between thinking about your ideas, taking in information and making choices, and acting on those ideas, putting them to the test in one form or another. Express, test, cycle. Lather, rinse, repeat.
When you see someone who lives that cycle, bet on her.