Innovation as a Laboratory Experiment


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.

Our Stuff Will Tell Us Stories

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.

The Story 15: People Matter: Innovation Teams Pt 1

Having smart people on your team is not enough.  Having the right people in the right roles makes a difference.

This podcast focuses on some common mistakes companies make when they put people onto an innovation team.  Just throwing the best brains at a problem is not the best way to get a great solution.

We would love to get your feedback in the comments or at

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Getting Quick and Dirty with Prototyping

Prototyping has a lot of uses.  Sometimes we use it to show the look and feel of a completed product, before it is actually in production.  Other times we are trying to prove a concept works.  Or, it might be a way to make a potential product seem more real to potential investors.

Mostly, we use prototyping as a learning tool.  We build things to see how users might react.  The goal is to test a concept, or an idea an interaction and move quickly to refine it, change it or scrap it.

Because we move quickly, we avoid worrying about if a technology actually works.  We usually fake any technology we can.  A screen is a piece of paper, with content printed or drawn on it.  We talk through a script of what is actually happening and pretend everything works.

Continue reading

The Story 13: Opportunities

How do you find opportunities?

Many companies start with what they are good at or their current product line and look for people they think might want what they have.

We often argue that starting with a market need makes more sense.  But, how do you do that?  Following up on our two-part podcast on getting started, we look at how to hunt for and collect opportunities.

We would love to get your feedback in the comments or at

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The Story 12: Innovation: How to Start Pt 2

Getting started is easier with tools and a plan.

In this podcast we talk about some early stage tools to help you understand context and put it into a form that you can use.

We would love to get your feedback in the comments or at

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The Story 11: Innovation: How to Start

Getting started is often the hardest part of a project.

How do you begin the process of developing a new innovation?  Everything is uncertain.  How do you deal with the idea that you can do anything you choose.

This week we talk about how to get started gathering the information you need to make those choices.

We would love to get your feedback in the comments or at

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