Linus Pauling, the two-time Nobel Prize winner, summed up the entire innovation process in one sentence when he said that “the way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away”.
The definition is excellent because it disproves the mistaken belief that the success of any project depends on a brilliant idea that appears fleetingly in our minds, changing the course of history at a snap of your fingers. Examples such as the famous incident of the apple falling on Newton’s head that triggered the whole Theory of Universal Gravitation have helped fertilize this widespread yet misguided perception.
However, reality is not that poetic and brilliant ideas rarely arise from a moment of divine inspiration. When companies do not obtain satisfactory results from their innovation processes, it is mainly not due to a lack of creativity, but rather a lack of discipline. In general, it can be affirmed that innovation is the result of a systematic action oriented to the discovery and solution of problems. If the right spaces and routines are not created, the staff ends up consuming all the time and resources available in their more pressing activities, which are usually the execution tasks, rather than dedicating time to experimenting on future opportunities.
If innovation is to become a reality, the big challenge for organizations is to provide spaces at the center of all daily execution activities, allocating a portion of the time to exploring new opportunities. This is a challenge because each individual or team will always assign a higher priority to their activities that are part of the execution than to any set of activities aimed at exploration or innovation.
Therefore, it is necessary that in each cycle of execution a series of rituals are incorporated to explore new opportunities. Only by proceeding this way, the experience gained can be connected to improvement.
These rituals that connect experimentation to the needs of the organization allow future opportunities to emerge from the needs of the moment.
The widely known Model of Trial and Error is very useful when it comes to making innovation a reality and not just a mere declaration of intent. Due to its characteristics, it is a model that has a clear determination to move towards a result by progressively building new knowledge, based on evidence and data.
The spark that initiates this whole process arises from the daily execution activity. During each execution cycle, the aim is to identify the assumptions on which our current knowledge is based. In other words, identifying what we take for granted even without data to back it up. Next, it is a matter of questioning this perception by raising hypotheses and designing a set of experiments aimed at (in)validating these beliefs.
Each one of the experiments will provide knowledge as well as a large amount of data that will serve as raw material for future hypotheses which, in turn, will be (in)validated with new experiments.
With the systematic application of the Trial and Error Model, innovation has the ambitious mission of transforming all our processes of knowledge acquisition, moving from a linear to a non-linear pattern: when our beliefs are validated, the progression is incremental and everything progresses according to our forecasts. However, when we are faced with experiments that disprove our current knowledge, a disruption is produced that brings about a large volume of information.
Non-linear progress simply accepts that today’s world is not deterministic at all and that often the outcome obtained from the execution of a series of tasks does not match our predictions.
In this respect, to innovate is to demonstrate by evidence that our perceptions and assumptions are completely incorrect. This model of innovation, to some extent, is based on the hope of proving that we are wrong in our predictions. Indeed, the knowledge that is derived from something that does not work according to our beliefs is infallible. In fact, re-feeding our perceptions by looking for an example that reinforces our current knowledge will normally lead us to persist in the current paradigm.
Therefore, the exploration process is really a learning process. The challenge is to acquire a disproportionate amount of knowledge in relation to the problem being analyzed.
The results that can be obtained from an exploration routine are even more unpredictable than those of execution activities of a project or the daily activity.
In this context of innovation, the label “non-linear” also means that a small incremental step in the execution of an experiment can cause a disruption in the result.
For this reason, the fear of non-linearity inherent to the human being is especially acute in this type of activity and, in many cases, when innovation is not a totally established routine, the fear of the unknown leads us to progressively reduce these actions of discovery so that they remain limited to a minimum in order to avoid risks.
Building a culture of innovation means creating a safe haven in which our employees can experiment and fail without fear. In contrast, final outcomes are not improved in any way by orienting teams to only carry out execution activities, planning from the beginning and in a deterministic way everything that is going to be done with the desire to reduce the levels of uncertainty.
Instead, taking advantage of the benefits of the non-linear characteristic of this learning process in each of the execution cycles and throughout the project can be highly profitable and, in many cases, provide a significant impact with an extremely reduced investment.