Thursday, April 21, 2011

Is Your Vision An Hallucination?

Most successful innovation has three common ingredients at its roots:

  • A vision,
  • Ideas to execute on that vision, and
  • A strong belief in both the vision and the ideas.

The very same ingredients, however, are also at the root of most unsuccessful innovation.

There is no single and fool-proof recipe for successful innovation.  But to improve your odds of coming up with the right ‘it’, your vision, ideas and beliefs should be tested early and tested often.  That’s the core message of pretotyping.

Without some grounding in reality, it’s very possible that your vision is nothing more than an hallucination – a mirage you keep chasing through the surreal desert of Thoughtland* until it’s too late, and your dried-up carcass joins the many others that litter the gray and desolate landscape of failed innovation, where visions evaporate, ideas turn to dust, and the vultures of failures circle the sky as they await to feed on the dreams and hopes of over-optimistic innovators.

Hmmm, re-reading the last sentence, I realize that I may have been reading too much Cormac McCarthy ... So, before you get too depressed, let’s see what you can do to keep those vultures away from you – or at least have them work extra hard to get a few morsels from the flesh and blood of your innovation.

The best way to make sure you don’t venture too far into Thoughtland and lose your way is to complement your vision, ideas and beliefs with reality, pretotypes and data.

Below is the slide we use to conclude many of our Pretotyping presentations:

If all you have to share with people is ideas, the only thing you’ll get back is opinions – and you'll be making your decisions in Thoughtland: proposing an abstraction (your idea) and getting back something even more abstract – and distorted (I.e., an opinions based on the other person’s interpretation of your idea.) I can already see the vultures of failure licking their beaks in anticipation.

Opinions are a form of data, but they are the weakest and lamest possible form of data for innovators. Seventy people out of one-hundred telling you that your idea for, say, a mobile app is great and that they would buy it, is nowhere near as valuable as three people out of one-hundred actually buying it (or at least downloading it.)  Positive opinions are easy to get.  Actual money or downloads are much harder to get.  How many innovators have burned through their life savings (or VC funding) and wasted years of their life pursuing some vision and ideas because of a false belief fed by the positive opinions from well-meaning family, friends – and potential customers? [Note: In my experience, most potential customers remain potential customers.  I.e., they never cross over to become actual customers.]

It’s hard to innovate without spending at some time in Thoughtland – the danger is when you spend too much time in there.  So, by all means, indulge in fantastic visions, fantasies and ideas that you can believe – they are essential to innovation.  But, as soon as your ideas and beliefs begin to crystallize, turn those ideas into pretotypes, put those pretotypes in the hands of your target users, and see if the data you get back matches your beliefs.

Good luck!  Even the best innovators and pretotypers need a good dose of luck.


* If you are not familiar with the concept of Thoughtland, see Patrick Copeland’s QCon keynote on pretotyping and advance to 8'45" where Thoughtland is explained.

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