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Three Signs You Should Kill an Idea

by Michael Schrage
Harvard Business Review
September 24, 2013
(Edited for length and clarity)

Whether you’re a start-up or an institutional entrepreneur, here are three mental shortcuts you should look for to determine whether a innovation should be put out of its misery (and yours) before you get to far into the process.  Even if the innovation appears compelling and its numbers sound, should these three symptoms appear, don’t hesitate or delay: Kill your innovation ASAP.

1) No Pleasant Surprises
Almost all innovation suffers hiccoughs and bumps in the road. Design schedules slip and that “quick-and-dirty” prototype ends up costing much more than expected. That’s normal.

But listen closely for "pleasant surprises" such as: 
  • Coding that takes two weeks to develop instead of two months;
  • you find a more malleable or stronger material at lower cost;
  • a supplier who makes a designer available to collaborate.
The absence of pleasant surprises is not unlike the dog that doesn’t bark: it's signal that something that should be happening isn’t.  Small wins such as these may not look or feel like much but, almost always, they signal you're on the right path.

For example, a retailer finds that automating alerts to its suppliers and distribution centers was much easier than expected. This pleasant surprise gave IT, purchasing agents and store managers  the confidence to create a bigger business conversation around what had  been a purely technical innovation.

Pleasant surprises reinforce original enthusiasm. That is fuel. No pleasant surprises means you’ll soon be running on empty.

2) No Deeper Insights
This sounds similar to “No Pleasant Surprises’” but it’s not. Every innovator has a hypothesis about their innovation and its desired impact. Quite naturally, innovation teams look for evidence supporting the new product/service path they’re on.  But that’s not good enough.

As innovators progress through prototypes and tests, they need to ask, “Are we getting deeper, richer and more sophisticated insights into our innovation and how customers perceive it?”  Satisfaction at hitting benchmarks and milestones alone is complacency and potentially dangerous.

If innovators aren’t learning about their potential customer’s needs or the degrees of freedom their innovation enables, they’re doing compliance, not transformation.  Innovation is  learning: Each iteration and test—with and without customers—generates nuggets of data and information that give  you a deeper understanding of what you’re actually doing instead of what you thought they were doing when they started. Innovation journeys should change how you see your original ideas.

I was sitting in a new product meeting at a social media start-up that had been grinding away on a clever little Facebook app that wasn’t quite getting as much traction or enthusiasm as they expected. The product leader asked his team, “So what do we understand about our users now that we really didn’t before…?’

No one had a good answer. No real learning was going on. The product was killed. Good.

3) Greater User Engagement Inspires Little Emotion
Learning curves are important but so are emotional plateaus. The more end users engage with your innovation, the more their feelings should intensify around what you’re trying to do. Ideally, they should come to care as much—or more—about your innovation as you do.

But if their feelings don’t change as they engage more with your next iteration, you’re in an emotional kill zone. Indifference is death.  It’s even better if prospects dislike the changes you’re making in your models and prototypes because that means you were doing something they liked.

You know you’ve got something when prospects and partners want to collaborate and contribute to your innovation.  Actions speak louder than their words, so if users and partners choose to be more engaged because they get the idea and appreciate the value your innovation represents.

Don’t confuse emotional engagement with focus group feedback or customer satisfaction scores. You want and need to be attuned to any changes they have in their “affective connection” to your innovation. If measurably greater participation and engagement with your prototypes and simulations fail to move the emotional needles of your prospects, they’re not going to commit to you when the real challenges materialize.

Customers don’t have to love or even like your prototypes; but they do need to feel that the more they interact with your innovation, the more they get what it can do for them.

When to Pull the Plug
If your innovation fails even one of these tests, you know you have serious problems. But if you’re 0 for 3, you’ve struck out. Stop what you’re doing immediately. Passionate innovation champions are wonderful and essential to success. But their passion inherently means they can’t be dispassionate about their babies. The real issues emerge after the charismatic innovation champion leaves the room.

Does the innovation generate the serendipity, insight and emotional engagement that matters? You know what to do if the answer is no.

*  *  *  *  *

Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, is the author of Serious Play and the new HBR Single Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become?


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