Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield says that the first nine minutes of a space mission account for at least 50% of a mission’s risk, which is why the crew spends so much time asking themselves how they will react if there’s an inadvertent engine shutdown or a loss of staging rockets.
“A nice way to keep reminding yourself is: ‘What’s the next thing that’s going to kill me?’” he says.
Or course, most company teams don’t face such dangers, but that willingness to consider what risks are around the corner and how to deal with them is the right mindset for innovating, says Luis Perez-Breva, a research scientist at MIT’s School of Engineering and originator and lead instructor of the MIT Innovation Teams Program.
“What this illustrates is that despite feeling some panic when thinking about the risks, these astronauts set that aside and continue on with getting prepared for anything they might be able to predict,” Perez-Breva says.
He explains that being “productivity wrong” – such as the astronauts trying to determine what can go wrong – can benefit companies. Instead of trying to find only one best answer, they can think about the obstacles that they can work around – and figuring out how ideas can be wrong can be a great learning tool. He says too many companies fail because they simply haven’t thought about the potential pitfalls of a product or service.
Perez-Breva shares such insight in his new book, “Innovating: A Doer’s Manifesto for Starting from a Hunch, Prototyping Problems, Scaling Up and Learning to be Productively Wrong.”
He wrote the book after failing to find materials for his students that provide a blueprint for how to innovate. The result is a step-by-step guide about how others can emulate the innovation success of companies like Netflix.
Perez-Breva says the innovating process begins with a hunch, with an undefined “best path.” He further explains that there will be many choices – not “formulas” – and in the beginning of the process “nothing about the eventual innovation is new.”
But innovations will begin to emerge when companies are trying to understand a real-world problem. To do that, he suggests developing a prototype by asking:
He cautions that teams shouldn’t get frustrated and give up because of stumbles along the way. “Expect to get to the right solutions through a long sequence of wrong moves,” he says.
When prototyping, Perez-Breva advocates that teams need to “get their hands dirty” and assemble the parts they already have or can easily get – there is no need to have endless meetings about the process. “Gain knowledge as you go,” he says. “Use parts to make your problem tangible – it’s good if you can use it to demonstrate a function or aspect of your problem.”
By working backward from the problem that needs to be solved and posing questions along the way, teams can end up with a checklist of things that are true – or that can’t possibly be true at the next scale. “Making your problem not work is, in fact, the only way to ensure that you cover the entire space within which your problem sits,” he says.
He explains the reason that putting parts together is so important is because they can point out whether a hunch is special, what can go wrong or what is missing. He also suggests it’s a good idea to speak to others about the idea, such as employees who are on the front lines and can have great suggestions for improvements or even totally new ideas. “You are not seeking approval or a pat on the back – focusing on why your idea is good will get you little feedback,” he says.
Perez-Breva says that when it comes time to organize what you’ve learned, it remains critical that you are prepared to handle uncertainty.
Being able to cope depends on whether you’ve hinged your future on one single thing being absolutely true or whether your idea is strong enough to survive necessary changes. “If you absolutely must fail,” he says, “make it come as a surprise to you and everyone, so everyone cherishes what he or she learns.”
He also urges companies to think about how various teams or units can best develop new ideas and continuously learn. For example, a corporate unit can look at how they can reuse a product to solve a new problem before that product becomes obsolete. Or, a team might embrace other disciplines to better discover alternative solutions to a bigger problem.
“Your objective isn’t to accelerate, incubate or dress up ideas for show,” he says. “It is to evolve them beyond recognition, until a decision about resources can be made or time runs out. That’s easier done if the focus is on the problem.”