Monday, September 24, 2012

4 levers of building experimentation capacity

If you want to promote a culture of innovation, you will need to build experimentation capacity. How do you do it? Well, here are 4 levers you might want to consider.

Right to experiment (RTE): If nobody in the organization has a permission to experiment, then there is no hope for any innovation. Right to experiment (RTE) is a foundation principle on which innovation capacity is built. Many times “RTE” is considered synonymous with Google’s 20% rule or 3M’s 15% rule. According to this rule, every employee can spend up to 15 or 20% of his time working on his own experiments.

I see 2 issues equating RTE with a policy such as Google 20%. One, RTE doesn’t have to be granted to everybody like in Google. It can very well be granted to only those whose idea is passed through a first level of screening or to those belonging to specific departments (or some other policy suitable to your culture). Second, putting a policy in place doesn’t guarantee RTE will be exercised in the organization. For example, Jaruhar, an innovator from Indian Railways, discovered for the first time that he has the permission to experiment when he became member (Engineering) of the Board. By then Jaruhar must have put in a couple of decades of experience in Indian Railways. That’s awfully long time for smart guys like Jaruhar to start experimenting.

You may be a great experimenter and yet as a leader you may not realize the importance of RTE. For example see how Mahatma Gandhi’s view on RTE evolved over the years. Ask yourself: Who has the right to experiment here? Who is actually experimenting? How are we encouraging it?

Laboratory: It is not enough to have the RTE. You need to create a space which gives legitimacy to experimentation & failure – just like a meditation room may give legitimacy to silence. Most of the time, the space is physical which also fosters collaborations. However, sometimes it can also be virtual – e.g. on the cloud. Thomas Edison said, “To invent, you need good imagination and a pile of junk.” A good laboratory makes the junk “useful”. In Ideo, the person looking after a laboratory is called curator. A good laboratory wears past failures with pride on its chest. When a laboratory is accessible to a lot of people, it can build a huge capacity. Perhaps that is why Galileo smiled in spite of his telescope fiasco. Sometimes a laboratory can also be mobile so that it can reach people who don’t have easy access to it. For example, see Agastya Foundation’s efforts in building experimentation capacity in rural schools. Ask yourself, have you created a space for experimentation? Does your lab have adequate tools?

Innovation sandbox: There may be several projects running in a laboratory. However, a time comes when experimentation needs to be focused on a single challenge. What you need is an innovation sandbox – It has focus, massive experimentation capacity and ultra-low cost for each additional experiment. Tata Nano came out of a sandbox. Similarly, Wright brothers created two sandboxes during their flight experiments during 1900-1903. See what happens when a pathology laboratory gets converted into an innovation sandboxfocused on cancer research. Ask yourself, have you built an innovation sandbox?

Open innovation: Procter & Gamble’s connect-and-develop program systematically goes about finding experimentation capacity within P&G’s partnership network. You don’t have to solve all problems internally. Organizations collaborate with academia, Government research labs and with other companies. You can also tap experimenters through open innovation platforms by throwing a challenge and inviting prototypes. To find more about how open innovation challenges work, see the interview of Jayesh Badani, CEO of Ideaken. Ask yourself, have you explored building experimentation capacity beyond your organization?

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