I’ve spent my career surrounded by entrepreneurs.  There’s a passion and enthusiasm that I find magnetic.  Everywhere they look, they see opportunity.  They are constantly pivoting on new market, customer, and technical inputs with incredible velocity.  Most new ventures fail, but entrepreneurs approach every move with a never-say-die commitment.      

Innovating with Intent

Every innovation being driven by an entrepreneur has a moment of ignition.  Invention sparks the momentum that entrepreneurs carry forward.  At Intellectual Ventures, we believe that inventors are a special breed, play a critical role in the innovation process, and that they, and the ideas they create, have value.

An inventor latches onto a problem, and hits it with every tool in his or her arsenal.  They live in the world of stretching and twisting what’s possible.  The inventive process requires multiple failures that ultimately guide the direction and outcome.  Inventors generate a lot of ideas, and expect to see most of them fail in order to see one of them succeed.  As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed, I just have found 10,000 ways that will not work.”  In order for this approach to succeed, however, you have to move quickly, fail fast, learn from mistakes, and be willing to try again.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve talked to numerous groups, both here at IV Lab and outside the company, about the mindset required to innovate effectively.  Tonight, I’ll be speaking with 100+ members of Seattle’s startup community, to inspire their efforts by sharing our approach to invention and showcasing some of the latest projects coming from the Lab.

Failing fast sounds so cliché.  In today’s techno-babble, it may be.  But it’s not incorrect.  We just have to go a bit deeper to understand it. 

The real question is:  What behaviors enable failing fast?  My simple answer is to innovate with clear intent.

So, what does that mean?  One of my favorite business thought leaders used the following diagram (Source: “On Innovation Effectiveness,” Larry Keeley, Doblin): 

Innovating with intent requires that we think deeply, test our assumptions and move forward with clear purpose and direction.  When approaching a problem, we have to tackle three things before proposing solutions.

1.    Diagnose the Situation.  We need to stop to understand the environment in order to understand what problems may need addressing.  Sometimes this includes making assumptions, and testing those assumptions with people who know more.  The more time we take to understand the situation, the better chance we’ll have of actually making an impact on it.

2.    Declare the Intent.  We have to know what problem we are attacking.  The more specific we can be about this, the better.  This is the “Value Proposition,” or the “Theory of Impact.”   One of my favorite baseball players of all time, Yogi Berra, once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.”  The stronger the declaration of intent, the more laser focused and purposeful the initiatives will be.

3.    Set Conditions for Success.  This may be the most critical step, and it’s the one that’s most often skipped.  Creating clear and quantifiable measures of success to gauge the impact of potential solutions provides the guiding light for all of our efforts. We can look at multiple options and pick which we think will be best.  We focus debates on the metrics of a solution, and not on the creator of a solution, their judgment, or their ability to sell their point of view. 

In the end, there are three reasons not to pursue an idea: 

1)    Lack of feasibility: physics dictate that it can’t be done;

2)    Lack of value: market data says it shouldn’t be done;

3)    Lack of ROI: the opportunity cost of doing it is too high – there are other things we can and should do instead. 

Clearly-defined conditions for success take into account all three of these “kill modes.”

Innovating with intent is hard.  It requires discipline to define the problem accurately, declare clear intent and set the right conditions to fail fast in order to succeed faster. 


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