In Startups

Leading up to the big New Year’s 2020 celebration there was a lot of looking back at the happenings of the last decade. This actually caught me by surprise. The decade really flew by.

Taking the time to list your wins and losses over the last ten years could be an uplifting or depressing experience.  One thing is for sure… If you are not failing enough you are probably not exploring things outside your normal range of comfort. You are living in a safe bubble.

And this might not be a good thing.  In fact, it could be fatal.

There is not anything actually wrong with operating within a bubble of your own making for a short period of time. But unfortunately, as the world changes you will most certainly be left behind wondering what happened.

You need to constantly innovate to stay ahead.  If you are not the one innovating, you can bet someone else is innovating and will take over your market when you least expect it. There are so many examples of this from the past…  Many of these are in the computer software and hardware arena. Novel, WordStar, Lotus, Wang are a few. Each had a commanding market lead until their business was taken away by a new innovative competitor.

Wang went away long ago…

The sad reality is that many companies dedicate 100% of their resources to generating short term revenues without pushing for the kind of innovation needed to drive their business forward and address evolving customer needs to stay ahead of the competition. Those companies will eventually disappear.

But how do you know if you are in a bubble or really innovating? This does not scream at you from your profit and loss statement or balance sheet… until it is too late.

Innovation takes something called research.  And a lot of it.

If you are not out there doing the required foundational research it will be very difficult for you to really bring any innovation to the market.  Accountants, sales people and others responsible for revenues in your company will naturally shy away from research activities because the effect on the bottom line and their quarterly bonuses is far off in the far future.

You will need to directly or indirectly fight for resources to do research. Your company’s future depends on this research activity.

How do you know if you are inside a comfortable bubble or doing research/innovating?

Here are a few things to look for…

  • The activity does not generate revenues today or maybe for a while.
  • The activity will result in a lot of mistakes. Things you try will not work. Probably a lot of things will be dead ends.
  • It’s painful… Mistakes will be made. It will not be easy. Some days will be terrible.
  • If your research activity is too easy you are probably not innovating.
  • The activity will be visual… You will use prototypes like drawings on paper or card board mock-ups to communicate what you are doing. Let it see the light of day. Research can start as a thought experiment but quickly move to something tangible is some way.

What level of resources should you dedicate to research?

Ten percent of is a good target number. Ten percent of you and your employees time. Ten percent of your development budget.

If these guys can invent meat what will happen to cows?

An easy way to start is to tell people to spend 10% of their time doing raw research, experimenting, failing.  Be sure to impose some kind of structure to your research effort. Monthly meetings and some type of digital forum like Slack or BaseCamp should do the trick. Maybe even start with some general criteria. But not too constraining.

What would the aviation world look like today if someone at the Pullman Train Car company had dedicated some research resources to check out what those crazy Wright Brothers were up to with their flying contraption? Instead of Boeing as the leading aircraft manufacture maybe the lead company would be Pullman.

What should Boeing be doing now to be sure they are not edged out in the future?

A good example of research/innovation produced industry disruption is a company called Impossible Meat. Some day cow and pig meat producers may be a thing of the past. If you don’t think so listen to this recent Freakonomics Podcast and notice how much research and failure is behind this revolutionary product.

What could a dose of research do for your company?

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