How to Improve Your Odds of Successfully Innovating? Hint: It’s a Numbers Game.

How many of Edison’s 1,000+ inventions can you name?

There is the electric light bulb, the phonograph, the motion picture camera... and more. And that’s the point. For every notable invention Edison patented, there were dozens more along the lines of his electric pen.

This is not meant to be some kind of dig on Thomas Edison. To the contrary, it’s meant to show that the public perception of the innovation process is that it’s magical—light bulbs appearing over someone’s head; the instant perception of gravity as an apple falls from a tree. But the design for a working electric light didn’t appear above Edison’s head, it emerged from iteration and tenacity. According to an entry in Rutger’s University’s, The Edison Papers in an 1890 interview in Harper's Monthly Magazine, Edison was quoted as saying:

“I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed three thousand different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently to be true. Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory.”

The point is that one should never expect innovation to be efficient. By nature, you’re heading into uncharted territory. Which brings up the next truth to consider.

It usually takes years to be an overnight success.

In his book, “The Outliers’” Malcom Gladwell outlines what I’ll paraphrase as his 10,000-hours-to-greatness theory. In it he posits those special few who achieve greatness do so, less from any natural abilities than from dedicating the better part of a decade practicing and honing their craft.

Innovators are normally constrained by the same calculus. Much like Edison, it took James Dyson 15 years and more than 5,000 prototypes to make a proper bagless cyclonic vacuum. Sure, he’s worth $5 billion now. But getting there nearly bankrupted him early on.

Further, when you begin to examine how long it takes for even the most important products to reach any sort of critical mass of adoption within the marketplace, innovation is clearly a game for those comfortable taking the long view.

You have to build failure into any success model.

We’ve published an entire post on the value of failure in the innovation process. One way to think about it is to look at a very rough rule of thumb used by many venture capitalists. Among all of the investments they make, they expect:

  • One third of investments fail outright
  • One third of investments break even
  • One third of investments generate 10X returns

If they can stick to that schedule, failures and all, they are generally making better than average returns on the portfolio overall. Granted, it’s not a sound strategy for any normal investor looking for someplace safe to slowly grow their money over time, but it’s perfect if your investments are collectively high risk/high reward endeavors. And if your innovation program doesn’t fit that description, you’re probably not actually innovating.

So, how can you improve your odds?

Reading all of this discussion of failure and risk, one might assume innovation programs are a drawn out roll of the dice. There are, however, proven ways to increase your chances of success, besides simply having the tenacity to ride out the failed iterations along the way.

  1. Define your area of focus
    Try to determine what aspect of your industry or category offers the greatest opportunity for disruptive innovation. Is it in product cost? Performance? Service model? We have another article covering a few approaches to this issue here.
  2. Focus your team
    Create a dedicated innovation group. Make sure they’re charged not only with creating new innovation projects, but also shepherding them—both the successes and the failures—through to completion.
  3. Know your end user
    This may be the most important safeguard of success. Great innovation is about solving for real human needs and challenges. When component bells and whistles drop in price, should you add more bells and whistles or create a cheaper bell and whistle delivery system? Unless you know what truly matters to your existing and potential users, you have no reasonable way to determine which path offers the greatest chance for success.

In other words. Everyone rolls the dice. But smart innovators take the time to figure out where to shave off a corner here and there to make the numbers come up in their favor more often.