Innovation is a process, not a roadmap

28 Jun 2019    3 mins read.

I often hear of a company’s innovation roadmap. I’m always perplexed: How can something that is by nature amorphous have a blueprint? Vagueness is associated with risk, but I’ll argue that done right, the process of innovation actually reduces the risk and increases the robustness of the final product.

The flaw of the innovation roadmap

A roadmap is a rigid plan. It’s a recipe, a contract.

That last word, “contract,” is what makes the roadmap so ill-suited for innovation. A contract is a socially, financially, sometimes legally binding agreement. It forces you into a rigid execution plan, exactly the opposite of what’s needed during the process of discovery.

To innovate is to discover. You first uncover the struggles and then iterate to an optimum solution space. Discovery requires open-mindedness, flexibility, and the readiness to change paths.

With a contract in place, you’re less likely to breach it. Psychological biases will go in overdrive to keep the commitment. You’re less likely to make a change, just when you need it most.

Embracing the uncertain road ahead

In 1962, on a soul-searching trip around the world, Phil Knight stopped by Japan to visit a shoe manufacturer. He had only one goal: Convince the manufacturer to let him resell their shoes in the US. Almost 50 years later, Nike is the largest athletic shoe and apparel company in the world.

Through their journey, Nike revolutionized the world of sports shoe and apparel science, distribution, manufacturing, and athletic sponsorships. It was a destination reached by navigating treacherous terrains, missed turns, lucky breaks, and most of all, relentless grit. There were no long term plans or spurious revenue projections, but rather continuous and relentless adaptation and pursuit of progress. It was only later, once things stabilized, that they were able to articulate what they’ve become.

Adaptation is why they succeeded. At the end, these weren’t risks so much as they were systematic ways of building robustness while reducing the space of unknowns. The fabric needed to innovate.

Adaptation is more than just improvisation. It’s a systematic way of learning and thriving from failure.

Build antifragility into your DNA

When things don’t go as planned, and they will, how will you respond?

When you’re in the early stages of building something new, unknowns and failures need to be embraced. But embracing them is not enough. Your system must turn failures into gains. This type of system is called antifragile, as described by Nassim Taleb in his works. Antifragile systems not only reduce the risks of failure, but are able to thrive on them. Each failure leads to more robustness while decreasing the long-term risk.

This is because the process of innovation, in most domains, has a natural asymmetry between the gains and losses. Failures are mostly harmless and frequently beneficial, as they help reduce the space of unknowns. These benefits build upon each other exponentially. The way to reduce the risk of innovation is to build asymmetry into your process.

I once heard Jason Fried say: “Only the market tells the truth.” This is a great quote to keep in mind while trying to innovate. You must optimize for the market feedback loop. The better and faster it is, the faster you’ll iterate to a solution that fits.

Further reading