Innovation Looks a Lot More Like Science Than It Does Art

Eric Tobias by

Innovation is often characterized as a “eureka moment” or “stroke of genius”  – something that happens at random, to a select few, by unfair intelligence, or luck. We often glorify high-profile innovators like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg for their ability to know what the world needs before it knows it. And because most of us don’t understand innovation, we like to revere it as art  – something that cannot be deconstructed, replicated and scaled.

The truth is, innovation looks much more like science than it does art. I like to think of new ideas as a network  –  a collection of observations, experiences, insights, relationships and creative thinking that systematically come together to form something new. And because innovation is a network, great innovators focus on expanding the inputs that drive it.

Researchers who study innovation find that, despite the folklore stories of “being struck by lightning,” true innovation often comes around a coffee shop or conference room table. Great innovators share concepts with rapid fervor in an attempt to add nodes to their own personal networks, thus increasing the opportunity to add to and refine the ideation and innovation process.

In today’s world, the space for innovation is growing, and all of us know we must innovate or risk being eaten by our closest competitor or disrupted by a yet-to-be-created startup. Few would argue against the need for innovation. Yet companies and individuals still struggle to innovate.

At High Alpha, we have built our entire thesis around the belief that there is a science to successful innovation. We believe we can build structure around innovation that allows it to flourish.

Over the last two years, we have started nine companies, raised over $30M in funding across our studio companies, and invested in 20 companies. We have found three of the most important ways companies of all sizes can foster innovation are by running a “Sprint Week,” disrupting yourself, and getting closer to your customers.

Sprint Week

At High Alpha, we practice a forcing-function for innovation called Sprint Week. It is an internal business-design competition to advance the brand, business plan, go-to-market strategy and product design of three to four concepts, ultimately resulting in our next company

During Sprint Week, all employees (including executives) clear their calendars for an entire week as we form the basic structure of a brand-new business. We find the lack of defined structure with a defined goal allows us to find creative and innovative solutions to problems we attempt to tackle.

In a normal business, there are an endless number of decisions that need to be made and iterations that could improve the idea. By putting extreme constraints (i.e., building a new technology business in four days) around our process, we are forced to make decisions quickly, move forward, and engineer exceptional innovation.

Self-Disruption

I’ve found one of the easiest ways to avoid being disrupted is to simply think like your disruptors. In my previous companies, including Salesforce, we would constantly ask ourselves, “If we were to start a direct competitor to our business today, what would we do to disrupt ourselves?”

This practice isn’t limited to larger organizations. Smaller businesses can use this tactic to determine methods and business models that are directly competitive to the incumbents in a particular market.

Customer Engagement

Customer engagement and discovery at High Alpha is absolutely critical to our success. In every business I have started, I found that, whenever I was stuck and didn’t know what to do next, I talked to a customer. You simply cannot innovate in a vacuum.

Your customers are the market and, as any good financial adviser will tell you, in order to make money, you need to listen to the market. We find that, when we engage customers, they readily articulate problems we can take and apply to our process of ideation, product development, and ultimately company formation. Customers rarely articulate the path directly, but if you talk to enough customers, a direction for innovation reveals itself.

In the end, true innovation is about adding nodes to your network. With a conscious effort, a few tools and a little bit of structure, most innovation can be converted from something that feels like art to something that feels closer to repeatable and sustainable science.

This article originally appeared as an op-ed in the IBJ 2017 Innovation Issue.