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Why Companies Must Iterate To Innovate

Lightbulb in a field of discarded ideas
True innovation requires deliberate, consistent attention—and a CEO who creates both space for ideas to surface and a structured way to capture their value.

Innovation has become the ultimate prize for business. In many ways, its pursuit is not unlike the legendary quest for the Holy Grail by King Arthur and his knights. These days, there’s more jostling than jousting and yet…the quest for innovation is no less compelling and, frequently, elusive.

Often, business innovation evokes a sense of wonder or magic. It takes us by surprise, seemingly coming out of nowhere. It’s the phenomenon of the “overnight sensation” that was really years in the making. At other times, we recognize innovation largely in hindsight, as a new model gradually takes root moving from niche to universal.

Remember these two examples:

• 3M’s post-it adhesive is a well-known product innovation. The original post-it solved a single problem (or annoyance, really.) It took 12 years for the familiar canary-yellow note pad to launch across the United States and even longer to reach the world. Yet over time, the adhesive solved a similar problem in different contexts— display pages, short or long notes, page markers, notices to direct attention (e.g. “Sign Here”) and more.

• Today’s social media platforms represent both product and business model innovation. In 2002, LinkedIn launched a digital-only professional networking platform. It was two years before Facebook, now Meta, introduced its platform, initially only for Harvard University students. Both transformed traditional physical member directories (professionals for LinkedIn; students for Facebook) into digital tools with the power to connect members instantly. Both platforms also deployed a “freemium” business model. Participation on the platforms remains free. And indeed, high levels of participation drive the site’s value to advertisers and users. Over time, special paid features, member tiers, and access to data generated direct revenue.

In both cases, an idea sparked action. Then a series of tweaks, adjustments, new applications, accidents or mistakes combined to have tremendous positive impact for the companies.

As remarkable as it may seem or feel, innovation doesn’t just happen. It requires deliberate, consistent attention. In short: innovation needs help. Executives that create both space for ideas to surface and a structured way to capture the ideas take the first critical step in innovation.

Ideas aren’t enough. Bringing innovation to life requires something else: a lot of iteration.

Fred Mandell reminded me of this in a recent conversation about the building blocks that allow innovation to flourish. Fred and his business partner, Harvey Seifter, both of Creating Futures That Work, are experts in helping leaders to unlock the power of innovation within their teams. A key piece of that lies in learning to iterate effectively.

To iterate is to do or say something repeatedly. Yet simply doing something over and over again will not magically produce innovation. (Remember this colloquial description? “Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.”)

Iteration requires both experimentation and learning. A typical iterative process is a nearly continuous loop of planning, building, testing and learning. This simple cycle works across disciplines (it’s not just for engineers or product designers) and can help with very thorny, complex challenges. And of course, it helps to create an environment in which failure is embraced as an opportunity to improve.

Innovation benefits from incorporating three additional approaches throughout the iterative process:

1. Seeing things differently. Research confirms that artists see the world very differently from non-artists. Literally. Their eyes scan not only the object or focal point, but also the setting or its context. Non-artists tend to focus more intently on the central theme. Learning to see better by turning things around, shifting your angle, or focusing on what’s not visible (the negative spaces) expands the view in unexpected, potentially useful ways.

2. Deploying varied techniques to experiment. Traditional iteration—and indeed the cycle itself—encourages repetition. Using the same tools to test ideas or functionality offers a control mechanism that’s useful for comparing outcomes. This may also inadvertently limit the range of possibilities, both for what works and what else may be helpful or needed. Instead, deploy varied techniques to test or refine specific elements of the whole.

3. Asking smarter questions. Skilled researchers know that the quality of the answer is highly correlated to the quality of the question. In fact, it’s the topic of an article in a recent Harvard Business Review. The authors rightfully explain that smarter questions “don’t come spontaneously; they require prompting and conscious effort.” For more effective iteration, ask questions that are specific and explore feasibility or clarity. Both can reveal gaps in thinking, executing, and communicating the ideas.

In their work, Fred and Harvey access the arts (visual, literary, performance) to bring these skills to life in new and meaningful ways for leaders. Even rank amateurs (like me!) can learn and use an artist’s vision and tools to iterate—and innovate—more effectively, thus accelerating progress.

While innovation is often captivating, it is not magic. It requires deliberate attention and iteration to transform ideas to outcomes—the products, services, approaches that deliver value for your customers and business. Savvy CEOs incorporate the above three additional techniques in their iterative processes to unlock the power of experimentation and learning more quickly and effectively.


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