radical Insights.

Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.

Maybe Don't Just “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom”.

May 9, 2023

In our work with clients on using a prototyping approach to drive innovation in their companies, we always emphasize that simply learning to fail fast (i.e., the sheer number of experiments) isn’t enough. The key that really unlocks the innovation power of a rapid prototyping process is the design of a larger system that maximizes the learning value of each experiment. A system that makes sense of “failure” to extract insights and then directs/shares those knowledge gains appropriately to best and most quickly support the next round of experimentation.

What holds true for prototyping, not surprisingly, holds true for pilot projects looking to leverage emerging technologies. Systems that make sense of and share learning matter. Connective tissue built between dispersed initiatives and innovators matters — particularly in situations where the business case for adoption may be evolving in real time along with the value / performance / ease-of-use of the developing technology itself.

As the authors of a recent article (MIT Sloan Review) put it: “Budget-centered business case approaches are biased against novel technologies, partly because they don’t factor in the value of learning gains and spillover effects.” These researchers looked specifically at how IKEA evolved a framework for coordinating and evaluating pilot projects aimed at using drones to monitor warehouse inventory – all during a several-year window that also saw drone tech become more autonomous, reliable, fit-to-purpose, and cost-effective.

After a few isolated pilots in 2018-19 had shown the proposed solution to be expensive, impractical, and potentially dangerous, the use case could have simply been written off as hopelessly removed from a sensible business case. Instead, IKEA chose to connect and manage further drone initiatives through a recently established global innovation governance unit. That decision facilitated better coordination and knowledge sharing between pilots across the global org and allowed the potential business case to be “iteratively developed” as the company learned through experience and the technology itself evolved. By the spring of 2023, IKEA’s coordinated approach had autonomous drones deployed for inventory management in 16 warehouses in seven countries – specific contexts identified where the solution and the business case both make sense.

As the pressure to innovate, the pace of change, and the availability of new technologies all increase in tandem – and swiftly, the value of systems and structures designed to support purposeful experimentation and learning at scale is surely going to compound.

So the questions for org leaders: What structures are you building today to maximize the value of experiments tomorrow? How are you designing systems to make sense of and facilitate learning across the organization? (via Jeffrey)