Learning at the expense of predicting.

john_william_waterhouse_-_the_crystal_ballWhen doing new things there is no predictability. There’s speculation, extrapolation and frustration, but no prediction. And the labels don’t matter.  Whether it’s called creativity, innovation, discontinuous improvement or disruption there’s no prediction.

The trick in the domain complexity is to make progress without prediction.

The first step is to try to define the learning objective.  The learning objective is what you want to learn. And its format is – We want to learn that [fill in the learning objective here].  It’s fastest to tackle one learning objective at a time because small learning objectives are achieved quickly with small experiments.  But, it will be a struggle to figure out what to learn.  There will be too many learning objectives and none will be defined narrowly.  At this stage the fastest thing to do is stop and take a step back.

There’s nothing worse than learning about the wrong thing.  And it’s slow. (The fastest learning experiments are the ones that don’t have to be run.) Before learning for the sake of learning, take the necessary time to figure out what to learn. Ask some questions: If it worked could it reinvent your industry? Could it obsolete your best product? Could it cause competitors to throw in the towel?  If the answer is no, stop the project and choose one where the answer is yes. Choose a meaningful project, or don’t bother.

First learning objective – We want to learn that, when customers love the new concept, the company will assign appropriate resources to commercialize it.  If there’s no committment up front, stop.  If you get committment, keep going. (Without upfront buy-in the project relies on speculation, the wicked couple of prediction and wishful thinking.)

Second learning objective – We want to learn that customers love the new concept.  This is not “I think customers will love it.” or “Customers may love it.” In the standard learning objective format – We want to learn that [customers love the new concept].  Next comes the learning plan.

What will you build for customers to help them understand the useful novelty of the revolutionary concept?  For speed’s sake, build a non-functional prototype that stands for the concept.  It’s a thin skin wrapped around an empty box that conveys the essence of the novelty.  No skeleton, just skin.  And for speed’s sake, show it to fewer customers than you think reasonable.  And define the criteria to decide they love it.  There’s no trick here. Ask “Do they love it?” and use your best judgement.  At this early stage, the answer will be no.  But they’ll tell you why they don’t love it, and that’s just the learning you’re looking for.

Use customer input to reformulate the learning objective and build a new prototype and repeat.  The key here is to build fast, test fast, learn fast and repeat fast.  The art becomes defining the simplest learning objectives, building the simplest prototypes and making decisions with data from the fewest customers.

With complexity and newness prediction isn’t possible. But learning is.

And learning doesn’t have to take a lot of time.

Image credit — John William Waterhouse

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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