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  • Writer's pictureTara Rethore

Iterate to Innovate

The topic of innovation is ubiquitous. Open your inbox or favorite business magazine and you’ll probably find an article discussing innovation. Who’s leading it. Who’s seeking it. How to drive it.

 

Innovation has become almost 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 (as I wrote here.) 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.

 

Innovation doesn't just happen.


As remarkable as it may seem or feel, innovation doesn’t just happen. It requires deliberate, consistent attention. In short: innovation needs help. In a previous article (here), I discussed the importance of idea generation. 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.

 

To iterate is to do or say something repeatedly. Yet – as the well-known examples I cited show – simply doing something over and over again will not magically produce innovation. In both cases above, an idea sparked action. Then, a series of tweaks, adjustments, new applications, accidents, or mistakes combined to have tremendous positive impact for the companies. And at each point – those tweaks, accidents, etc. – leaders learned.

 

The team of developers, scientists, and customer experts asked specific questions to discern what worked, what failed, and what could be improved. What they learned informed executive decisions about what to do and when. More importantly, embracing a meaningful iterative process allowed senior leaders to confirm the wisdom and value of continued investment. Moreover, experimentation and learning drive progress while mitigating risk and the impact of potential failure.

 

Yes, innovation starts with an idea.


Ideation creates a spark. Experimentation and learning feed the flames of innovation. Iteration shapes the idea, ultimately enabling the connection between idea and outcomes. Skilled executives harness the power of ideas through deliberate, meaningful iteration.

 

Iterate to innovate.

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