A Laboratory for Insights

All senior executives experience the dynamic tension between the unpredictability of the future and the analysts' demand to know precisely how the company will perform over the coming quarter. But how do you make change predictable? How do you anticipate the impact of disruptive new ideas, new technologies, and new innovations that you or your competition might discover?

Experimentation is well understood in the R&D laboratory, where scientists and engineers test hypotheses and translate their observations into possibilities for the rest of the company. And every executive appreciates the value of controlled tests to evaluate the market potential of a new offering or direction.

In a broad sense, experimentation in the context of design means a series of collaborative explorations that yield insight, inspiration, and a framework for action. It consists of an approach for making new knowledge explicit and tangible so it can become actionable, a way in which we can actively shape the future instead of waiting for it to shape us.


  Experimentation proves itself perhaps most valuable, even indispensable, in the earliest stages of innovation when experiments can generate the organizational understanding and motivation that propel new ideas and directions. In any organization seeking to innovate its way to business success, experiments should serve as the lifeblood of the culture.

Experiments let you take your ideas, speculations, and hypotheses, and put them into tangible and testable forms. They enable you to practice the future before you get there. They can inspire both organizations and their customers to head toward an exciting, profitable future that they can influence.

Concept cars stand out as great examples of experiments used to inspire the market and prepare it for new ideas in styling. Consumer-electronics companies like Motorola (MOT), Philips, and Samsung use design experiments to propose new product concepts and communicate them to the rest of the organization and to the market.


  At IDEO, we manage a constant stream of experimental projects designed to expand our knowledge and create new intellectual property valuable to us and our clients. In the last year, projects have included an exploration of design frameworks for sustainability, a new concept for hearing aids, new approaches for prototyping services on a small scale, and about 50 new toy concepts.

We expect every experiment to produce an output we can communicate or experientially evaluate in some qualitative way. The result might take the form of a tangible prototype or a storyboard or video that lays out a future scenario. Or the experiment might simply provide new insights, such as a novel framework or new principles that can constitute a platform for innovation.

Managers should aim to have a balanced portfolio of experiments: some short-term and intended to create new ideas, some medium-term designed to take your company in new directions, and some long-term that will deliver new insights about the future.

One way to think about this: Map your experiments onto the chart below. You should attempt to do some experimentation in every quadrant, moving from the upper left toward the lower right.


  So what form do experiments take? They must be structured as projects with a beginning and an end. They need to start with some kind of hypothesis or brief that you believe is interesting and important.

This might take the form of a question, such as: "What effect will changing consumer attitudes to wellness have on our products and services?" These experiments need to have people at the center. They need to respond to the latent needs, behaviors, or desires of your customers.

If you aren't fundamentally exploring how you can better serve your customers or satisfy their needs, then your experiments will fail to drive innovation in the company and won't succeed in the market.


  Experiments require ownership. They need real budgets and teams. Yes, you can benefit from the old 3M (MMM) concept of all workers getting to spend time on their personal projects, but this approach doesn't leverage the creativity of interdisciplinary teams.

Consider creating an experimentation plan for your company that's explicit about how much time and resource you plan to invest in this activity. While experimentation can happen anywhere in the organization, it's most likely to result in organic business growth when it engages those closest to the marketplace -- product and brand managers, for instance.

In IDEO's design consulting business, we expect the leaders of our practices to invest a percentage of revenues in experiments that yield new understanding about the people, culture, technology, and business issues our customers care about.


 All experiments need a powerful way to communicate the results. Your experiments won't gain traction if the new ideas or insight they produce don't meet with acceptance across the organization. Especially if they involve risk or change, they won't be accepted without skillful storytelling.

So to attain success, your insights have to make emotional and intuitive connections as well as rational ones. Consider using video instead of the default, PowerPoint. Build the story around people -- human needs and desires -- rather than data or objects. Most of all, let your consumers tell your story for you -- capture them reacting to prototypes or scenarios. You have to convey the implications of what you're showing and make it as experiential as possible.

Do all that you can to draw your audience into the scenario so that they will see how exciting, challenging, and profitable it would be to create the future you're describing.

Ultimately, a commitment to making experimentation a way of life in an organization requires a change in attitude toward risk and failure. Embracing experimentation as a universal approach to learning communicates to employees that their company expects them to try new approaches -- and that failure isn't fatal as long as it's mined for the insights that propel the organization toward inspirational insight, innovation, and growth.

Tim Brown is president and CEO of IDEO, a design consultancy with offices in Chicago, Boston, London, Munich, Shanghai, and Palo Alto, California.