Iteration Improves Innovation – Simple Advice from 3 Technology Thought Leaders

Aug 01, 2010

Iteration was the central point at a talk on Innovation at the last “Entrepreneurs Uncensored!” MIT/Stanford VLAB session.

Respecting the request of moderator Ravi Belani to keep some of what was discussed as “something special for the audience to take home”, I won’t go into great detail on the anecdotal gems shared by the speakers, but will hit some of their major points.

Three excellent speakers were assembled for the panel, each offering a unique perspective on the specific topic “How I Pivoted to Success Through Effective Iteration and Innovation“:

  • Marissa Mayer, VP, Search Products & User Experience at Google, spoke frankly from her experience as one of the  first Engineers at Google leading several of Google’s flagship applications.
  • Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, cited that their clients come to them when they need help with innovation, but their internal team also challenges themselves with design experiments.
  • Randy Komisar, Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Author of Getting to Plan B, provided the perspective of venture financiers – how to turn early company growth failures into successes.

Marissa Mayer was the first to share her perspective through very generous insights into Google’s early product decisions. She offered up 4 recommendations:

  • Focus on Users, Users, Users: instead of deliberating on what users might do, use A/B testing to find out what users really want.  That’s what Google did when deciding between which of 2 early features for Google News search to work on first.  And they never stopped using this approach when deciding on new features and products.
  • Innovation is more important than perfection: Again citing an example, this time in the area of acquiring Deja News, Mayer preaches that launching early and iterating has been a successful approach for Google.
  • Separate Technology and Application: Unlikely successes may be born out of a product or service.  Widening vision allowed Google AdSense to flourish within Gmail by providing targeted ads despite some early opposition from the idea.
  • And running out time, Mayer added her last point: “Speed!”

Tim Brown was next up. Although IDEO began as a physical product industrial design company, they have grown to be an extremely successful all-encompassing global design consultancy.

Brown offered that one cannot innovate without experimentation.  Experimentation means prototyping – both of which equate to iteration.  And, iteration includes giving yourself the time to experiment.  Brown added that one should still anticipate the outcome of prototyping and that the key is to learn from each iteration.

His second point was that, in IDEO’s experience, some of the best innovations result from the non-obvious and, in fact, that some of the best ideas come from the edges of the organization.

Similar to Mayer’s position that Google learns by “eating their own dog food”, Brown also shared that IDEO learns by developing experiments around its own internal processes.  This probably isn’t obvious to most companies, but worthy of consideration.

In conclusion, Brown says a company (or individual) should have great stories about successes and failures.  This is how lessons are learned and shared from experiments.

Last up was Randy Komisar to offer some amazing advice despite opening with “I have nothing to add.” Komisar shared several Silicon Valley tech war stories. Each one clearly supported his key points, especially for a startup:

  • Plan for iteration: don’t blow your whole budget on the single “idea and plan”.
  • Komisar also stated that a prototype is an absolute necessity for a startup seeking funding.  He gave a specific mobile software example where, by user testing and (relatively) inexpensive prototyping, they were able to quickly rule out features that users simply wouldn’t use and focus on the (obvious) one that they would.
  • Retain the flexibility to pivot from a failure: Avoid a win / lose outcome; you may even find yourself continuously pivoting.  “When you decide to pivot, you’ll wish you had done it earlier.
  • Learn from failure: Komisar said he is known as the “failure guru”, a moniker he doesn’t really like, but concluded that “If you can’t afford to fail, you can’t afford to innovate.”

Notably, several times throughout the talk when iteration and user testing was discussed, the cult of Apple came up. I believe that each speaker gave credit to Apple and Steve Jobs for being the “last of a breed”.  Apple has to work hard to work on its product in “world wide wow secrecy” and, somehow, Jobs is still uncannily right in product decisions.  Although Komisar did offer up a perfectly timed crack about “holding one’s phone the right way”, which did elicit great laughs from the packed audience.

Another topic that popped up a few times was Google’s practice of allowing their teams to spend 20% of their time on “passion projects”. Both Brown and Komisar were supportive of the general approach.  Miller confidently stated that 50% of Google launches come from the 20% time.  That sounds like a pretty incredible return for generously fostering creativity.

While iteration was the central line of the whole discussion, quickly discovering what doesn’t work and pivoting towards what does work was the clear take-away from the session.  Companies can do this by turning any failure into a success by applying what is learned.

The session was expertly moderated by Ravi Belani of Draper Fisher Jurvetson who kicked off open discussion for the panel and asked them to sum up their recommendations in 6 words.  I couldn’t be more succinct, so here it is:

  • Marissa Mayer: Focus on the user. Prototype. Test.
  • Tim Brown: Prototype. Learn. Prototype. Learn.
  • Randy Komisar: Investing in iteration immensely improves innovation.

Simply expert advice for any company.