Whilst you may not always see the traces in new products and services that come to market, deep within the fabric of innovation is a weave of input from a complex community of influencers. Some of this happens quite formally, often as market research, and some of it accidental and even unintentional. Yet the process of receiving feedback as a prelude to further product definition is so firmly established within entrepreneurial practices inside and outside corporations that it would now be hard to imagine life without it
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Whoever belongs to these feedback communities clearly has a huge impact on early stage innovation, whether they appreciate it or not. Even the best new ideas have fragility at some point in their lifespan, when just a casual remark can trigger a landslide in confidence. A butterfly may flap its wings in one part of the world and cause a hurricane in another, but errant advice can be just as commercially devastating.
Yet if the feedback loop is so important, the challenge of getting authentic feedback is still one of the toughest many innovators face. Whilst superficially it has never been easier to generate quantitative and qualitative reactions to emerging ideas, anecdotally many entrepreneurs and those involved in innovation projects complain that the feedback loop is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Here are four reasons why:
1. Business ideas take unintended shapes.
The famous US chemist and father of quantum chemistry and molecular biology once said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” Yet one of the biggest problems for anyone evaluating early stage innovation is that ideas are essentially moving targets. They often take more than one shape before they finally come to rest, and what ultimately emerges as the winning proposition might well have emerged from a process that never even anticipated it.
Take Groupon, which grew out of a website called The Point. The site enabled people to start campaigns to give money or do something as a group once a “tipping point” of people had agreed to participate. By delaying action until enough people came together to have a real impact, The Point aimed to help anyone solve problems that they couldn’t solve alone. In addition to fundraising, The Point also helped groups get deals through bulk buying, which became the genesis of Groupon.
It’s unlikely that many of those involved in either the focus groups or user experience testing of earlier versions of The Point would have said “hang on, what about ditching the loftier idea and focus on bulk buying instead?”. One business had to run its course before the other could emerge – something that early feedback loops would have struggled to anticipate.
2. It’s getting harder to listen.
Entrepreneurs in earlier Industrial Revolutions, especially those operating during the latter parts of the 19th century, had one huge advantage over their modern-day counterparts. The absence of big data and all its commercial accoutrements must have been a significant boon to focussing on the task in hand.
Without an abundance of data points to inform every single business decision, innovators were arguably in a better position to take heed of the intelligence emerging from the abundant breakthroughs in science and technology that characterised their age.
Whilst our age has similar a similar technological profile, the range of information we produce is now way bigger than the processing skills of even the most sophisticated companies. For people in innovation roles this means that at least part of the decision making process they face is deciding what information they’re going to ignore. They can’t listen to everyone and need to trust that the voices that go unheard aren’t the ones with the most to say.
3. Everyone has an agenda.
Many innovators claim they don’t want for encouragement. We live in an age where more people than ever are doing their own thing and support communities that surround innovation projects are thick on the ground.
Part of the reason for this is that people like analysing and playing around with other people’s business ideas. It has become a popular cultural past time in many parts of the world as the boom in entrepreneurial reality television formats confirms.
Yet it’s not always helpful when everyone has a point of view – not least because having an opinion about something usually involves a hidden agenda. Inside the feedback loop this may be the pressure to say something positive, or avoid being discouraging, or it may be something far more competitive, like wanting to be considered smart or simply more commercially capable than those seeking advice.
The idea that other people have an independent point of view is at odds with this world, which anyone seeking input should take on board.
4. You can’t second-guess the unpredictable.
Finally, in the pre-internet era it was for more common for the key development stages of new products to happen before launch, rather than afterwards. Nowadays there’s a much greater fashion for developing a minimum viable product and using the experience of being ‘live’ to fashion and sculpt propositions in response to market behaviour.
Kevin Systrom’s Instagram, which started out as a virtual “check-in” site and wound up as a photo-sharing service, is a recent high-profile example. Systrom started the company four years ago to put a new spin on the idea of virtually checking in at various locations via smartphones, then broadcasting that visit to one’s social network.
The company, which he called Burbn Inc., enabled people to leave messages via their phones that could be retrieved by others visiting the same location. Over the next few months the idea evolved, and soon Mr. Systrom had seized on the concept of a mobile app that would allow people to take photos, alter them visually and share them. That app was called Instagram and the rest is history.
What Systrom and his co-founder encountered was the influence of unintended discovery, a phenomenon that invariably escapes the early feedback loop.