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Building to Boundaries – How Limitations Spark Innovation

by Geoff Wilson
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In fact, too much money and excessive resources can be detrimental to innovation. They often lead to false confidence, inaccurate production timelines and a misguided approach to product development.

Innovation is a tricky thing, especially in the enterprise sphere. The digital world is rife with corporations spending big money to build, acquire or smother innovative solutions to difficult problems. Unfortunately, big budgets and big teams do not always deliver big solutions. In fact, the opposite is often the case: smaller teams with limited resources can produce more inspired, more effective products.

In fact, too much money and excessive resources can be detrimental to innovation. They often lead to false confidence, inaccurate production timelines and a misguided approach to product development.

There’s a New Yorker comic I love, one which has come to define my feelings about innovative new projects. Two goldfish, a father and son, float inside a small glass fishbowl, and the father shares a pearl of wisdom with the son, “You can be anything you want to be – no limits.”

Irony aside, this comic highlights the two sides of corporate innovation projects: first, many innovators do not fully understand the environments they work in, and second, clear limitations push us to achieve all that we can before building outside our walls. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way, and should guide innovation teams: think small to drive big results.

In the Beginning, Less is Always More

Six years ago, I launched an online, football-themed interactive learning platform for kids called Camp Pete in partnership with football coach Pete Carroll. At the time, it was one of the largest projects my agency had ever built. It was a creative and functional triumph. It looked incredible and had every feature we thought kids would love.

After a year of development, more than 300,000 kids signed up to explore the game’s 40 virtual worlds and play through its 10 interactive game types. At any time, hundreds of kids were chatting online or watching the videos of college football coaches and players we painstakingly produced.

It was an incredible piece of software and design with tons of awesome features. It also lost me $1 million in personal investment.

See, while my designers and developers were running with a blank check to create the absolute best football-themed virtual world for kids, other platforms like Club Penguin and Webkins beat us to market. They were leaner. They had fewer features. They didn’t look as nice as Camp Pete. But they got there first.

In the end, we built a beautiful interactive game with dozens of fun features that no one really wanted to play. By writing a blank check to build the perfect platform, I had doomed my team, project and budget to spectacular, perfect failure.

As I learned from my own innovation journey – and have seen reflected through dozens of client products – a lean approach is the best way to find success in any new product venture.

Think Like a Startup

The lean startup approach is centered on learning. While startups often focus on validating a single idea at a time, many enterprise innovation teams focus on delivering a final product, rather than learning if a product is worth building. Limiting development timelines and product scope provides rapid feedback and validation for a new product.

Rather than getting bogged down in a year of development for Camp Pete, my team could have built a simple product framework in 90 days. We could have tested features with real kids, refined our design and iteratively built the product to meet user expectations. Startup teams are uniquely suited to this agile approach, precisely because of their limited resources.

It’s easy to see this approach in the way startups partner with enterprise companies. Corporations give their startup partners specific parameters to operate within (usually framed by budget), and startup teams must build a solution that solves a specific problem within those constraints.

Budgets Frame the Conversation

A blank check is great way to have fun, but it’s a terrible way to approach new product development. As many lean startups have discovered, throwing money at a problem almost never guarantees success – in fact, too much money can be detrimental to innovation.

Building an MVP version of breakout successes like Instagram, Facebook or Shopify would most likely cost roughly $250,000-$500,000 – hardly breaking the bank for a corporate innovation team with deep pockets. Especially when you consider a recent acquisition like Microsoft’s $26 billion buyout of LinkedIn.

Rather than relying a blank check, teams should use a limited budget as a roadmap for feature development and MVP. Rather than negatively impacting creativity, budgets help narrow your team’s focus on features that matter and timelines that drive action.

Fall In Love with a Problem

Big ideas come naturally to entrepreneurs – I get it. We all want to disrupt. We all want to carve out a new market. Success in those ventures, however, requires more than just a bright idea. You need a problem to tackle.

Beyond identifying a clear market opportunity, focusing on a singular problem defines the scope of your product. Uri Levine, the founder of traffic app Waze, focused on a very particular problem for car drivers. Rather than delivering another mapmaking app, Levine realized the problem with road trips is that drivers ahead of you know things you don’t. Without focusing on crowdsourcing driver intelligence on a particular route, Waze might have incorporated GPS tracking to identify traffic patterns or velocity changes to update traffic patterns.

Instead, it focused on the simple problem of helping drivers share their experiences on the road to guide other drivers. And it paid off big.

Constraint, whether of budget or product scope, offer a starting point for true innovation. It lays the building blocks of true innovation: a problem to solve, a roadmap to success and a narrow definition of success. As you plan your next innovation project, consider how thinking small can help deliver your next big idea.

post authorGeoff Wilson

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