Pace of Innovation

Our ability to be productive is the most critical metric that determines quality of life. It’s a fundamental measurement of how the economy is doing, identifys where we are stagnating, and shows where the biggest gains are.

There are many factors that go into improving productivity – capital investment in tooling, factories and better software, also education and training. Those examples all suffer from limits. With the best people, using the best tools and methods you’ll hit an upper ceiling of productivity that cannot be surpassed without an innovation.

Here’s a story I heard about the UK cycling team. In 2002, the UK had an abismal record of only 1 gold medal in the previous 76 years. It had gotten so bad that not only did they have a difficult time finding a bike company to sponsor the team, but several bike companies actually requested that the UK team NOT use or be seen using their bikes for fear of being associated with such poor performance. However, in 2002 they got new leadership from Sir Dave Brailsford who focused intensely on innovating in every minute detail. They found new ways to shave weight from the bikes, new clothing, better diets for the athletes, improved routines, tested supplements, tweaked aerodynamics, and tried various greases and lubricants. Every possible variable that could be optimized was systematically researched for innovations and many of them eeked out small improvements of less than 1% performance gains. In aggregate however these small changes had an outsized impact and resulted in a dramatic turnaround from absolute failure to domination.

Not only are the individual innovations important but the pace at which those innovations happen can quickly become a massive advantage.

So what kinds of things can you do to increase the pace of innovation. Here’s some ideas:

  • shorten iteration cycles of build-test-learn-repeat
  • focus on quantity early on rather than doing it right the first time
  • apply project planning on what can be done in parallel
  • be creative at un-blocking people and their tasks – avoid being stuck waiting for external people/services/deliveries etc.
  • replace external dependencies with more reliable internal ones
  • reduce parts
  • simplify or eliminate processes
  • everything is wrong, it is only temporarily the best solution
  • look out for local maximums and have the courage to back out to try something better (one step back, two steps forward)
  • put things in place to reduce the time it takes to get a new person up to speed – good documentation, simpler onboarding
  • always try to find analogues in other industries
  • apply A/B or multi-variate testing where possible
  • know the goal, keep it in focus
  • calculate the fundamental limits
  • periodically step back to get a 10000ft view
  • periodically dig into the minutia
  • use the right words for things
  • make change easy
  • encourage ideas from everyone and everywhere
  • even small changes are worth doing

I think it’s worth spending considerable effort on things that improve the pace of innovation. Leave a comment if you have more ideas for things that will accelerate innovation personally or where you work. I’d love to collect as many ideas as I can