Collisions With Reality

Collisions With Reality

By Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

Paddy Miller is professor of managing people in organizations at IESE Business School at the University of Navarra in Barcelona. Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg is a partner at the New York-based management consultancy The Innovation Architects. From Innovation as Usual: How to Help People Bring Great Ideas to Life (Harvard Business Review Press). ©2013

Once, on a bright and balmy night in Barcelona, we were chatting with an investor at a professional mixer event for entrepreneurs, when a young MBA student entered the conversation. The student proclaimed that he had spent the last two years writing the perfect business plan for a new venture; he asked if the investor would perhaps like to see it. The venture capitalist’s first question was, “Have you tested your idea with potential clients?” The MBA student answered that he hadn’t found that necessary. After all, he needed to capture only 2 percent of the market in order to break even, and he had been very careful about getting his financial projections right. That, predictably, was where the productive part of the conversation ended.

As much as a bit of analysis can prevent people from making ill-considered investments, the fact remains that if you want to learn more about a new idea, nothing beats real-world experiments. As our chance encounter with the MBA student showed, there are certain types of people who love tinkering. If given half a chance, they will spend a long time working on their ideas, preferably in complete isolation. They won’t test their ideas in the real world because they viscerally hate the notion of showing or testing something that’s not yet ready.

That, unfortunately, is a surefire way to waste a lot of time and effort. When working on new ideas, innovators should not treat testing as an evaluation tool, applied at the end of the process. Rather, they should use testing and experimenting as learning tools, allowing them to tweak their ideas before they have invested too much effort in them. Thus, as a leader, you must force people to test and share their ideas before they are ready for prime time. All ideas will have to collide with reality sooner or later. Instead of letting ideas gather momentum for years and then meeting an immovable object, ensure that people do quick, miniature collisions with reality, as repeatedly and as early as possible.

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