Evidence Based Innovation Comes of Age

by Steven Snyder on May 23, 2014

Sometimes when you get a first glimmer of something radically new, you just know it will change everything. VISICALC, the Mac, the Netscape Navigator, and of course the iPhone, all come to mind. Last night, I had a similar feeling at the Mayo Clinic. Something big has arrived, allowing large organizations to dramatically accelerate their innovation pipeline.

What’s new is a mixture of software and process stemming from Steve Blank’s work on the lean startup. Blank observed that startups waste precious time and resources by generating business plans that have nothing to do with reality. The solution was to create a dynamic customer discovery process, promoting successive hypothesis testing to drive needed refinements and pivots on nine essential components of the business model.  Through a curriculum known as Lean LaunchPad, this method has been incorporated in nearly 100 entrepreneurship programs including Stanford, Berkley, and Northwestern. Already over 3,600 teams have generated over 100,000 hypotheses, conducted over 90,000 customer interviews which resulted in over 17,000 pivots.

The event I witnessed last night at the Mayo Clinic was an early effort to inject the entrepreneurial wisdom gleaned from start-ups into the innovation and commercialization processes of large organizations.  Six teams were selected to undergo an intense 62-day process, culminating in last night’s “lessons learned” gathering and celebration. In their presentations, the teams candidly reflected on their initial hypotheses, many of which, after being subjected to rigorous customer interviews, turned out to be false. Every team told of dramatic pivots after they confronted the stark evidence discovered through meetings with real customers. 

The six projects ran the gamut of health-care innovations, from human genomics, to operating room scheduling, to new wound healing techniques. The projects were in varying stages of development: some were recently hatched ideas, whereas others were more developed and had already entered clinical trials.

Collectively, the six teams, comprising just 18 team-members (plus six mentors) conducted an amazing 575 customer interviews, unleashing a radical process of discovery. Some teams found that they had dramatically underestimated the market potential and price points of their inventions, where other teams needed to scrap their initial idea completely and start afresh.  

Beyond the accomplishments of these six teams come some larger lessons for innovation initiatives in large organizations—in particular, the maturation of an evidence-based approach. 

The principles of evidence-based innovation are simple and have been around for many years. This approach eschews armchair theorizing in favor of a dynamic process driven by inquiry and real-world data. But, through Lean LaunchPad, this process has been crystalized and can now be delivered to accelerate and focus corporate innovation. Here’s how it works:   

  • Projects are selected from many teams who apply for a limited number of slots. Through pre-screening, resources can be focused on the most promising teams and ideas. 
  • All of the selected teams go through the discovery process concurrently, creating the positive dynamics, support and community of a cohort of peers. One of the interesting findings is that the the Lean LaunchPad approach can benefit teams in any stage of the innovation cycle–anywhere from projects with only an abstract concept to those which are readying large scale deployment.    
  • The process is rigorous and intense, focusing on customer interviews to garner support for critical hypotheses in the business model.  Pivoting is not seen as a negative, but rather something to be expected and even celebrated.  There are weekly virtual meetings with the instructor, and additional meetings with a designated mentor who is able to add substantive value, either through content/domain expertise or process knowledge. Critical metrics are tracked, including the number of customer interviews, hypotheses tested and pivots. The software maintains an archive of the entire process, which can be studied, analyzed and tuned in future groups.
  • At the end of the process, there is a “lessons learned” presentation, fostering community and celebration. All teams share a brief video of their journey and then recap the highlights via a PowerPoint presentation. Certificates of achievement are awarded to each participant, and special recognition is given to those teams conducting more than 100 interviews. (At the Mayo, three of the six teams exceeded this critical milestone.)

I had a chance to informally talk to some of the team members both before and after the presentations. It was clear from the way they recounted their experiences that the process was both energizing and productive. They freely admitted that their initial hypotheses, in which they frequently had a high level of confidence, were often refuted by the data. I found it remarkable that virtually every team-member also had a “day job” at Mayo—day-to-day responsibilities which they performed in addition to their 62-day innovation journey. 

While still in its early phases, Lean LaunchPad is a promising new approach to accelerate innovation in large organizations. Through a rigorous team process, evidence-based innovation may finally have come of age.  

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