Sparked by a colleague, I’m reading The Digital Transformation Playbook, by David Rogers. In the chapter on innovation, he talks about two types of experimentation: convergent and divergent. And I was reminded that I think of two types of innovations as well. So what are they?
He talks about how experimentation is the key to innovation (in fact, the chapter title is Innovate by Rapid Experimentation). His point is that you need to be continually experimenting, rapidly. And throughout the organization, not just in separate labs. Also, it’s ok to fail, as long as the lesson’s learned. And then he distinguishes between two types of experimentation.
The first is convergent. Not surprisingly, this is when you’re trying to eliminate options and make a decision. This is your classic A/B testing, for example. Here you might try out two or three different solutions, to see which one works best. You create the options, and have measures you’ll use to determine the answer. You might ask: should we use a realistic video or a cartoon animation? A situation where there isn’t a principled answer, and you need to make a decision.
Divergent experimentation is, instead, exploratory. Here you give folks some ideas, or a prototype, and see what happens. You don’t know what you’ll get, but you’re eager to learn. What would a scenario look like here?
These roughly correspond to the two types of innovation I think of. One is the ‘we need to solve this’ type. I think of this as short-term innovation. Here we are problem-solving or trouble-shooting. You bring together a team of relevant capabilities and otherwise as diverse as possible. You facilitate the process. And you’re likely to try convergent experimentation.
At the other end is the serendipitous, long-term innovation that happens because you create an environment where ideas can gestate. You’ve got access to the adjacent possible, and the opportunities to explore and share. It’s safe to experiment and fail. People are supposed to take time to reflect! This is more closely aligned to divergent experimentation.
Note that this is all learning, as you don’t know the answers when you start! The success of organizational learning, however, is a product of both. You need to solve the problems you know you have, and allow for ideas to generate solutions to problems you didn’t know you had. Or, more optimistically, to search through idea spaces for opportunities you didn’t know to look for.
Rogers is right that continual experimentation is key. It has to become baked into how you do what you do. Individually, and organizationally. And you can’t really get it unless you start practicing it yourself. You need to continually challenge yourself, and try things both to fix the problems, and to explore things that are somewhat tangential. Your own innovations will be key to your ability to foster them elsewhere.
Too many orgs are only focused on the short-term. And while that may solve shareholder return expectations, it’s not a receipt for longer-term organizational survival. You need both types of innovations. So, the question is whether you can assist your org in making a shift to the serendipitous environment. Are you optimizing your innovation?