Here’s the problem once your business has had a little success: Pretty soon you find yourself thinking about things like snatching up fancy office space, buying the whole staff new Mac Book Pros, and never flying coach again.
And that’s when you get into trouble. You start to lose a little less sleep over the thought of upstart competitors, new technology, and unforeseen customer needs that could undermine your future success.
It’s a problem Scott Cook, who founded Intuit and is now chairman of the company's executive committee, knows well. He’s been studying it for at least the last four years. Cook believes that there is no market category that keeps growing for so long that your company can avoid eventually perishing unless you hitch your wagon to a new market. He cites Microsoft as an example of a company that “has been unable to invent successful new disruptive businesses--causing its growth to slow down.”
So, how do you avoid a similar fate? After studying big companies such Hewlett Packard, 3M, Procter & Gamble (his former employer), and Toyota, Cook says he discovered a common thread running through these companies during their most successful and innovative periods: They had processes in place to encourage a culture of frugal experimentation. Employees were free to test out new ideas and management had an efficient way of vetting which ones should go to market.
Cook brought the idea to Intuit in 2011. That’s how the company discovered it should get into the business of offering debit cards for people without bank accounts.
An Intuit finance employee--not a “product person”--noticed that the people who need tax refund checks the most are often ones who don’t even have bank accounts. So she came up with the idea of giving those people debit cards so that Intuit could accept the tax refunds and then transfer them to the cards. She pitched the idea in February and wanted to test it by April 1 before tax season ran out on April 15.
Cook criticized her kludgy website, but she argued that it was better to launch something crude to test her idea than to wait another 10 months. She expected 100 takers but got 1,000.
And the surprise was that half the ones that wanted the debit card already had bank accounts. In this way, Intuit discovered that the need for this product was much greater than it expected.
Cook believes that there is nothing more rewarding to employees than to see their idea being used by people. To that end, Intuit has created an idea collaboration portal that lets employees post ideas, get feedback, coaching, and suggestions--and even sign up people to help implement it.
And the beauty of this portal is that all this idea encouragement can happen without a manager getting involved. According to Cook, this portal has turned 30 ideas into “shipping products and features” that have boosted Intuit’s revenues.
Your small business may not need the equivalent of a portal to collect employees’ ideas, but the process is good advice for companies of every size. Here are Cook’s tips for creating a culture of innovation:
1. Communicate your vision.
A culture of experimentation starts with the leader’s vision. In Cook’s case, the vision is to change peoples’ financial lives so profoundly that they can’t imagine going back to the old way. A great corporate vision helps recruit the right people and points them in the right direction.
2. Look to the data.
Cook believes it’s essential to enable people to make data-based decisions. As such, he encourages employees to conduct experiments and collect data on customer behavior. That way, the company evaluates new product pitches based on objective evidence and not subjective factors, such as how well an employee is liked by management.
3. Examine leap-of-faith assumptions.
Citing Eric Ries, Cook encourages employees to identify the two or three key assumptions that must be true for the idea to succeed--but might not be. Then they must find a way to test those assumptions with customers at a low cost in a very short time frame.
4. Use a numeric hypothesis.
Next, Cook wants employees to come up with an estimate of, say, the number of customers that will order the new product. Quantifying customers forces employees to “get real” about whether the market opportunity justifies the investment of their effort.
5. Put it to the test.
Again, the employees run experiments, this time testing whether or not that numeric hypothesis is right.
6. Find the inconsistencies.
At this point, employees should analyze the gap between the hypothesis and the actual results and dig deep to find the reason for that gap.
7. Celebrate surprises.
Cook is adamant that employees not try to bury surprises to keep from being embarrassed but rather savor them. Unexpected results may expose a market signal that has not yet been detected.
8. Make a decision.
Here’s where you, the business owner, comes in. Don’t ask your employees to go through the work of testing ideas unless you’re ready to act on the results. Make a firm decision on whether or not to pursue the idea, or pivot to something else.
If more businesses followed Intuit’s prescription for self-renewal, we might just see something of an economic renaissance.