From the Forbes 30 under 30 to the Thiel fellowship to the almost normative story of the college dropout-turned-startup-genius, it may seem like the secret to business success is youth. But a recent psychology finding has good news for all of us: when it comes to professional success, age is nothing but a number. Researchers studied career physicists to find that while they were more likely to produce hit papers when they were young, it had nothing to do with skill. Instead, it had a lot to do with their productivity. "Young scientists tried more experiments, increasingly the likelihood they would stumble upon something good."
So, the good and bad news is that when you don't strike gold, you can--and should--keep digging. The creative process is built around trial and error, and there are specific steps you can take to keep things interesting in your search for a winning idea. Here are four ways to boost experimentation:
Turn to analogous businesses
When faced with a business challenge, it's easy to get sucked into what exists, what has been tried before, and what competitors are doing. While this is a good way to stay focused, it may be too myopic when the goal is to generate new ideas. While building a small business lending platform, my team and I studied businesses completely outside the finance industry. One example was Everlane. They were disrupting big retailers the same way we were trying to disrupt big banks. They communicated their new approach to retail in a clear and concise way, and we were able to model their approach to create a simple signup flow for our product. Everlane's transparent approach was not one that was common in the financial product space, and gave us a competitive advantage within the industry.
Think broadly about the products and services out in the world that you find inspiring. Of those, which ones have even slight similarities to yours?
Though it may seem counterintuitive, it is easier to come up with new ideas when there are guardrails restricting your brainstorm. With our lending platform, my team had lots of creative freedom in designing the user experience. We were not beholden to any legacy code or expectations. But we quickly found that "getting" to build a product from scratch was not as liberating as it initially sounded. With never-ending options and directions, making decisions was harder than ever. We wanted to move quickly, but were paralyzed with choice. Luckily, working in the financial space meant there were several requirements from the legal and compliance perspective. We used these requirements as constraints which helped us to focus our product design.
When you and your team set clear boundaries for what is and isn't in scope for your task at hand, the group can more quickly generate ideas that are focused, specific, and tangible.
Prove yourself wrong
When we experiment with new ideas, we are tempted to validate our hypotheses--to confirm that what we believe to be true, is in fact, true. Because experiments in product and service-design are more scrappy and less controlled than lab experiments, we run a higher risk of introducing our own biases. Having spent time and resources building an idea you are passionate about, it's only human to want it to work. In building our lending platform, my team created a new loan application process that was different from existing options out there. Instead of trying to validate that our new process was better than the status quo, we instead built our experiments around the assumption that people would prefer what they were used to. This pushed us to more objectively analyze and explain the way users were engaging with our product.
One way to lessen this risk is to focus not on what you want to prove is right, but instead what you want to prove is wrong.
Learn from failure
When we try to avoid failure, we also prevent ourselves from taking risks that may open our eyes to new ideas. A non-success isn't a failure if you are able to learn something that you can take forward. In testing different application flows for our lending platform, my team's goal was to make it simpler for people to complete the loan application process. Instead of setting success metrics like, "75 percent of people who start the application should complete it," we instead identified what we needed to learn in order to move forward. For example, one question we asked was, "What is the minimal amount of information people need in order to complete the application?"
With each new idea or experiment you consider, set aside what it means to "succeed" or "fail" and instead ask yourself what you want to learn. Then, design your initiative around that lesson.
The more time you spend and experience you have working in a given field or on a specific product, the more it may feel like you've tried everything out there. But fight the urge to give up. You stand to succeed as long as you are still trying.