Inherent in a challenge is the risk of failure. You spoke previously about risk being one of the impediments that a large organization tends to weed out of people’s daily lives. In the book, you say making ideas “real” is a practical way to help “tolerate risk.” What do you mean by making ideas real?
How many times has someone described something to you, and you formed a picture in your mind’s eye, and when they eventually produced this great, new idea you were disappointed?
Most of the time.
Our brains are complex, self-organizing systems that rely on precedence. That’s how human beings work. We build up precedence throughout our lives, and innovation is the opposite of precedence. It’s about things we could not possibly conceive of. So the less we can use the spoken word to describe something we want somebody to respond to, the better. Our ability to make it real in a scrappy, low-cost way enables someone to give us a reaction to what we just produced that’s close to how a customer might react. And from that, you can learn a lot. If you’ve still got time or money left in the budget, you can make another prototype—and then another and then another. This cycle of making things real is the cornerstone of innovation. We want to stretch out beyond the concept of prototyping. When someone says, Can you make that real for me? that might mean, Can you make it real in terms of the revenue it might generate? or Can you make it real in terms of what’s the customer experience like? Can you make it real for me? is a terrific question. And if you put “now” on the end—Can you make it real now?—you give it real urgency and supercharge the innovation process. People can’t hide behind 100-page PowerPoint presentations. They have to roll their sleeves up and mimic or create or prototype something, which inevitably drives the kind of dialogue that’s of value during the innovation process.
It’s as much an invitation as a question, isn’t it? And it leads to iterative thinking, the build on the idea.
To ask someone to help you make something real now—everyone understands what that means. If you said to somebody, Let’s make the prototype now, it’s a far more complex procedure. We’re trying to make the innovation process as simple, as enjoyable, and as human as possible.
Matt, you also write about going to the “margins of your market.” What do you mean by that? Is that the place to look for ideas or solutions?
Most of our clients talk to their customers a lot. But so do their competitors and sometimes they even use the same researchers. So they’re all eating the same food, and that is not a recipe for innovation. What’s more interesting is going to the margins, the edges, the earlier adopters. Or the rejecters, the people who are angry with you. Or the people who use your products or services in entirely unexpected and eccentric ways. These people will have something out of the ordinary to tell you. And there’s real gold in what they have to say, coupled with the fact that you’re far more likely to discover something that your competitors aren’t discovering. At ?What If!, we believe in talking to customers, but that’s only half the story. You can also find real insight from the people who are producing the products, delivering the products—it’s why the whole value chain has insight, not just the consumer.
You also make the point that the physical space around us has a big impact on the way we think and interact with each other. The space in your newly renovated Manhattan office is wide open, as one example. How did you reach these conclusions?
We’ve opened offices all around the world over the last 20 years, and we’ve experimented with how to configure desks, walls, and sofas—you name it. We’ve experimented with food. We’ve even experimented with the location of the washrooms. What we’re trying to do is not create something that’s aesthetically pleasing—that’s not the point. What we’re trying to do is create collisions between people. We think people are more productive if they can move around an environment that enables them to meet different people and use different spaces for different purposes. So if you take the tour of ouroffice today, you’ll find that, functionally, it’s well thought through. There are many different spaces with different purposes. We set a lot of store bypeople eating together, for instance, because eating is a real mood changer. You can sit down with clients or with a colleague, stop talking about work, eat a nice meal together. Suddenly, you find yourself talking about the most important thing that you didn’t talk about in the meeting. You’ve created a sidebar conversation—and as we all know, that’s where most of the great innovative discussions happen. They happen in the shower, on the way to work, on the way into the meeting, in the elevator, in the car with a colleague on the way to work. They don’t always happen at the traditional boardroom table, when you’re facing each other with an agenda, under time pressure, with a lot of people in the room.
Matt, have you always been an innovator? Did you always know this is what you wanted to do? How did you get started?
Oddly enough, my degree at university was a law degree. Which amuses my colleagues because they’re right in assuming I’d be one of the world’s worst lawyers. Then I went to work for a very large multinational for eight or nine years in various marketing and sales jobs. It was there that I developed an empathy for all these hardworking people in big organizations.They’re good souls who work so hard and want to make a difference, but they sometimes feel that window is gone from their lives. I’ve always beeninterested in working with the real heroes of innovation, the people who can make innovation happen in large corporations. It’s a far harder task than being an entrepreneur where you have nothing to lose. Innovating when you’ve got everything to lose is a noble pursuit. And I think the market we’re in is a young market. It must be how David Ogilvy felt on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. This feels like a pioneering time for innovation. The rules aren’t really written. Despite that tsunami of books you referred to at the top of our conversation, there are few real authorities. And being able to helphardworking people become heroes of innovation feels like a good thing to do with one’s career. So it’s an exciting job with a great purpose. And I genuinely enjoy Monday mornings.