[Leadership laws] The law of the quest for enlightenment

Make learning your team's be-all, end-all. Do it for all you do, not just for tactical research and testing work.

[Leadership laws] The law of the quest for enlightenment

The Innovation Law of the Quest for Enlightenment

Innovators’ top priority is to learn lots, fast, affordably. Get amazing at it! Focus all your work—not just formal “research”—on becoming ever better learners.

Quick description

We talk a big game about being learning-centered. But then we restrict learning to "research" activities

I started work as an operations consultant back in 2008. I was chomping at the bit to improve the crap out of every process coming my way.

But no. First, I had to re-learn the scientific method and become way, way better at it than I thought I already was. Weeks of training and some fairly rigorous exams followed. Only then was I let loose on the world of Target's operations.

Years later, I joined innovation teams and expected the same rigor.

At first, expectations and reality matched. If you have seen a rigorous qualitative research team at work, you know the level of sophistication that teams can bring to this work. Some even use brain scans to enhance their user research.

Ditto for the sophistication of quantitative A/ B testing.

And that's not even considering "empathy at scale," where qual and quant research combine in a host of ways, from user-facing to team-facing research.

But over time, these marvels of learning started to feel strangely lop-sided.

It turned out that we could answer some questions in extremely sophisticated ways but didn't investigate others at all or at least not with the same effort.

  • Financials and operations often don't get much testing.
  • Portfolio decisions often follow arbitrary choices or "filtering" that assumes that we already know what matters when we really don't.
  • Project timelines often organize around "building" a thing, not around de-risking the top assumptions.

First, this caused me disillusionment. But then, it spurred me on to seek out better answers.

Luckily, there are lots and lots of ways to get better at learning in innovation.

What they all have in common though is the essence of this law:

They require that teams truly center all they do on learning and on getting ever better at it. There is no shame in starting from sophistication in some aspects of learning while being new to others. We just have to care to learn more.

How to apply the law

Research all parts of the businesses you build

Consider the Lean Canvas or Business Model Canvas (your pick). They include boxes about channels, revenues, costs, operations, and more.

Consider it for your team. Do you have equally-sophisticated learning approaches for all aspects of the businesses you create?

E.g., how rigorous are your learning efforts surrounding:

  • Revenues?
  • Costs?
  • Operating model?

Take learning beyond projects to the running of your team

E.g., are the questions about which you need to learn or the assumptions that you must de-risk the driving force of your:

  • Portfolio-level start/ stop and investment choices?
  • Stage gate agendas?
  • Project timeline sequences?

Create sophisticated learning methods at the strategic level

Many teams are aware of David Bland and Alex Osterwalder's assumption matrix, a 2x2 from Testing Business Ideas.

A 2x2 matrix with the axes of "have evidence" -- "no evidence" and "important" -- "unimportant"
Precoil's version of the assumption matrix

And it does offer a good entry point.

But I've found it to fall woefully short of teams' needs as a stand-alone tool.

For one thing, teams tend to have 50 - 200 assumptions that are on their mind at any point. Many of those assumptions connect or relate to one another. A 2x2 just blows up over that kind of volume and interconnection.

For another thing, it only offers limited help for hard choices. The axis of "how much do we know about a topic" is more or less a gimme: "If we know lots, we don't need to learn more." Ok, got it. That leaves the other axis of "how important is this topic?" "Important" is a fairly difficult standard to debate in practice.

Finally, it lacks the thing that actually drives action, which is sequence: Some topics are very important ... but only later. They don't matter until other prerequisite assumptions have worked out before. For example, market size is critical. But only once we have figured out that we have a problem worth solving.

So again, this is. good tool for early filtering and for introducing people to the idea of surfacing and testing assumptions. It is also easy to read and absorb. But it's not enough in practice.

At minimum, I recommend that you augment your use of the assumption matrix with these two probing questions.

If you want a simple way to push your learning game further, focus on these two questions:

- What risks will blow up the entirety of our project (not just one function) first, if our assumptions prove wrong?

- Which of those risks require explicit testing, rather than getting resolved as part of the team's work?

And if you want to go even further, seek out the range of sophisticated learning approaches available to you. For example:

  • Discovery-driven Growth by Rita McGrath and Ian MacMillan helps you learn about your financials.
  • Lean Analytics by Alistair Croll and Ben Yoskovitz focuses you on the "one metric that matters" for learning right now, on good ways of using data in the service of learning, and on visualizing your learning needs across the entirety of your busines.
  • Innovation Options, starting with the article "Measuring Learning in Dollars" by David Binetti ups your game on better stage gate definitions and project funding decisions.
  • And there are even more. Reach out if you are interested. Happy to geek out on this.

Track the progress of your learning journey

At the end of the day, what gets measured gets done. Here then are four high-level litmus tests for checking whether efforts like those described above helped your team on their quest toward enlightenment.

When you observe your team's work over time, do you observe these results?

📈 Learning visibly builds over time.
🔬 Team excels at all qual & quant learning.
🔝 Leaders use great methods to prioritize learning.
🧭 Learning and de-risking, not building, set priorities.


Further reading

Binetti, D. Measuring Learning in Dollars. https://www.innovation-options.com/measuring-learning.html

Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A. (2019). Testing Business Ideas. John Wiley & Sons. https://books.google.com/books/about/Testing_Business_Ideas.html?hl=&id=8smxDwAAQBAJ 

Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. (2013). Lean Analytics. “O’Reilly Media, Inc.”. https://books.google.com/books/about/Lean_Analytics.html?hl=&id=VJS5qQWOKUIC 

McGrath, R. G., & MacMillan, I. C. (2009). Discovery-driven Growth. Harvard Business Press. https://books.google.com/books/about/Discovery_driven_Growth.html?hl=&id=aye6y6uAHuUC