My head is constantly producing new ideas, but usually they are either absolutely terrible or mediocre at best. It goes without saying that I am no Mozart or Steve Jobs who seemed to have pulled their ideas out of thin air. Individuals like them are called conceptual or natural innovators who only account for a few percent of the world’s population. They have an ability to create on the fly something unique and at the same time useful – in other words, ideas that are outside of the mainstream and that people are crazy about. They magically know what they want and also get it. They are the biggest fans of their own ideas. On the other hand, listening to their unimaginative customers too early will pollute their ideas.

98% of people are like me, non-natural innovators. We also have a chance to develop into excellent innovators, even if we weren’t the best at thinking outside of the box or combining different things. We are called experimental innovators or experimenters. This group also includes some major players, like Beethoven, Einstein and the founders of PayPal. Unlike natural innovators, we do not know exactly what our outcome will be. We don’t, however, let this discourage us because what could be better than being able to search for and discover meaningful ideas to develop.

The most important quality of an experimenter is a persistent attitude. We don’t come up with excellent innovations on the fly and thus we have to work on them by starting our exploration from one of our mediocre ideas. The original idea will not only evolve along the way but most likely it will become something entirely different. Almost certainly we have also wrongly defined the problem worth solving. Thus, the road of an experimenter is usually long and bumpy. Our best results may only appear after decades of persistence, for many not until retirement age. Therefore, it is important for us to focus on asking “why” and “how” instead of “what”.

The key is to have the right attitude because setbacks are inevitable. Feeling uncertain, frustrated, uncomfortable and even downright pissed off is not uncommon. The best experimenters are able to turn these negative emotions into a strength. They are empowered by their rare insights so much that their considerably more frequent failures will not dishearten them. This positive kickass attitude is closely related to asking “why”. Why do I do this? What is my inner fire and where does it come from? There is no experimenter without a strong desire, patience and even perfectionism, only a dreamer.

A great experimenter constantly questions their own activities, in other words “how” innovation is done. It is generally known that experimenting refers to testing an idea on customers to receive feedback and to improve the idea. Experimenting does, however, involve a lot of things that many of us are unaware of – or at least have not absorbed. The following five aspects distinguish an average experimenter from an excellent one:

  1. One is not able to set a clear learning goal for the experiment, in other words, what kind of new information the experiment should produce to reduce uncertainty. As a result, the experiment is spoiled right at the beginning.
  2. The threshold for experimenting is too high. Everything is overly planned and by the time the experiment should take place, the budget and people’s energy have already been used. In experimental innovation most of the planning is done along the way because it is impossible to plan something one doesn’t know.
  3. Experimenting with problems worth solving is too rare. What is most dangerous is finding right solutions to wrong problems.
  4. Not enough attention is paid to planning the experiment, instead all time and energy is used to work on the matter under experimentation. The idea behind the experiment is just as important as the matter being experimented with.
  5. Even if the evidence obtained through the experiment shows that the idea is totally lousy, it is difficult for the experimenter to admit it. Experimental development does not exist without genuine learning and objectivity. So, don’t try to manipulate critical feedback to make it more positive, let the data speak for itself.

Only when learning from an experiment one is able to ask “what” – what did we learn about the idea and the experiment method and what should be changed for the next experiment. One of the major problems with Finnish innovation management is that people focus too much on asking “what”. By downplaying the importance of “why” and “how” we lose much of the innovation potential in people. There is no positive kickass attitude and consequently the results will also be meagre. Another management problem is to do with the insufficient utilisation of a company’s external resources, in other words linking customers, suppliers and other stakeholders to innovation activities. Experimental innovation involves these partners naturally in the activities.

At the Subcontracting Trade Fair you can find out more about how you can grow into an excellent experimenter and how you can avoid some of the pitfalls of experimental innovation. This theme will be discussed on Tuesday at 1.15 pm in the keynote speech at the AlihankintaHEAT event and on Wednesday from 10 am to 12 pm at the HeatCorner in the main lobby. Business representatives and researchers will provide practical information about the results achieved through projects funded by Tekes under the Liideri – Business, Productivity and Joy at Work Programme.

Erno Salmela
Researching Disturber
Lappeenranta University of Technology

Researching Disturber Erno Salmela from Lappeenranta University of Technology is one of the inspiring speakers at the AlihankintaHEAT event.

AlihankintaHEAT, the networking event for industrial companies and startups, will fill Hall B on Tuesday 26 September 2017 from 9 am until 7 pm with an interesting program, some twenty startups and partner companies and the Subcontracting Trade Fair evening party. The event has no admission charge – welcome! The main partner of AlihankintaHEAT is Tekes.

The HeatCorner is a one-stop shop for growth, innovation and internationalisation – interesting speakers, partner stands, support and a program full of surprises and creativity in the main lobby during the Subcontracting Trade Fair.  Further information and program: