The Experimenting Innovation Style

“Let’s see what happens if we take existing elements and combine them in new ways.”

Some people prefer to experiment. Once they agree on a common process or approach to understanding a situation, they can troubleshoot anything. They emphasize the Experimenting style. People who favor this style are curious, practical, and good at getting input from everyone concerned. They contribute to a group by being systematic and thorough in formulating and evaluating new ideas – all the while building consensus for a practical solution.

Jerry Pierce was head of the Electronics Technology Laboratory for SRI International when he used the Experimenting style in the invention of an improved computer disk:

"I had worked with both optical and magnetic disks for a long time. But this was not a planned invention. When I started using an optical disk to store information, I found out how much space was being used and how slow it was. So I knew it wasn’t going to work. Then in a meeting with a client, I began to invent as I went along. I said, 'Why don't you take the existing technology and combine it with the new technology, where the magnetic side would store the directory and current files and the optical side would store the massive archival data… and it’s transparent to the user. Then you would have a removable disk with the speed of the hard disk.'"

An Experimenting Moment in History

In 1878, thirty-one-year-old Thomas Alva Edison announced to the public that he would invent a safe and inexpensive electric light in six weeks. However, it turned out that Edison worked for well over a year on the invention. He experimented with countless materials as filaments, including gold, fishing line, and even hairs that he plucked from the beards of unsuspecting visitors. In the autumn of 1879, Edison discovered that a charred cotton thread would burn for thirteen and a half hours. He invented what the reporters called “a wondrous bulb that lit without a match and glowed without a flame” – the electric light bulb.

A Famous Experimenting Innovation

Just about 100 years ago, Frederick Walton was cleaning out his basement and came across a large can of paint with a a lid on it. Because it had been exposed to air, a thick skin had formed on the paint's surface that was tough, rubbery and glossy. Walton wondered what, if anything, could be made of this paint skin. He mixed paint with ground cork and poured it on some canvas, spreading it evenly. When it had dried, he had a tough, yet flexible piece that seemed to be an ideal floor covering. He named his invention by combining the Latin words for flax and oil to come up with Linoleum!

Experimenting At a Glance

How does this style support innovation?

  • By finding ways to overcome barriers to progress
  • By combining the ideas of many people for idea-generation and decision-making
  • By being thorough in formulating and testing new ideas
  • By providing systematic methods to take risks in stages

How can this style hinder innovation?

  • By getting lost in the processes of investigation or implementation
  • By losing perspective on what really matters long-term
  • By overemphasizing the process of research and forgetting the goal
  • By not being bold and imaginative enough

What key questions does this style ask to stimulate new ideas?

  • What can we combine to put together a new solution?
  • What are workable ways to make progress?
  • How can we include a broad range of other’s ideas?
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