What's going to happen to the euro in the coming year? What's the next game-changing political development in the Middle East? What's the fate of health care reform? The answer to all of these big, complicated questions is simple: We don't know. We have no data on the future where innovation happens. This is what distinguishes innovation from all other forms of value.
For this reason, innovation is about experimenting, trying many things at once and seeing what works. Forget what people tell you about coming up with a plan and sticking with it. When you innovate, you need to change your mind. You need to make things up as you go along.
Excessive data-gathering is a form of resistance. We've all had to sit through the meeting before the meeting, read the e-mail about the e-mail. Don't get stuck in the planning cycle. Run experiments now.
You can't predict the future but you can look around and discover trends and patterns--drivers--that will help you reach your targets. Here are four places to look as you design your experiments:
Push: These are new technologies and new methods inside and outside your industry, like the development of non-invasive surgeries in the medical world.
Pull: These are emerging consumer demands, like the widespread desire for environmental-friendliness in the green movement.
Clash: These are the rising and existing competitors in your field. For example, think about the startups that we haven't yet seen or companies that seem dead but then often surprise us like revitalization of local hardware stores in the 1990s.
Coordinate: These are ways of synching things up--technologies and devices that pull things together, like BaseCamp, the web service that facilitates communication among the diverse people working on the same project.
Consider all of these external factors--technologies, consumer demands, competitors--and ask yourself these questions: what is the probability that each of these things will actually happen? And, if they do happen, what kind of impact will they have on the success of your target?
Now that you've designed your experiments, it's time to put them to the real test. In the early twentieth century, William McKnight came up with the now-famous 3M strategy test--a set of three questions to ask about an idea initiative. Now, almost a century later, they are still the best questions: Is it real? Can we win? Is it worth doing?
Part of innovating is stopping things now so can you make the room to do new things. Stop planning and start acting. Don't let the uncertainty of the future slow you down. Be prepared to adapt as things happen. Expect the unexpected: leave room for the stuff you don't know now.